June 5, 2014 by NowhereButPop
by Andrew Doscas
Balance is everything. I am an absolutist. These are two seemingly antithetical sentences that are more intimately linked than they seem. There is black and there is white; there is one and its opposite, and as people we must choose one over the other, accordingly. But for fear of being overwhelmed or ruled by one force, balance, a happy medium between warring factions is necessary. It’s imperative to have opinions, but be leveled headed and moderate with absolutes or you will lose yourself in them. This is the inherent flaw in describing oneself in mono-palabric adjectives. When someone says they are a “democrat” or “republican” the connotation is that they are only that, and that that one word dictates their life. Absolutes without balance.
Those who claim not to have real opinions or points of view are the exact opposite. By not choosing anything, they inherently choose everything and open themselves up to a litany of options of which they have to real allegiances to. They maintain a medium of absolutely nothing. Balance without absolutes.
Two-Face lives within a perfected world of balance hidden between absolutes. There is the upstanding Harvey Dent, and the evil and destructive Two-Face. They each represent what the other opposes. Absolute. They find middle ground vies a vie the coin Dent flips to discern outcomes of choices. Balance. Balance is moderation is restraint is empowerment. Absolutes are excess is obsession is servitude. I think I aspire to be a stoic.
Maybe because I’m Greek, and as a culture our shared story has always been about finding order from chaos, but I feel as if one of my stories (besides the loss of potential) is the search for balance amongst absolutes, and vice versa, seeking an argument amongst the neutral. Inversely revealing hidden similarities between contradictory antitheses.
I’m definitely getting way too big and philosophical for an article about double albums, but I think that’s kinda the point. By nature double albums are more grandiose and overwhelming than regular LPs. It’s twice as much music that usually displays a band in its most concentrated and repetitive form, or at its most diverse and eclectic. Most (good) double albums are steeped in duality in the first place. It’s from this bifurcation where the double album can gain balance, the true success of a double album. For an 80-160 minute album to be great and exciting, it has to have great pacing, pacing which comes from balance, how spread out the album is.
The first most obvious dichotomy of all double albums is the track listing, as arrangement is everything. The grouping of songs on an album is never more important than on a double album; the songs that are on a certain side are there for a reason on that specific disc. For a double album to be a success, both discs have to be united by a common motif or feeling. Track listing cannot be arbitrary; there has to be logic and meticulous design in managing a chaotic amount of music. If there is no calculation or overruling theme to the double album, you get Exile on Main St., a collection of songs, but because there is no unifying theme to tie it all together the pacing of the album is thrown off. As a result, the middle third of the album drags on tremendously. For a double album to succeed there has to be dual concepts which not only justifies its own existence, but juxtaposes the other half of the album.
This criteria doesn’t apply to all double albums however, with rock operas being the exception. Rock operas, the best of which tend to be double albums (The Wall, Tommy, and Quadrophenia) are only as long as they need to be. However long, cohesive or absurd the story is, will dictate how long the album is. Below is a small sample size of double albums that adhere to the principal of juxtaposed duality as made evident in the contrasting nature of both discs.
Use Your Illusion I/Use Your Illusion II
Contrasting themes: Mania/Depression
The Illusion albums were made and fervently arranged to appear as two halves of a whole. Everything from the contrasting color schemes of the cover to the track listing convey the notion that there was intent (most likely on the part of Axl Rose) to organize the songs recorded during the sessions into two categories, categories that reflect Axl Roses’ bipolar disorder. It’s pretty simple to deduce that I represents a manic mood swing, what with the harsh ferocity of “Perfect Crime” and “Right Next Door to Hell” and the magnificent blitzkrieg that is “Coma”. The first of the pair is the straight up rocker, the one more closely related to the aggressive blues rock sound first heard on previous albums. By contrast, II is the (somewhat) more laidback of the duo. It’s depressingly introspective and hauntingly nostalgic at times. Open track “Civil War” is a misty eyed goodbye to original drummer Steven Adler, while songs like “Yesterdays” and “Breakdown” wistfully recall past friendships and former flames. The climax of everything that Use Your Illusion stood for comes in the form of “Estranged” the most powerful song ever written by the band, calling upon feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression, everything II is, is found in “Estranged”. Use Your Illusion I wants to keep the illusion afloat through a barrage of fire and aggression, while II wants to wash the illusion away in a flood of melancholy rain somber yearnings.
Contrasting themes: Light/Darkness
The two halves of Arcade Fire’s double LP opus can be summed up by the fact that both discs have a track entitled “Here Comes the Night Time”. Even though this may appear to be a unifying factor, they couldn’t be more dissimilar. “Here Comes the Night Time” on disc one represents the joy of the nighttime, not fearing the darkness and sharing it with friends. It is the summer nighttime, one where there is still a hint of light. “Here Comes the Night Time II”, which opens up disc two, dreads the night because the darkness brings loneliness and pain. This night is the winter nighttime, one that seems to last forever, devoid of hope. On disc one tracks such as “Flashbulb Eyes” and “We Exist” further highlight this striation in that both deal with the revelatory nature of light; in the former that light brings with it true, and in the latter, acknowledging oneself within the light. Tracks on disc two such as “It’s Never Over” and “Afterlife” deal with the dread that darkness brings with it. Two-thirds of disc two recount Orpheus’ descent into Hades to reclaim the soul of Eurydice, while “Porno”, a tale of the sexual scars garnered by a woman who’s been objectified by all of her former lovers, is the bands’ sonically and thematically darkest song. The light invokes feelings of truth, joy and celebration, and the darkness brings fear, dread, and misery.
