Why would any band ever release a double album? Serious question. The deck is stacked against you. Even the Beatles couldn’t do it without filler, and they were working in the days of vinyl. (Plus, you know, they were the Beatles.) What the hell do you have in your songbook that justifies two CDs of material? Calm down, go home, cut some tracks, and come back when you’re ready to be serious about making a cohesive work of musical art.
By all accounts, double albums are impossible. Even the acclaimed ones don’t escape the charge of filler, from Bruce Springsteen’s The River to The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness. Let’s not even get into the kind of reputation that Foo Fighters’ In Your Honor has, or Arcade Fire’s Reflektor. And you can sure as hell bet that Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and Green Day’s trilogy would have better legacies if they had been single-disc affairs.
Yet, despite all of these examples and the fact that they come dangerously close to cautionary tale territory, the allure of the double album remains. Every few years, the narrative seems to repeat itself: a band or artist, at the peak of their powers, decides that a single 80-minute disc isn’t enough to capture all of their ideas. They then proceed to pack 20 or 30 songs into a single release, almost always to mixed results.
An argument could be made that the double album format suited Red Hot Chili Peppers better than just about any other artist that has attempted it this century. That’s not really a judgment of the band’s talent or their ability to write records without filler. On the contrary, Red Hot Chili Peppers have always made bloated, muddled, overlong records. Probably the band’s two most well-received albums—1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik and 1999’s Californication—were 17 and 15 songs long, respectively. Their post-millennial works are no shorter, with 2003’s underrated By the Way clocking in at 79 minutes (just barely under the wire for CD capacity) and 2011’s not-so-stellar I’m with You drastically overstaying its welcome at a comparatively pithy 59 minutes. In other words, this band has always pushed the single-disc record about as far as it could go. Why not attempt the double?
When RHCP finally did try a 2xCD affair—with 2006’s Stadium Arcadium—it actually kind of helped with their album length issues. Make no mistake, Stadium is still a mammoth, overlong album. The first disc, titled Jupiter, clocks in at 62 minutes, while the second, Mars, is just shy of an hour in length. Still, by breaking 28 songs into two discs instead of cramming 17 on one, the Peppers created two albums that are more well-paced and digestible than just about anything else in their catalog. Playing through this entire album in one sitting is still an undertaking, but listening to it one disc at a time definitely feels more natural than trying to sit through something like I’m with You.
I remember vividly when Stadium Arcadium came out. I was in ninth grade, nearing the end of the school year and desperately in need of summer vacation. I’d gone to a charter school up until eighth grade, and then the way things were in my hometown back then, freshman year was at the junior high instead of the high school. That school was an awkward, adolescent, immature cesspool. In addition, most of the year was an academic repeat for me, since my previous school had been significantly ahead of the public school system in most subjects. As a result, my freshman year was boring and pointless, quickly teaching me to 1) have contempt for my fellow students, and 2) zone out during all of my classes. Needing something to focus my energy and passion on, I went even deeper down the rabbit hole of music obsession and discovery that I’d started exploring the year before.
Not having much in common with my classmates personally, it stood to reason that I also didn’t have much in common with them musically. But when Stadium Arcadium’s May 9, 2006 release date rolled around, it was like I suddenly understood the other people at my school and they understood me. Everyone was excited for this album. The guys on the track team; the guys in my music classes; everyone in my study hall period. Hell, even my biology teacher had Jupiter spinning in her boom box before class one day. 10 years later, Stadium Arcadium remains the one and only time where everyone in my real-life circle was anticipating and experiencing the same album at the same time.
The reception that Stadium Arcadium got from everyone I was interacting with in the spring of 2006 made it pretty hard not to love it. It’s easy to hate what everyone else loves when you’ve got no skin in the game, but when everyone loves something you already love, it’s a surreal experience that makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than your own music taste. That was the case with me and this album, and it probably inflated how I felt about it for a long time. During those early days, I definitely convinced myself that there were no weak tracks among the 28 featured on Stadium Arcadium, and that it was the best double album I’d ever heard.
Of course, both of those beliefs are laughable looking back. This ain’t The River, folks, and there’s no way all 28 of these songs justify their slots on a proper album. Suffice to say that the only way songs like “C’mon Girl” and “Readymade” could ever avoid b-side fate is by ending up on a double album. (Though, this theory still doesn’t explain how a dud like “Hump de Bump” not only made the record, but also became a single.) It is not exceedingly difficult to slice 14 songs off this album and make one masterful single LP*. Furthermore, unlike with the great double albums, the excessive length of this one doesn’t really add to the character or “mission statement” of the overall record. On The River, the bloat was a way for Springsteen to make a record as big and messy as life itself; on The Beatles, it was a way for four estranged band members to essentially make their own albums and then blend them all together; on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, it was a way to make something as epic and cinematic as the cover art. Even In Your Honor used the opportunity to explore the sonic extremes of the Foo Fighters’ sound. Stadium Arcadium is pretty much a double album just for the sake of being a double album.
