If you’ve ever been on a forum of a band who has released a double album, you’ll definitely be familiar with those topics that involve fans compiling their own single album out of the whole material. And I’ve played this exercise before with some records – in fact, I even created playlists with the selected songs and played them to see if they work better than what was originally released. And this got me wondering – do double albums usually justify their length or would they all work better with some edit?
But first of all, let’s discuss this from a technical point of view. A double album originally referred to the necessity of splitting the songs on two LPs (so we get 4 sides instead of 2) because the length exceeded the 60-minute limit. As soon as the CD replaced the LP, the limit grew up to 70 minutes (later even 80) so some albums changed their form during the transition, from double to single. Just to be clear, what I’ll talk about here are studio albums that were originally released as double.
But what is the point of these albums anyway? Just a platform for artists to be indulgent and not have to worry themselves with the task of selecting? Well, maybe sometimes, but usually no. A common type of double album is the so-called ‘rock opera’, which is exactly what is sounds like – a storyline unifies all the songs. The Who set the template for rock operas presented in the double format with their 1969 ‘Tommy’ and some of the most famous works such as their own ‘Quadrophenia’, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ or Genesis’ ‘Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ followed. In many of the cases, the story-line is simply too long, the events too many for them to be told within only 40 minutes of music. Sure, I can see the aforementioned albums shortened by 2 or 3 songs, but cut in half? No way. All those bands used the double format to carry us through sounds and emotions, to create the needed tension and then, to finally end it all on a big scale. And you need time and space in order to do all that properly.
Another type of double albums is what I like to call the ‘encyclopedic’ type. Here, the accent is put on diversity, with the artist jumping from genre to genre, from mood to mood and the result is usually an eclectic collection of songs. To say that albums such as Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’, Clash’s ‘London Calling’, Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ or Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ would work better as single albums is to completely miss their point, in my opinion. The objective was not to go high as much as wide, to highlight every face of the band and to sum up all of its influences and strengths. Or much simply put, to offer a representative, quintessential view of the band. Approaching this type of albums is not an easy thing to do – first of all, because you got to know when in your career to do it and second, because the material has to be strong enough, not just diverse. You gotta write songs that measure up with your ambition and if you don’t, things can go pretty wrong (see Guns N’ Roses ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums).
All in all, if used adequately and executed properly, the ‘double album’ is a great concept that can totally work in favour of the artist and the listener. That some bands missed the point of it is unfortunate, but not strong enough of an argument to change my thumbs up verdict.
Categories: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?