IN the news release for "Infinity on High," the imminent fourth release from emo-pop band Fall Out Boy, the band's bass player-mouthpiece Pete Wentz offers fans this directive: "The ideal presentation for this album would be for someone to buy it, take it home and listen to it in the dark."
Pete, what are you thinking? You've described the classic album-listening experience: a college freshman, a pair of headphones and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." But that was 1973, this is now. I can see rabid Fall Out Boy followers hearing your wishes and fishing in their parents' basements for a stereo receiver. But just as many listeners -- no, more -- will enjoy "Infinity" in sing-along spurts on their iPods and cellphones.
The album as a format is dead. It is so, so dead that its obituary has been written approximately 981 times in the past five years (that's how many times the phrase "death of the album" came up when I put the phrase into a Google search). Last month, for the first time since shortly after Billboard started using the SoundScan sales tracking system in 1991, the nation's No. 1 album sold fewer than 100,000 units for three weeks running. Meanwhile, digital music sales rose 80% worldwide last year, to the tune of $2 billion. The venerable indie retailer Insound.com has even started a "Save the Album" campaign, as if the format were a baby seal or an endangered rain forest. What's next, black vinyl-colored rubber bracelets?
But old habits die hard, even in young people. Next-generation rockers continue to roll out their 12 or 13 tracks of greatness, wrapped in a concept or a big pronouncement about how they've made the new "Born to Run." (Yes, I'm talking about you, Brandon Flowers of the Killers.) With so many good bands hitting their stride, big albums are everywhere. The question remains whether anyone will care in a year.
The last rock album that felt like it might actually change something was probably "White Blood Cells" by the White Stripes -- which came out in 2001. Sure, My Chemical Romance gained praise last year for its cancer-ward rock opera "The Black Parade," but in retrospect it seems more like a noble effort than a revolution. The Killers were drubbed in the media for acting as if "Sam's Town," their homage to Bruce Springsteen, was a big deal. As usual, Jack White is on the cutting edge: Last year the White Stripes leader released an album with his new band the Raconteurs, but it wasn't a big deal. More like a casual jaunt suitable for a time when big statements just don't work.
Still, the declarations just keep coming. This week, Fall Out Boy releases its flashy new set, "Infinity on High," complete with three songs recorded with the celebrated R&B; producer Babyface. The same day, Bloc Party, the UK's latest pretender to Radiohead's art-rock throne, offers up its stunning second album, "A Weekend in the City." And in March comes the most critically anticipated rock release of the year -- "Neon Bible," by Arcade Fire.
These records are already being greeted with excitement, as if any one might determine the future of rock. In fact, each projects a very different avenue. How can the rock album survive? Look to these approaches.
Fall Out Boy's singles rock
IN the very early days of the album, the best were essentially singles collections, and that's one path commercial artists can return to now. Forget about esoteric "album tracks" -- in this approach, there's no fat on the release. Albums will be shorter and tight as a drum. Songs might or might not add up to a compelling narrative, but each can stand on its own. Together they offer a particular perspective, but no high concepts get in the way of the music's melodicism and punch. This is the Fall Out Boy model, one the Chicago emo kings make explicit on "Infinity on High" by hooking up with hip-hop, a genre whose popularity the hyper-ambitious Wentz so admires.
"This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race," the disc's irresistible first single, neatly contradicts Wentz's stated desire for his fans to worship his words in darkened rooms. It's about selling out, and Wentz's lyric embraces the mercenary mind: "I am an arms dealer fitting you with weapons in the form of words / And I don't really care which side wins." Maybe he means to be cynical, but attached to the bouncing Superball of a melody by singer-guitarist Patrick Stump, the sneer turns into a proud declaration. In this hit, Fall Out Boy, always more pop than punk, embraces accessibility with a vengeance.
Now more than ever, accessibility comes in the form of short, brilliant fragments. Great hooks matter most in the age of the ring tone, and Stump can't stop writing them. "Fix me in 45," he croons, romanticizing the idea of a jukebox single on the aptly named "Thriller," which not only props Michael Jackson but features a cameo by Jay-Z. Stump is speaking for anyone who's ever been healed by three minutes of sonic bliss.
Aligning with R&B; and hip-hop, Fall Out Boy sharpens its strong pop sense on "Infinity on High" but stays true to its bright, sassy sound. That's what's most interesting about the album -- instead of churning out some horrible rap-rock hybrid, the band uses its encounters with Babyface to sharpen its commitment to pop-punk. What that basically means is that the group sounds more like Green Day, which pioneered the form and remains its most gifted practitioner. Whatever snot and feedback courses through these songs, sweetness always triumphs, carried forth by bubblegum bass lines, snappy drums and tunes as comforting as lullabies. It's the side of punk that harks back to the girl groups via the Ramones and makes Fall Out Boy the right band to keep the genre thriving.
Bloc Party's novel approach
FALL OUT BOY'S strategy of packaging an album as a bunch of singles going steady (to quote another great pop-punk band, the Buzzcocks) preserves the format for mainstream rock acts.
