Album overload: How Bob Dylan and others take music to extremes
Thrilling news for Bob Dylan fans: the Nobel laureate returns in March with yet another collection of covers culled from the Great American Songbook.
With Triplicate, though, comes the twist that this is the 75-year-old’s first triple album, a 30-track behemoth that, while a novelty for Dylan (not including his mammoth box sets), is nowhere near the year's longest album, let alone quantity of music promised by one act. In length, Triplicate will be surpassed by 50 Song Memoir, an autobiographical marathon also due next month from US songwriter Stephin Merritt, recording as the Magnetic Fields (one track for each year of his life, most full of his usual wit and panache).
Even that is set to be dwarfed by the incredible five albums promised in 2017 by Australian psych-rock outfit King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. It is enough to make you wonder if the creative freedom afforded to artists by the decline in power of record companies has been entirely worthwhile. Once, stars such as Prince and George Michael complained of being serfs at the mercy of their contracts, unable to release product until given the go-ahead by overbearing label bosses. Now the balance has shifted so acts can put out as music as they like.
While such autonomy may be welcome, we should caution against the danger of overload, swamping us with material of variable quality. Putting out a large amount of music in one go is usually a sign of high aspirations, that your ambition can not be encompassed within the bounds of the humble 12” or single-disc album, and Dylan himself was there in 1966 with rock's first major double album, Blonde On Blonde. Four years later, George Harrison went further with triple set All Things Must Pass, his first since The Beatles split. Admittedly, this was a stunning rejoinder to former bandmates that had carefully rationed his songwriting contributions, meaning he had a vast backlog to choose from.
Somehow, Harrison and producer Phil Spector marshalled this abundance of material to create a magnum opus worth getting up and flipping over five times. It also set a challenge few acts have dared take on, with a surprising exception coming from punk heavyweights The Clash and their sprawling 1980 epic Sandinista! Here, the London outfit ran through the whole gamut of their influences, strangely proving more adept at reggae and disco-inspired punk-funk than rehashed skiffle. At least Joe Strummer and co allowed some variety over two and a half hours, unlike, say, Guns N’ Roses.
These Los Angeles hellraisers raised a firm two fingers to the music industry with their twin acts of folly, Use Your Illusion I & II, a pair of double albums dropped like huge boulders at the stroke of midnight, 17 September 1991. Having torpedoed Eighties-dominating poodle-rock four years beforehand with the snarling Appetite For Destruction, Guns N Roses now aimed to prove they could play with the big boys – note lighters-raising ballad “November Rain” and a pointless take on “Live And Let Die”, proving bombast was not their strong point.
Meandering releases have also directly celebrated the removal of creative shackles, as the ever-fecund Prince showed on 1996’s Emancipation, his three-CD, 36-track slog that arrived in the same year as two further albums – the woeful Chaos & Disorder, the artist formerly known by a squiggle's contractual obligation to end his relationship with Warner Bros, and the forgettable soundtrack to Spike Lee's comedy Girl 6. Emancipation for Prince meant padding out his album with cover versions (“Betcha By Golly Wow”) and complaining about his former woes (“Slave”), among a plethora of vapid pop-funk.
Nowadays, artists seem to rely on eye-catching stunts to make albums same more relevant in a streaming-dominated landscape – or even earn more cash from such services. In this respect, Green Day were ahead of the curve with their 2012 triple-jump, the Uno!, Dos! and Tre! albums released in quick succession between September and December 2012. The punchy attack delivered by the first of this three-parter was warmly received, partly as it provided a refreshing change from 2009's pompous concept piece 21st Century Breakdown. Unfortunately, Dos! and Tre! failed to match the first offering's momentum, as Billie Joe Armstrong unconvincingly returned to hackneyed teen concerns after erecting political barricades on theatrical Dubya-era lament American Idiot.
Armstrong claimed his band were rising above the consumerist fray, though notably refused to stack the works together as Harrison and The Clash did. More recent examples of well-received epics include nu-folkie Joanna Newsom's triple album Have One On Me and the Magnetic Fields' magisterial 69 Love Songs. To be fair to King Gizzard, on past performance - notably the melodic Papier Mâché Dream and Nonagon Infinity's more heads-down chug – these Geelong cosmonauts appear capable of releasing five albums of individual character.
They are off to a cracking start with the forthcoming Flying Microtonal Banana, where everyone plays instruments set to quarter-tone tuning – dig that Arabesque feel, man. Whether they have the momentum to last a whole year, though, remains to be seen.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard's ‘Flying Microtonal Banana’ is out 24 February on Heavenly Recordings. The Magnetic Fields' ‘50 Song Memoir’ is out 10 March on Nonesuch Records