Triplicate, Bob Dylan's latest ramble into the wilds of American popular song, continues in the stylistic vein of its predecessors, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels. But in the literal sense, it also extends an even weightier tradition.
Comprised of three CDs, Triplicate is that rarity in pop, the triple-record set. Once dismissed as one of rock's most bloated, needlessly over-the-top formats, Triplicate is the latest example of the way in which the three-disc package simply refuses to die. Despite all attempts to snuff it out, it's become a perversely durable format, taking on a new context every time it's revived.
Seemingly, the first three-LP sets plopped onto the scene in 1970 with the release of the first Woodstock soundtrack and George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Both were period-piece gems, and both were only extended to that length thanks to a surplus of material. The Woodstock set had to condense three days of music into one package, and Harrison has been stashing away so many songs during the waning days of the Beatles that he probably had no choice. (He and producer Phil Spector were also smart enough to tack jam sessions onto that third LP, thereby not damaging the cohesiveness of the first two LPs of proper songs.)
Fairly soon after, the triple LP came to symbolize the way rock was expanding – or reeling out of control – in the Seventies. The Grateful Dead's Europe '72, Yes' Yessongs, Leon Russell's Leon Live, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer's perfectly titled Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends – Ladies & Gentlemen … proudly let their triple-freak-flags fly. Each needed those extra LPs to make room for overlong jams, and guitar, synth and drum solos. Yessongs, for instance, averages two songs a side.
In the Dead's case, the bulky set also helped pay the bills for that overseas tour. The song-oriented exception to the rule at the time was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the group's mammoth and educational tribute to the roots of country. (Let's omit compilations like Neil Young's Decade and the classic series of three-LP artist collections released by Motown during that time.)
Given its association with prog, jam bands and the Seventies, it was only natural that the triple LP would peter out along with flared jeans and Jimmy Carter campaign buttons. But just when the format seemed irrelevant and laughably out of style, punk, of all formats, revived it. At the very end of 1979, Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box – three 12-inch records crammed into a round tin – put a perverse spin on the format, as did the Clash's 1981 Sandinista! Since punk was intended to kill off things like, say, prog and triple LPs, those bands' revivals of the format felt cheeky – the first postmodern take on record packaging.
For a good decade and a half, the three-disc set went into hibernation. The occasional release, like Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), contained about the same amount of music as three LPs would have, but hid their triple-LP aspirations on two discs. Freed from his Warner Brothers contract and able to release anything he wanted from his studio and vault, Prince unleashed two three-disc sets in the late Nineties, Emancipation and Crystal Ball, but they only served as reminders that even the strongest such releases were sorely in need of pruning. (Same, alas, with his later triple set, Lotusflow3r.)
But starting during that same period, indie rock took up the triple revival with sharper results. The Magnetic Fields' 1999 opus, 69 Love Songs, freshened up the format by way of Stephin Merritt's wonderfully droll and touching songs, one after another. Roughly a decade later, Joanna Newsom's sonically dreamy, harp-driven Have One on Me felt like the best continuation of the original Seventies concept of the triple record, down to its three-LP format. Five years ago, Green Day somewhat took the plunge, releasing ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! as separate releases one month apart. Alas, their punk-cred inclination apparently nixed the idea of packaging all three together for the full trio package.
With each of its three discs only a half hour long each, Triplicate, Dylan's first venture into the land of the non-compilation three-disc set, could have easily been packaged as two discs. For thematic reasons, he went the separate-disc route. But in keeping with the pre-rock song choices, wouldn't it be nice to think Dylan also chose to pay homage to another vanishing aspect of the culture?