double duty

The Double Album Is Thriving

Why is this once-derided symbol of shaggy self-indulgence suddenly making a comeback?

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Vinyl Records: Getty Images; Album Artwork Courtesy the Labels
Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Vinyl Records: Getty Images; Album Artwork Courtesy the Labels

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The ’70s are back in a major way. Inflation is spiraling out of control, hairy guys are trendy, reproductive rights are under attack, and everyone is glued to the TV wondering if the corrupt former president will be indicted. Meanwhile, in the music world, a relic of ’70s-rock excess is having a moment: the double album. No longer reserved for prog-rock titans, era-defining rappers, and tortured alt-rock geniuses, the double-LP format has become surprisingly fashionable of late. As publications and critics roll out their midyear lists, the pattern is hard to miss: Many of the most acclaimed and noteworthy projects of the year, from Big Thief’s dizzyingly eclectic Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You to Kendrick Lamar’s heady Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, are double albums.

I don’t mean that they’re overlong, streaming-era data dumps of the kind that were fashionable a few years ago (Drake’s Views; also Drake’s More Life). These records are consciously conceived and presented as double albums (two discs, four sides) and endowed with the ambition that’s commensurate with the format. Even mild-mannered indie rockers like Beach House, Johnny Marr, and Wilco — artists whose LPs (in recent years, at least) have shied away from that kind of scope and grandiosity — are indulging the double-album itch. But why now?

“It’s not as simple as wanting to emulate Exile on Main St. or Genesis,” says rock legend Johnny Marr (formerly of the Smiths and Modest Mouse), whose latest solo album, Fever Dreams Pts. 1–4, is a double LP. “It’s not really about an homage to an old-timer. The reasons for doing a double album in 2022 are probably the same as then. You feel like you want to say more.”

Another likely explanation is that the first year of the pandemic, with its unprecedented pause in live music, granted artists more time to devote to songwriting and recording — hence a surplus of new material. And because of lengthy promotional rollouts or delays in vinyl production, some albums that were recorded in 2020 or early 2021 weren’t released until 2022.

Big Thief’s latest exemplifies this phenomenon. Between 2016 and early 2020, the acclaimed indie-folk group toured virtually nonstop and squeezed out four 40-minute records. But in spring 2020, with all the band’s tour dates canceled, the quartet suddenly found itself with the luxury of time. They had already decided to record a fifth album in an unusual fashion. In 2019, drummer James Krivchenia (producer of Dragon New Warm Mountain) proposed that they record at four vastly different studios scattered around the country with four different engineers. The idea was to make a more exploratory album reflective of the many different modes of singer Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting. The pandemic happened to coincide with this plan.

“We were like, We’re going to record a bunch,” Krivchenia told Vulture earlier this year. “And we had a vague intention it was all going to be one record. No matter what happens, we’re going to accept it as one thing for this time of where we’re at as a band and as people.” By the end of the sessions, which spanned between July and December 2020, the group had recorded some 45 songs, which they pared down to a wide-ranging, 20-song album.

Other artists have dealt with a surplus of material by releasing companion albums — a distant cousin of the double album. Companion albums (as I define them, anyway) are two albums by the same artist that are closely linked but packaged separately (famous example: Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II). Taylor Swift wheeled out Folklore and its “sister” record, Evermore, five months apart; Big Thief’s Lenker released two solo albums, Songs and Instrumentals, on the same day; Kevin Morby followed 2020’s Sundowner with a demo counterpart; and Jeff Rosenstock chased 2020’s No Dream with a ska version.

Marr, however, says he wanted to make his next album a double before the pandemic, because he yearned for “a bigger canvas.” The events of 2020 allowed him to immerse himself in recording more than usual. “My studio, which is on the top floor of an old factory on the outskirts of town, was completely empty,” Marr says. “This huge, enormous parking lot just had my car in it every day. So I had this stillness around me while I was making it. The pandemic definitely gave me complete space — and a physically solitary environment.”