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Contrasting themes: Day/Night
Even though band leader Billy Corgan has specifically stated that the album works conceptually as a chronicle of life and death, with the first disc representing the day, and the second disc representing the night, he has refused to believe that this automatically makes Mellon Collie a concept album. It does and it is. Once I heard that Corgan said this, the album immediately made perfect sense. Musically, the album is 50/50 on ballads professing a ridiculous and fantastic amount of love for someone, and venomous thrashers dedicated to that very same person. If each disc was entirely dedicated to the ballads or thrashers, the album as a whole would be horrible…because there was no intrinsic balance within its conception. “Tonight, Tonight” is the fading of the previous night prior to the new dawn, while all the tracks up until closing track “Take Me Down” display the activities of the day. Disc two opens up with “Where Boys Fear to Trend” an ominous forewarning for the impending night. “In the Arms of Sleep” and “We Only Come Out at Night” further convey the idea that the latter disc is the representative of the evening. Mellon Collie is an album that works cyclically because the last song fades into the first song on the album, just as the night always gives way to the new day.
Contrasting theme: Ethereal/Primal
Despite the fact that Physical Graffiti isn’t really thematically arranged by disc, it still adheres to the inherent notion of duality of double albums. Although half the tracks on the album were previous recorded, the contrasting nature of the album is not old/new, it’s the grandiosity vs. the earthly, or better stated, the epics beyond the comprehension of mortals against the very primal grit. Disc one is closer to the inaccessibly deity that Led Zeppelin seemed to be, what with tracks like “In My Time of Dying” and “Kashmir”, while disc two, thanks to the likes of “Sick Again” and “The Wanton Song”, represents the carnal and sensual image that the band has garnered. There are primal tracks on disc one in the shape of “Custard Pie” and “Trampled Underfoot”, as there are epics on disc two in the form of “Ten Years Gone” and “In the Light”. While the entire album is made up of extraordinary songs, disc one fails to stand on its own because it is too grand and overwhelming; disc two can’t support itself alone because it has no aspirations to be something other than what it already is. But, because of the incredible balancing of two opposing themes, Physical Graffiti is lauded as the greatest rock album of all time.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Contrasting themes: Big Boi/Andre 3000
The name says it all. The fact that Outkast decided to essentially package two separate solo albums as one double album speaks volumes to the notion that each segment is in reality its own distinct entity complete with its own sound and themes. Speakerboxxx, being Big Boi’s half is straight up hip-hop and rap. Big Boi is angry about everything on his side of the double album; everything from a crumbling home situation, to the wars in the Middle East, to gang life, to the stresses of your local drug dealer; there’s even a song entitled “Unhappy”. Speakerboxxx is very much so a product of its time, which weakens it as time goes by. Lil Jon makes an appearance, there’re too many pointless interludes, and the bass doesn’t stop until your ears bleed. For better or worse Big Boi’s half screams 2003.
Andre 3000 by contrast seemed to go in the opposite direction as his compeer and instead chose to look to the past instead of the present. Channeling his inner Prince, 3000 turns The Love Below into a love fest that owes its gestation to funk, jazz and R&B. The more indulgent of the two, The Love Below features a jazz version of “My Favorite Things” with Andre 3000 as some kind of a lounge singer, as well as lyrics all pertaining to love and sex. 3000 counters Big Boi’s rage with universal love and proposes procreation on most of his tracks. The problem though is that most of the songs on The Love Below sound like B versions of rejected Prince songs. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is a very good album, but this is a case where instead of meshing together to achieve a state of perfect balance, the contrasting nature of the album serves as the drums of war which eventually led to the band going on a ten year hiatus. Absolutes without balance.
Obviously, there are other albums that follow this trend, the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Stadium Arcadium and Nelly’s, Sweat and Suit are only two more examples. Double albums by nature have to be founded upon dualistic themes that distinguish which songs go where. More often than not, artists record more songs than they release on the album, but in the case of double albums, there has to be some force that compels them to divulge more songs; something has to justify the conception and release of this extra outpouring of music. There has to be a reason that a song was put on one disc instead of the other; order matters, and thematic order is the most powerful way to create form from chaos. Usually it’s for purposes of flow and balance, necessary components to any album, let alone double albums. There’s no greater balance than the kind that sprouts up from finding the equilibrium between opposite forces. There is one and its antithesis, between absolute forces balance is key. Double albums institutively understand this oversimplification of the cosmos; that from dualism and opposites comes wholeness and singularity. This article is getting way too big in scope for its own good…as am I. I think I’ll end it now.