There’s no question who released the year’s most ambitious album on the local scene. That would be Lainey Schooltree, who conjured the 24-song art-rock opus Heterotopia, inspired by ’70s concept albums like the Who’s Quadrophenia and especially Genesis’ Peter Gabriel-era The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
“I wanted to do something absurdly grandiose,” the classically trained singer/pianist says of the March release, which took four years to complete and spawned an elaborate libretto, plus an illustrated book to follow in September.
“The writing process was a lot of trial and error, because I’d never written a story before,” says Schooltree, citing the influence of writings by Plato, Jung, Orwell and Tolkien as well as classic rock and prog, notably producer-artists Kate Bush (whose ethereal sound she most evokes) and Todd Rundgren. “I wanted to put every idea I ever had about society and humanity in there, and it just didn’t fit.”
Like its concept-album models, Heterotopia follows a protagonist—in this case a rocker named Suzi—on a fantastical journey. She traverses a shadowy parallel world called Otherspace to retrieve her lost body from a “collective unconscious,” as Schooltree calls it. “It ultimately boils down to a quest.”
There’s a political subtext too. “Culturally, we are disassociating from our bodies,” says the Rhode Island native, once a vaudevillian cabaret performer. “Especially for women, it comes to mind [with] the whole battle for reproductive rights.”
What could be a convoluted mess in less skillful hands glides into an even-toned adventure, both lyrically and musically. Producer/singer Peter Moore (Count Zero, Think Tree) helped her mold different vocal approaches, including a Greek chorus as narrator. Band arrangements prove streamlined, and while it may take time for a listener to distinguish between tracks, some rise above, like “The Abyss” (where her soprano shines in spiraling choruses) and the enchanting “Turning into the Strange.”
A multimedia performance of the entire album, aided by a grant from the Boston Foundation, was a success at Oberon this past spring and will be reprised there by Schooltree’s band on Sept. 29. And now she faces an age-old dilemma: “Do I try to top this or do something in a completely different direction?”