While Kendrick Lamar has been more secretive about the recording process behind his first release in five years, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers could easily be classified as a pandemic album. Lamar explicitly acknowledges this on “N95” and “Savior,” and the album’s rigorous self-examination and anti-commercial sound — from the jazz-infused domestic squabble “We Cry Together” to the haunted soul of “Mother I Sober” — reflect the weight of significant time spent away from the public eye.

“I spend most of my days with fleeting thoughts,” Lamar wrote in a rare statement to fans before Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers was completed. “Writing. Listening. And collecting old beach cruisers. The morning rides keep me on a hill of silence.” The resulting album is ambitious and sprawling but steers away from dance-floor anthems.

Curiously, though Mr. Morale (which clocks in at 73 minutes) is Lamar’s first double album, it’s not his longest release; that honor goes to 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly (78 minutes). That Mr. Morale is packaged as a double album and Butterfly wasn’t may be a performative show of ambition, but it reflects the extent to which vinyl has overtaken CDs both commercially and culturally. Back in 2015, To Pimp a Butterfly fit neatly on one CD; that’s still true, of course, but vinyl sales have since outpaced CD sales for the first time since the 1980s. Vinyl has emerged as both a boutique product and major revenue source for stars of Lamar’s stature. (And in the vinyl world, a 73-minute album is a double album.)

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is certainly the kind of album that benefits from an intermission. Breathtakingly ambitious, the project unfolds like a marathon therapy session with two halves that both differ and speak with one another — Disc One (Big Steppers) emphasizes Lamar’s detail-rich storytelling, examining the artist’s ambivalent relationship with his own fame, while Disc Two (Mr. Morale) is full of brooding and pained examinations of intergenerational trauma.

These days, even streaming platforms simulate aspects of the double-vinyl experience: Load Mr. Morale on Spotify, and the tracklist is divided into “Disc 1” and “Disc 2.” The reason some double albums are split like that on Spotify and others (such as Wilco’s Cruel Country) aren’t is purely dependent on the metadata that the labels submit to the streaming platform. (Of course, though you wouldn’t know it from Spotify, many “normal” albums in the 40–60-minute range are currently split into two slabs of vinyl. Ostensibly, this is to preserve sound quality, which starts to degrade once an LP holds more than 44 minutes, though I’ve seen music fans bristle at the practical shortcomings of the 48-minute double album.)

That vinyl is more popular now than it has been since the hair-metal era would seem to be good news for musicians, but alas, it’s complicated. In reality, vinyl’s popularity has exploded during the pandemic faster than pressing plants can keep up, resulting in major disruptions to the supply chain. It’s not unusual for indie musicians to have to wait eight months to get an album pressed; even Adele had to turn in her album six months early to get 500,000 copies manufactured.

“Adele’s gonna press a ton of records. All these artists want to release double albums, and that’s fine,” says Glenn Curran, co-founder and co-owner of the Chicago-based indie Sooper Records. “But at the end of the day, if there is a material impact on the independent-music community, that does affect everyone.”

Because of these delays, Wilco opted to digitally release its double album Cruel Country in May — months ahead of a vinyl release. “I put in motion the idea that we wanted to finish this, not care about supply-chain issues, and not worry about having a physical release,” Jeff Tweedy told Aquarium Drunkard. Similarly, Lamar’s new album, priced at a steep $43, won’t be available on vinyl until August.

All of which is to say that putting out a double album with a physical release is a bit of a flex in 2022. For independent artists, it’s hard enough getting a normal album pressed. Curran says he has only released one double album, Sen Morimoto’s self-titled, in Sooper’s six-year history.

“The difficulty in a band approaching us with a double record would be the financial aspect in terms of the manufacturing cost,” Curran says. “We knew that Sen had enough of a consumer base: Okay, if we do 700 copies of a double record, we’ll be able to sell that. There’s already risk inherent in releasing an album from an artist that doesn’t have a huge fan base. I feel like doing a double album in that instance would be riskier and could lead to us choosing not to do it.”

