Some time around the early '80s, the concept album got tired. Stumbling out of a golden age that produced The Wall, Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Ziggy Stardust, the infamously pretentious genre's ambitions soured into wank-rock clichés. This was partly due to the stale predictability of so many concept-album storylines, which followed the struggles of a misunderstood alien/prophet/teenage boy (and it was always a boy) destined to save the world, suffer its cruelties, and think about offing himself.
More recently, the concept album has overcome its boy hero myopia and widened its scope to include, for example, Sufjan Stevens' state history lessons and the Hold Steady's confessional hoodrat diaries. It's also found precious energy in Mirah, the K Records singing/songwriting veteran whose new album Share This Place: Stories and Observations, (out on August 7) a conceptual song cycle developed in collaboration with the Black Cat Orchestra's Lori Goldston and Kyle Hanson (AKA Spectratone International), explores the mysterious and dramatic lives of insects.
That's right—the new Mirah record is all about bugs. Songs like "Gestation of the Sacred Beetle" and "Emergence of the Primary Larva" describe exactly that, and "Following the Sun" details the migration of the Monarch butterfly. The sprightly tango, "Supper," entwines Goldston's cello, Hanson's accordion, and Mirah's vocals into a chilling tale of inter-insect seduction. Shoehorn in dozens of rhymed couplets built around words like "proboscis" and "stercoraceous," references to the writings of French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre and a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, and you've got one hell of an articulate record, even for a confirmed smarty-pants like Mirah.
"I learned a lot while writing those songs," she reflects. "Maybe it comes off that I know what I'm talking about, and I sort of do now, but before I wrote those songs I didn't know that information, even a lot of those words! That was one of the most gratifying things about the project—it expanded my realm of knowledge in terms of how I express my creative work beyond the sphere of myself and my own relationships to all of these other creatures who are part of the world."
The will to make music outside the orbit of biography supports much of Share This Place. There are, after all, what Mirah describes as "mildly political undertones" lurking behind the album's cute vignettes, as well as an invitation to look for solutions to human social problems in the harmony of expert cooperators like ants and bees. The insect narrator of "Community" rebukes humans for trying "to do everything alone" and points out that the sum of her more altruistic species "outweighs humanity's obstinacy."
Although Mirah's summer tour will not include material from Share This Place, Portland fans have the rare opportunity to see a handful of its songs performed live this week. "I'm really excited, I think it's a beautiful space," she says of her June 8 gig at the Aladdin Theater. Until then, there's always insect-watching to pass the time. "There's the bug people and the non-bug people, and now I guess I'm a bug person," she pronounces happily. "Now I observe all the ants in my kitchen, I ask, 'What are you doing?' We never used to have an ant problem. They found me, they were like, 'She's kin!'"