On Second Thought: Peter Himmelman – Skin (1994)

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Every song is a story, at its essence. The best songs, and the best stories, continue to intrigue and spawn new thoughts long after you’ve last heard it. The best stories don’t always tie up loose ends, but know which ends to tie up so you can be left to attempt to tie up the rest yourself. Such has often been the problem with concept albums: they attempt to do too much and leave the listener with too little when it’s over.

Concept albums are nothing new. The Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, The Who and any handful of others in the mid-to-late 1960s mastered the art of the concept album in such a way that nearly renders pointless anything else produced after them. Whether an explicit story is laid out for listeners, as in the case of The Who’s Tommy, or just a collection of themes, be they musical or lyrical as in the case of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the important fact is that they have left something important behind, something to nag the listeners not only into listening more (and hopefully buying more of the bands’ music to help unravel the mysteries) but to think more about what has just occupied the past hour or more of their lives.

Because music has to function differently than a book or a story, it’s more important to keep ’em coming back for more. The story can suffer a bit if, in the end, they do keep returning. Crafting a novel shouldn’t be so difficult for people who already tell stories well, but often it’s the fact that liberties can be taken in a short story that sets up a satisfying end. Songs allow the songwriter to cut corners to make the end suit the means, but when you string them all together the listener depends on the author presenting him or herself as a reliable, trustworthy source.

The concept album’s credibility suffers not because of the idea of a concept, but because it was so abused, and bought so whole-heartedly, by the progressive-rock movement. Instead of pushing the idea of a clear story, very often the goal became to create the most complex, bombastic composition possible. Most people, if they care to know what concept albums are, assign them to the narrow confines of prog-rock, whose fans are legions of “geeks,” often wrongly assumed to be Dungeons & Dragons fans. Most concept-album aficionados have the staples in their collection — such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Wish You Were Here, and Animals, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, The Who’s Quadrophenia and Tommy, and Rush’s 2112 (though really not so much a concept album, as it’s only one side dedicated to the story), among many others. Unfortunately ignored are those few artists outside of the progressive movement who have crafted stories from a collection of connected songs. One such artist is Peter Himmelman, who, on his album Skin, performed the delicate task of presenting a story to listeners who are just as happy hearing his thoughtful folky-rock songs.

Skin is the story of Ted, who dies in the opening track as the victim of his own greed and stupidity. The album follows Ted as he is judged in heaven, cleaned of his sins, and placed back in the womb of a young girl. We see from his perspective high above that this young girl and a young boy she doesn’t know are to meet to create body that will house Ted’s cleansed soul. Emphasis should be placed on this fact because there are several moments on this album where the listener watches with Ted as events take place outside of his control. Ted, the prototypical car-salesman type, is learning how to not be what he was in his previous life. The fact that he is able to understand the viewpoint he is given indicates that, if nothing else, he knows how he is supposed to live his life. What remains to be answered is if he chooses to do so.

That was the big question behind Skin. Did Ted wind up straightening himself out? Or did he simply slip back into the behaviors that returned him to earth in the first place? The joy of Skin is that it never explicitly states the answer. Himmelman leaves a note in the liner that details the story, or at least the concept, more than the music and lyrics do. Unfortunately, this outline tends to tell too much, tries to make clear what is more powerful left vague, and in the end weakens the story a bit.

The best stories have a heart, a meaning, something important around which everything revolves. The heart of Skin is found in these four lines of lyric, from “Shilo”:

If you knew I was losing you
Would you find me
If you heard how I needed you
Would you run

Our antagonist finds everything he needs, love, companionship, safety, but doubts himself and his convictions. When the last notes of the album ring out, it’s not certain, regardless of Peter Himmelman’s explanation, whether Ted really has learned, or whether he’s simply lost and on the run again. And I keep returning to Skin to see if, maybe, this time I’ll understand what happens. I hope I never really will.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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