Double Albums

Long Play

Double albums mark 2005

By Karl Byrn

Why does it seem like so many double albums are out this year? There really aren’t any more than usual nor many by more high-profile acts. But this year’s multi-album efforts are noteworthy because they reveal something about the artistic impulse to package and present.

Consider the awesomely expanding technology of distribution and consumption and what that means for the album format. The iPod era promotes infinite access and randomness for listeners, who can easily resequence albums. But serious artists still work in the album form, using a new release like a new canvas.

The how and why of this year’s double albums indicates that artists still seek the rock album as an organic form. Multi-album sets may be loose excuses for poorly edited creativity, but this year’s different double-disc models seem to be asserting that rock statements are still a necessary expression.

The recent mode, established on OutKast’s 2003 rap hit Speakerboxx/The Love Below, has been splitting personalities into opposing boxes. This year, Foo Fighters follow that mode with In Your Honor (RCA), a conventional double album featuring one hard and one soft disc, representing both the rocking and sensitive sides of bandleader Dave Grohl. Sacramento’s indie noise-punk duo Hella give their guitarist and drummer each a divergent solo disc on the scattered Church Gone Wild/Chirpin’ Hard (Suicide Squeeze).

Conor Oberst and his band Bright Eyes also offer contrasting sides on the folk-pop hit I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (Saddle Creek) and its ambient-pop flipside Digital Ash from a Digital Urn. Oberst and Bright Eyes even follow another double-album idea: the Guns ‘N Roses/Bruce Springsteen model of two separate discs released at the same time.

The 2005 paradigm manifests the double album as one work split over two different release dates. System of a Down’s emo-Euro math-metal double Mezmerize/Hypnotize (Epic) featured a terrific first half this spring with Mezmerize. Hypnotize, from the same recording sessions, looms as a second half set for November release because the band felt fans couldn’t handle so much material at once.

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals are raising the stakes by releasing three albums this year. Well, four albums, actually; their spring release Cold Roses (Lost Highway) is already a sprawling double album. Adams wants to move past his roots-rock and alt-rock credentials into serious songwriter territory, so the multi-album format is ideal for his prolific impulses. Cold Roses is two consistent discs of reflective roots-rock in an airy jam-band vein. The band’s recently released Jacksonville City Nights takes a harder, starker turn to honky-tonk melancholy, as if filtering out one part of what was heard on the earlier double.

Parts of these two releases/three discs could be interchangeable–the new disc’s “Peaceful Valley” is more akin to the hippie vibe of Cold Roses, while the first set’s “When Will You Come Back Home” suits the repentance of Jacksonville City Nights. All this material together is Adam’s ongoing expression, with the second installment finding more focus. These first two sets are strong and distinct voices, leaving open the promise of a solid third set in December. Adams and the Cardinals do the whole double-album routine–splitting personalities, making a conventional two-disc package and releasing as much material as the fans can handle.

But Adams’ multi-album efforts reveal more than statement strategies. He also suffers from an inability to self-edit. As strangely moving as his material may be, some of it is just perplexingly incomplete. Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights, like other double releases this year, suffer from the cliché that the whole thing might have made more sense as a single.

Adams may be the Neil Young of his generation, an artist so prolific he generously releases his various tangents which eventually make sense as parts of a whole. Young himself is guilty of failing to self-edit, but is also a master of segmenting himself onto separate releases. His new disc Prairie Wind (Reprise) is just a single, focused on the folksy downstroke of Young’s established pattern of alternating folk and rock releases. But Prairie Wind is also a reminder that the album format–single, double or a lifetime’s worth–is the place where artists go to reveal all the sides of their creative souls.

From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.

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