Last Friday, two of the bigger music acts in the world, Metallica and Miranda Lambert, put out momentous double-albums. While Metallica’s Hardwired … to Self-Destruct and Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings otherwise couldn’t be more dissimilar, they have been described in strikingly similar ways — as epic, sprawling statements of purpose. This has long been the language that music critics and fans have reserved for double-albums, a signature status symbol of the classic-rock era that’s stubbornly hung around in the current century.
Fifty years ago, the vinyl format largely dictated what made double-albums seem more special and profound than “single”-sized records. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, given the limitations of vinyl — in which songs were distributed on two sides of wax each capable of storing about 20 minutes of music — it truly did seem “epic” when albums “sprawled” over to an additional two sides on another disc.
Obviously, technology has changed a lot since then. And yet the way we talk about music hasn’t kept pace. At a time when music already seems endless online, what does it mean for an album — even a long album, which nevertheless has a conclusion — to “sprawl” anyway?
The idea that a double-album can signify a major artistic statement goes back to May of 1966, when Bob Dylan released his magnum opus, Blonde On Blonde, recognized as rock’s first significant double-LP, followed closely by Freak Out! by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, which came out the following month. On Blonde On Blonde, Dylan stretched out on some of his most adventurous (and longest) songs to date, mostly notably the 11-minute album-closer “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” which took up an entire LP side and pushed the overall album to nearly the 73-minute mark.
Double-albums signified rock’s disrupting influence on pop music. In contrast with the old pop model, where artists sought to deliver what they believed the public wanted via snappy three-minute radio singles, there were now artistes who functioned as chefs, crafting indulgent, multi-course meals that the audience would have to accept on the artist’s terms.