To be fair, there are themes that swim to the forefront here. Love, marriage, fatherhood, and family were on the minds of Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante, Chad Smith, and Flea when they wrote these songs, and those “ties that bind” define a fair handful of these songs. In particular, ballads like “Hard to Concentrate” and “She Looks to Me” show the Chili Peppers trying to make a more grown up record. But RHCP (and Kiedis in particular) have never been the most lyrical or personal songwriters, and plenty of Stadium Arcadium just doesn’t make any goddamn sense at all. “Dani California” is this album’s token “list a bunch of geographic locations and call it a song” song; “Death of a Martian” (which is actually about the death of Flea’s dog) closes out disc 2 with an utterly bizarre monologue; and the lyrics to “Especially in Michigan” are mostly just nonsense—even for someone like me who has spent most of his life living in Michigan.
Still, there’s a lot of solid songcraft on display on Stadium Arcadium. John Frusciante, who would depart the band after this record, is the MVP, delivering spectacular guitar work across the board and providing vocal harmonies that lend many of the songs an otherworldly field. But Anthony Kiedis is also at his best vocally, the melodies are frequently suburb, and the rhythm section of Flea and Chad Smith has rarely been better. The double album scope also gives the band plenty of space to explore, whether they’re taking a jazzy detour on “Hey” (arguably the album’s best song) or trying on classic pop influences in “Animal Bar.” There are a lot of great moments here, from the big hooks of “Especially in Michigan” and “Make You Feel Better” to the slow, dark build of “Wet Sand,” all the way to the breakneck pace of “So Much I.” Even big singles like “Snow” and “Tell Me Baby” are pretty exceptional as far as mid-decade mainstream rock tracks are concerned. The highlights are so good and so well-spread throughout the two discs that they almost make up for nothing songs like “Charlie,” “Torture Me,” “If, or “We Believe.”
Looking back, it’s difficult to tell exactly what Stadium Arcadium’s legacy is. It was an immensely popular record, but is perhaps not as beloved by the RHCP fanbase as Californication or Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik. It garnered a bunch of Grammy nominations and wins, but doesn’t really feel like a classic. It landed a fair handful of songs on rock radio, but doesn’t have any of the band’s signature hits. And the original vinyl edition was so highly sought after that there was a reissue earlier this year, but otherwise, the band doesn’t seem to have the following they did in 2006. I’m with You came out five years ago, but in a way, it feels older than this record for how thoroughly forgotten it’s been. What happened to Red Hot Chili Peppers and why was Stadium Arcadium seemingly their last gasp of mainstream relevance?
The confusing legacy of Stadium Arcadium is captured perfectly by the fact that one of its most-remembered facets is how the CD master sounds like absolute dogshit. Mastered by loudness war general Vlado Meller (the same guy who fired some of the first shots in that war with Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?), the original CD version of Stadium Arcadium is ridden with brickwall compression and audible instances of clipping. Some of the songs sound worse than others, like “Dani California,” where the cymbal-heavy drum parts disappear into a metallic wash of sound, or “Torture Me,” which legitimate hurts to listen to. Still, the mastering certainly adds to the belief that Stadium Arcadium hasn’t aged well, which is definitely something a lot of people would tell you. (The shit CD mastering could also have contributed to the massive popularity of the 4xLP version which was mastered by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray and which reportedly does not sound like shit.)
In 2006, Red Hot Chili Peppers were on top of the world with Stadium Arcadium. 10 years later, it’s tough to imagine a rock band getting that level of attention or exposure for any record, let alone a massive 28-song double album. Suffice to say that no one is clamoring for a 2xCD release from the Black Keys or Mumford & Sons. That point probably says more about how rock music has receded to the fringes than it does about rock music being dead. After all, artists throughout history have tended to go for the double album at the peak of their powers, and most rock bands today just aren’t powerful enough to justify that kind of arrogance or hubris. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps it’s fortunate that we live in a time when rock bands are embracing the benefits of concision rather than embracing excess. For whatever reason, though, I miss albums like this. There was an event nature to Stadium Arcadium back in 2006 that rock albums don’t have anymore. It felt larger-than-life. When I’m with You came out in 2011, it felt as small as the fly pictured on the cover. Again, I don’t know what that dichotomy means, but it sure makes me appreciate this album a lot more.
My 14-track single-disc tracklist for Stadium Arcadium is as follows.
- Especially in Michigan
- Snow (Hey Oh)
- Desecration Smile
- Tell Me Baby
- Make You Feel Better
- Dani California
- Stadium Arcadium
- She’s Only 18
- Animal Bar
- Hard to Concentrate
- Wet Sand
- So Much I
- Death of a Martian