More midlist artists might be well advised to start behaving less like rock stars and more like litterateurs. Critics have always irritated musicians by discussing albums as if they were novels, but as the album-listening experience becomes a rarified pleasure, then the novel, which demands a certain commitment from its consumer, might be the best format to emulate.
Today's rock litterateur might be an antiquarian, like Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, or a theater music revivalist, like Rufus Wainwright. He could be a she, like Chan Marshall of Cat Power. Or he could be a classic-rock revisionist like Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, pumping the blood back into cliches. What's important for a bookish album is that the voice at its center be strong enough to express something new.
Kele Okereke of the London band Bloc Party has that kind of voice. It's hard to overlook his singularity as a rising indie star -- he's one of the few black frontmen on the scene, and though he hates discussing his sexuality as much as his race, his songs often investigate desire between men. What Okereke gains from being an outsider is not militant pride but an acute awareness of how people become trapped by society's judgments and their own fears -- and how circumstance tightens those bonds, or smashes them.
On "A Weekend in the City," Okereke's songs animate a milieu of post-millennial tension. An ordinary Londoner is driven to violence by the threat of terrorism; a black family mourns a son murdered in a hate crime; a man, perhaps still closeted, longs for a schoolboy crush.
These scenes are familiar, but Okereke offers telling particulars -- the TV drone that "informs" the bigot, the snacks the grieving family eats after the funeral. "Every park bench screams your name," sings the unfulfilled lover of "I Still Remember." Then the heartbreaking detail: "I kept your tie."
This mobility between the emblematic and the deeply personal makes Okereke's songs resonate. He's as likely to write a line about Sudoku as one about cocaine; it's all part of the mirrored chamber of distraction and dull cravings.
Transcendent desire -- for love, for fun, for life -- is the key out of the cage, and Bloc Party's music is all about the energetic rush: "You make my tongue loose," Okereke wails in his dusky, imperfect baritone as jittery bass and scattershot guitar lines mimic a heart in overdrive.
Like many young English bands, Bloc Party combines the pastiche beats of hip-hop with the pedal-bending atmospherics of English modern rock. On its first album, "Silent Alarm," the sound was knife-sharp and nervous, with guitarist Russell Lissack firing off bullet riffs into Matt Tong's drums. "A Weekend in the City" is far more lush; already some old fans are sniffing that the band's gone soft. But the bigger sound suits Okereke's more complex narratives. For all its bookishness, this album has the power to convert.
Arcade Fire's unfolding process
BETWEEN the poppy, singles-oriented rockers and the brainy ones writing sonic books, there's a third way: reviving the album form by all but abandoning it. In this approach, an album becomes an almost random slice of time -- a window into a band's creative process. Songs join like fragments of conversation at a party; no one story is ever completed, but the hint of more to tell keeps spirits high.
The bands who make these kinds of albums -- Arcade Fire is the standard-bearer, but others include Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Dr. Dog and Animal Collective -- flourish by being loose. There's a feeling that anything could get thrown into their mix as they try out horns, banjo, accordion, glockenspiel, whatever.
Because these groups live candidly in the moment, they're usually great live. And their albums work precisely because the album is dying. In any other era, these long-players might have seemed too sloppy, but now, with everything exploding, they nail the zeitgeist.
Arcade Fire whacks the bushes on this path by creating music that's both large-scale and miraculously unfussy; the ramshackle openness at the core of its sound allows singer Win Butler to strive extravagantly, as serious as a preacher, yet somehow remain unspoiled by pretense. Only a few artists have pulled this off: Van Morrison comes to mind, or the Rolling Stones in their "Exile on Main Street" days. On "Neon Bible," which Arcade Fire will release in March to what's almost certain to be hyperbolic praise, the band goes further into the craft of songwriting without losing that extemporaneous air -- this is an album of both bookish and unstudied pleasures.
An apocalyptic aura surrounds songs such as "Black Mirror" and the wonderful, almost rockabilly "Building Downtown," but "Neon Bible" is about dancing at the apocalypse, not despair. The band is growing up, learning to control the structure and dynamics of its songs.
Confidence allows Butler and his fellow players to relax while scaling new heights: "Neon Bible" has lots of organ, what sounds like a children's choir, one feisty lead vocal from Butler's wife and co-lyricist Regine Chassagne, and so much clattering commotion that you feel like the music could burst through the ear buds.
This album feels more orderly than "Funeral," the band's paradigm-shifting 2004 debut, but Arcade Fire's appeal is still all about that point when artists throw out the rules, whether they apply to song structures or the album format itself. Committed to music as a living thing, Arcade Fire suggests a future for rock grounded in spontaneity and risk.
It's easy to imagine "Neon Bible" evolving over time. New versions can be released online; the little disc in your hand could soon be a relic of a phase in this artwork's evolution. Bands such as Arcade Fire are forcing fans to think differently about the shape of pop itself. And that's a service, because in the future, albums probably won't even be round.