The Paratext: The Infamous Triple Studio Album

As a collector of music, and a person who spends most of their professional life envisioning how best to capture the important and distinctive parts of informational objects, I find myself deeply interested in how music is presented. Ever since I bought Tool’s Ænima on vinyl, after already having the CD, I started to realize that the format of a release greatly influences the experience of listening to it. It wasn’t until Graduate School that I had a word for this interest: Paratext.

“Paratext” comes from literary theory. The critic Gérard Genette coined it in his book Seuils (released in English as Paratext : Thresholds of Interpretations). Genette confines his enumeration of the paratext to books: the cover image, the copy on the back cover, the typography, &c. Genette points out that all of these elements interact with the main text, shaping the readers perceptions, often completely independent of the author’s intentions. It’s not difficult, of course, to see how this applies to music, perhaps to an even greater degree. There is, of course a reason that music is still released on any number of formats, and it isn’t just because of the capabilities of different consumers. Music consumers are also interested in a particular experience, even if that just comes down to a particular convenience.

So how do these different formats interact with the music that the contain? That’s something I’d like to explore in this, possibly, new feature. I want to bring up different issues that, to my mind, affect listening experiences, and see if other people have noticed this, or have better examples. I’ll hopefully get more deeply into this in the future, but for now I wanted to bring up something that might seem fairly straightforward, but probably isn’t: The Triple Studio Album.

It’s not uncommon for a band to eventually release a double studio album. It’s a statement of seriousness and ambition. But triple studio albums, or even longer, are more rare. They are almost, by default, seen as glutinous and pretentious. What could a band possibly need that much space to say? There’s also, of course, the issue of cost. Do I really have to buy three pieces of vinyl to get new songs from my favorite band? And, are they really all that good?

Now, of course, the concept of a double or triple album is somewhat diluted. Lots of albums initially released as double albums are currently issued on one CD (Electric Ladyland, among many others). And it is certainly not unknown to release an album that fits on one CD on to multiple LPs. Indeed, as vinyl records become fashionable collectors items, packaging them as deluxe vinyl sets becomes more palatable to certain consumers. For instance, Thundercat’s 2017 album Drunk at 52 minutes could somewhat comfortably fit on a single LP. However, it was issued as a quadruple ten inch vinyl box, constraining some sides to a paltry seven or eight minutes.

So what do we talk about, when we talk about triple studio albums. I will propose a few characteristics:

  • The release must have been issued on three or more pieces of media, in the same purchasable package, at some point in its release cycle. There’s a lot of rules crammed into here, but essentially I just want to ensure that you could, at some point, buy this release, and there would be three things in the box. Admittedly, this can cause some surprising omissions: at over two hours long, you would think that Miles Davis’ Get Up with It would be considered some type of a triple release. But it was only ever squeezed on 2xLPs. A corollary weirdness with my wording, also means that cross media releases could be included here, such as a release that includes a CD, a record, and a tape. I can’t think of anything off hand, but I’m sure they’re out there. There’s a major exception here, which should probably seem obvious but:
  • Each piece of media should have distinct music or sounds. If the release is a double LP with a CD of the same music so you can listen to it in the car or rip it, that doesn’t count. Duh. The next rule is similar, but more esoteric
  • The release should be designed to be listened to linearly, not concurrently. This is the Zaireeka rule. At some point in the future, I’d like to write something on, essentially, Homebrew multichannel releases, where you’re supposed to listen to it with four different sound devices playing at the same time. This is not that column. Oh, I suppose there could be an exception to this. Let’s say it has two distinct sound sources designed to be played simultaneously, but those sound sources are on three different pieces of media (So sound source A is presented on A-LP1, A-LP2, and A-LP3; and sound source B is presented on B-LP1, B-LP2, B-LP3), then yeah that’s a triple studio album, as long as it meets the next requirement which is:
  • The release must be longer than 90 minutes. This is a completely arbitrary number, but it’s sort of based on the upper limits of a two records set. In actual fact, records can be any length (see Get Up with It above), but are limited by how loud and distinctive you want the groove to be. In practice, I’ve found most single record hover around 45 minutes total between the two sides until they feel the need flip to something else. Crucially, this needs to follow all the rest of the rules, of course. So even though Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind is 142 minutes in total, it was never released on vinyl, only a double CD. However, Swans’ The Seer is thirty some minutes shorter, but was released on a triple vinyl. And finally.
  • It has to be a studio album. Like I’ve said.

So, what releases do you enjoy that fall under these restrictions. Do you feel like they’re necessarily too long? Can you listen to the releases that you enjoy all the way through, or do you have to stop halfway through to get a sandwich?