As the past 55 years have shown us, there are many categories of double albums. And I’m just talking about studio efforts. There’s the Great Band at the Peak of their Creativity Spinning Out in Every Direction at Once double album (Exile on Main St., London Calling). There’s the Great Band Falling Apart and Everyone’s Writing Separately But It’s Still Brilliant double album (The White Album, Tusk, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below). There’s the rock opera (Tommy, The Wall) and the extravagant prog double album (Tales From Topographic Oceans). There’s the Megalomaniacal Genius Going Overboard double album, which sometimes results in brilliance (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Sign o’ the Times) and sometimes dreck (Donda). There’s the Psychedelic Freak-Out double album (Tago Mago, Embryonic). There’s the Last Will and Testament from an Icon Gone Too Soon double album (All Eyez on Me, Life After Death). There’s the Punk Band Learns to Write Longer Songs double album (Daydream Nation). There’s the Double Album With Two Very Different Discs (Aerial, In Your Honor, Scorpion). And there’s the This Should Have Been Trimmed Down But the Band Sells More Records Than God, So Nobody Told Them “No” double album (Rattle and Hum, Stadium Arcadium).

Curiously, the recent slate of double albums reminds me more of classic LP-era doubles than the overlong ones from the peak CD era. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You summons the glorious, hazy sprawl of Exile on Main St. or Physical Graffiti. Cruel Country, which embraces Wilco’s country origins, is more akin to The Basement Tapes: a reminder that while double albums are sometimes about genre-spanning exploration, they can also zero in on a band’s roots.

What these recent releases also have in common with their 1970s antecedents is length. None of them is longer than 85 minutes. Back in the vinyl age, most double albums clocked in at between 65 and 85 minutes — and artists didn’t undertake them lightly. “You were aware that it was going to cost people more money, that your fans were going to be unhappy if you had a whole load of filler,” says Johnny Marr. “Whereas with CDs, it didn’t matter if you had 70 minutes or 45 minutes of music. Just fill the thing up! It was going to be the same cost.”

Indeed, once CDs became the dominant format around 1989, the definition of a double album fundamentally shifted. A typical CD could hold 74–80 minutes of music, which incentivized popular artists to make their albums longer than ever. Suddenly, 74-minute albums like Blood Sugar Sex Magik or Erotica weren’t double albums; they were normally priced new releases. “In the ’90s, there was a point where it occurred to me that people were just putting way too much crap on their albums,” Marr says.

Double albums didn’t die out during the CD era. They just got longer and less common. If you were going to ask your fans to pay for two discs in the mid-’90s, you had better give them a boatload of music, which is how we wound up with epic, two-hour behemoths like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Life After Death, which resembled box sets.

Now, things have come full circle. With the resurgence of vinyl and the concurrent rise of streaming, double albums are shorter and thus more common again — from Nick Cave’s Ghosteen (68 minutes) to Moses Sumney’s Græ (65 minutes). Twenty years ago, a 73-minute rap album like Mr. Morale would have been a normal hip-hop CD — the same length as your average Outkast or Common album. Today, it’s a double LP.

It’s fascinating that the history of double albums reveals how the physical limitations of record formats have transformed the definition of the album. The promise of streaming, of course, is that physical limitations don’t exist at all. What constitutes an album has never seemed more malleable. If Tierra Whack says 2018’s Whack World — which packs 15 tracks into 15 minutes — is an album, who’s to argue? The streaming era has made space for acclaimed albums that are shorter than an EP (Pusha T’s Daytona) and others so long they’re accused of trying to game streaming numbers (this issue dogged Drake, Migos, and Future in 2018).

But what does a double album mean in the streaming era? Ultimately, it has more to do with artistic intent and the aura of prestige than simple length. If Lamar wants to say Mr. Morale is a double album and To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t, fans can roll with it. If the members of Coldplay want to insist that Everyday Life (which, at 53 minutes, is shorter than X&Y) is a double album, God bless them.

There is, of course, something remarkable about double albums flourishing at a time when the music industry has been so atomized and fragmented by TikTok. “Maybe we’ve got kind of an option fatigue, which is all part of too much technology,” says Marr.

So long live the double album. But, uh, please hold off on releasing any more for the next six to eight months so that pressing plants can catch up.

The Double Album Is Thriving