Though it is a risky venture to release a double album even if you are a considerably prestigious artist, the bulk of such releases usually derive from artists who have already made a reputable name for themselves at a time when they can afford to take risks. I can use two classic albums from 1996 as an example; Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collies and the Infinite Sadness and 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me were released by both artists at their commercial and artistic peaks. 2Pac already had a platinum album to his name, with his previous Me Against the World reaching #1 on the Billboard 200 upon its release. The Smashing Pumpkins’ prior album, Siamese Dream, also saw a similar range of success as it reached #10. The Pumpkins were the kings of alternative-rock at the time and 2Pac was the king of hip-hop during the same era; they had substantial room to take risks and both artists vastly benefitted from their decisions. Both double albums are now considered classics of their respective genres, but that is not often the case for other attempts when applied to a format that some find overwhelming due to aspects like length, stylistic repetition, and even price. It does not help that most of today’s listeners tend to be an impatient group, with it being a feat if many of them could even sit down and listen to an album in its entirety.
For an artist who opts to produce a double album, it is arguably vital to have a sense of confidence in regard to their own stylistic ability. Unless the songwriting can be widely classified as ingenious, few artists can release such a lengthy album without their style becoming tiresome by the last few tracks at best. This is one of the primary reasons why most double albums we see are from artists who have already had their successes and bumps in the road, as experience is the most imperative tool in crafting something successful of a lengthy duration. Pink Floyd had delicately constructed the epic release of The Wall in 1979 after already writing a slew of legendary albums like The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, releasing the renowned double album in ‘79 after 10 albums and 12 years of working together. Such a practice is most common amongst artists, with experience and success contributing to a high degree of confidence that consequently results in aspirations for a release of epic proportions. Keeping that in mind, for an artist to debut with a double album showcases a form of confidence that is rare even among the most experienced artists. Whether they can live up their own lofty impressions is often a flawed cause, but Benji Hughes’s debut, A Love Extreme, has pulled it off so seamlessly that it is not even slightly pretentious or overbearing. Instead, the native of North Carolina has produced one of the best debuts of 2008.
Within the 25 tracks that encompass A Love Extreme, Hughes’ topical tendencies stray anywhere from taking mushrooms before a Flaming Lips concert to being stood up at a Dairy Queen. “I’m more alternative than Suicide Girls,” he goes on to say during “The Mummy”, a rather apt indication of his cultural awareness. An awareness of so-called “hipster culture” is something that he does quite humorously, with the majority of it being in satirical form like the bouncy, topically self-explanatory “I Went with Some Friends to See the Flaming Lips”, the synthesized dance-pop of “Why Do These Parties Always End the Same Way?”, and the infectious electro-funk of “Neighbor Down the Hall”, a tale of the effect of loud music on an irritated landlord. His outlook on youth culture is amusing because he manages to make a mockery of it while not disbanding and dismissing it entirely, using realistically humorous anecdotes to often emit a central focus. Since it is a double album after all, this is wisely not the only prevalent topical focus. Hughes also has an extreme capability to craft resoundingly successful love songs, whether they are in the form of a ballad or an infectious interpretation of electronic pop. Tracks like “All You’ve Got to Do Is Fall in Love”, “Waiting for an Invitation”, and “So Much Better” variously employ gentle acoustic and key progressions, while a brisker effort like “Even If” showcases a suave mixture of key-led pop and jazz. All of the aforementioned provide excellent results though in a romanticized atmosphere, particularly the brilliant “Even If”, which finds Hughes treading successfully somewhere between The Walkmen and The Divine Comedy.
Though Hughes’ diversity causes comparisons to The Walkmen on “Even If” and even Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on “So Well” to arise, his multifarious topical ability is more reminiscent of Stephin Merritt, the leader of the Magnetic Fields. Like Merritt, Hughes is able to simultaneously generate ironic, satirical, and witty remarks over a ceaselessly expanding array of musical styles. It also helps that his voice is similarly low, musky, and also highly melodic. One of the album’s catchiest tracks, “You Stood Me Up”, fuses power-pop in the verses with an utterly irresistible chorus that is largely dependent on electro-rock. Its humorous lyrical content is subtly accompanied with rejection and somberness though, as is more evidenced by a track like “All You’ve Got to Do Is Fall in Love” where he begins by asking (or pleading), “Wouldn’t it be sweet if you could be in love with me the way I am in love with you?” For a more direct relation to the Magnetic Fields, “Love is a Razor” reminds me of Merritt’s “Love is Like Jazz” for its witty metaphorical stance. “Love is like a razor, it’s cold and it’s sharp,” Hughes delicately croons over the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar, adding another one to a sprawling list of concurrently humorous and ironically tragic songs.
How so many songs can be simultaneously humorous and tragic is part of what makes Hughes’ album so impressive. The very same thing can be said for Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, another comparable epic that incorporated a massive array of styles, unpredictable topical frequencies, and amusing references to pop (and independent) culture. Many of us consider that album to be a classic As usual, you can find three recommended samples from the album below, but buying the other 22 tracks for less than $14 should be a no-brainer. It is quite impressive that Hughes has crafted 25 tracks for the album and none of them are lacking in either effort or quality. “When it was time to put it all together, we didn’t want to leave out too much,” Hughes replied when asked about his choice of releasing his debut as a double album. “It just didn’t seem right to leave out too much because it represented where we were when we began all the way through until now.” For the sake of his listeners, it was certainly a wise decision, as each and every track is clearly a great effort that most often results in a unique success.
Benji Hughes "Girl in the Tower"