Double albums are tricky business. They are the ultimate in rock-n-roll excess; even Pink Floyd's The Wall or the Beatles' self-titled albums are weighed down by their own ambition. More recent examples, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Stadium Arcadium or the Flaming Lips' Embryonic feel as if they would have fared better as just one album. Dirty Beaches' Alex Zhang Hungtai attempts to overcome this problem by releasing a double album composed of two separate albums that are distinct in their tone, style, and subject matter. Drifters/Love is the Devil has more in common with Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below than Dylan's Blonde on Blonde; both Drifters and Love is the Devil stand on their own, but together, they tell one singular story.
What if David Bowie traveled to the underbelly of Bangkok to record his Berlin triptych? The most easily accessible of the two discs, Drifters is marked by its recursive bass lines, 90's drum machines, and Hungtai's desperate howls. And while this might be the best place to start listening to this record, it eschews most of the structure and sound of traditional music today. The audio mix on Drifters doesn't offer many highs or lows; it sounds like it's been recorded from a cassette (fitting, as many of Hungtai's releases pre-2011 were cassette-only). "ELLI" is the only track with anything really resembling a chorus, and even then, it doesn't stand well on its own. This record is best experienced (and yes, I know this is going to sound snotty) as a whole. "Aurevoir Mon Visage" finds Hungtai shouting in French over a minimalist rhythm (similar in sound to The Books), and "Mirage Hall" is a nearly 10-minute trip into abstraction. You can focus in on any of these tracks, but they work best when you let them play themselves out, like the soundtrack to a movie that was lost somewhere in the passage of time.
Love is the Devil was written after the collapse of Hungtai's long-term relationship. Recorded in the wee hours of the morning when the studio was empty, it would be an understatement to call this a "break-up" record. Break-up records are easy to come by: Sea Change by Beck, Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair, or even the recent Damage by Jimmy Eat World. Love is the Devil, on the other hand, barely contains a single lyric in favor of impressionistic instrumentation. Hungtai barely utters a word on these 8 tracks (a few moans in "Like the Ocean We Part"), but loneliness, confusion, and grief clouds every moment. Musically, it's similar to the work of David Lynch's long-time collaborator Angelo Badalamenti; these songs would fit right in with an episode of Twin Peaks or a silent moment in Mulholland Drive. Mostly composed on old synthesizers and keyboards, the musical palette here is mostly pretty muted, but Hungtai is able to explore these sounds fully. When a guitar makes an appearance on "Alone at the Danube River," it's just heartbreaking.
Dirty Beaches' Drifters/Love is the Devil is an exercise in duality. The music here is instantly recognizable, but startlingly unfamiliar; Hungtai's voice is sad and mournful, but primal and desperate; these compositions feel both claustrophobic and menacingly minimal. If Drifters and Love is the Devil were released separately, they wouldn't have nearly the impact that they do released together. Sure, each of them stand on their own, but they complement each other in a way that is hard to put into words. This double-album isn't just a collection of songs - it's a place that you can find yourself in. This is a place where steam billows out of the sewer grating, where there are many people but all of them alone, where you think and see in neon flashing lights. Dirty Beaches has created a scary and confused world, but once you visit, you can't help yourself from returning to it once again.