How long is a piece of string? As long as a pop song? What’s that? 3 minutes 30 seconds? So many of the songs we love are sweet in their shortness – sugar rushes, warm showers or vinegar splashes that are over in a flash. Suits radio and the length of a 45rpm single. Breaks up all the advertisements, though that distinction’s harder to make now with songs being ads, and ads being songs. The dot moves on the grey itunes bar. Time slides along.
Brevity lends a particular challenge to the lyricist, composer and musician alike, and its a constraint I’ve serviced with every song I’ve written. Less is more. Don’t repeat it. Cut the extra bits off. No long instrumentals. Napalm Death’s You Suffer says all it needs to say in 1.316 seconds. Click the link. Have a look. You’ll probably have time. The internet keeps us busy with 30-second previews that we get bored in the middle of. But as a listener I’m also interested in songs that go further.
The loose criteria by which I’ve chosen these tracks (and excluded others) is more about how lyrics are given time to breathe. How musical arrangements emerge and intertwine rather than launch towards you in squadrons like council buses don’t. All these tunes possess a quality of flowing-past-ness. They play with time. Not idly. They take their time, while smoothing, compressing or extending the listener’s experience of the song, and reveal themselves slowly.
But it’s not all easy listening.
Initially coming across as 80’s synth-pop also-rans, Talk Talk, by the end of their career had abandoned traditional pop structures in favour of lengthy, meditative pieces that pushed sonic and songwriting boundaries. Much loved by critics but much less so by their record company, 1991’s Laughing Stock was their last record, and it’s deep and mysterious. New Grass (9:40) is one of my favourite songs in the universe. It’s long, beautiful, and only makes its own kind of sense, which I reckon is kind of like life itself.
Martin Rossiter fronted a band called Gene, who were lumped in with Britpop in the 1990’s but they were better than that. Often compared with the Smiths, there’s a romantic similarity in what they do, but they had a distinct voice as a band which is best summed up in their song Olympian, with its extended playout. He’s just released his first solo album, The Defenestration of St Martin. It’s a remarkable work which takes the radical step of focussing almost entirely on piano and vocal. It opens with Three Points on a Compass (10:09), a gorgeously sad exorcism that’s up there with I Know it’s Over.
Small Hours (8:46) by John Martyn appeared on his album One World. Generally I prefer his more straightforward earlier stuff, but this is a pretty remarkable tune. apparently it was recorded outdoors in the English countryside near a lake, which explains some of the ambient sounds of water and birdlife. Unless there was a passing synthesiser player, there’s no excuse for some of the noodling on the album version. If you can forgive the sozzled seventies sexiness, which just comes with the territory, this live version focuses on Martyn’s live performance, using volume swells and Echoplex delay.
Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row (11:19), Hurricane (8:32) or Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (11:16) will give you a slow-cooked value for money in the age of the download. They’re brilliant, but crowded. Why not risk exposing a very few phrases, surround them with space and see how little you can change. There’s poetry in that.
Based in Sheffield in the UK, Richard Hawley’s OK with letting his songs stretch out on the couch, turning their pages slowly. Remorse Code (9:52) flows gently past like a river, and contains a swooning guitar solo that’s so good it’s played twice, and it’s equally welcome both times.
Scotland’s Trashcan Sinatras are a stunning band, a literate, sensitive group weaving guitars and words in a way that’s never going to go out of fashion, because it transcends fashion. Oranges and Apples (6:41) is apparently a tribute to the dazed savant Syd Barrett but I read it as a celebration of all creative souls who see the world differently and find the sublime in the mundane.
In terms of instrumentals, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away and It Doesn’t Matter (11:47) should be included on the strength of its title alone. Explosions in the Sky’s Your Hand in Mine (8:17) is a sweet introduction to their rivulets of guitar interplay, and bludgeoning martial drums. Amazing live. Sigur Ros are great too, but I’ve heard too many drama students and TV promos use their tunes to make mundane stuff seem a bit grand.
The Necks long, improvised instrumental pieces are often over 30 minutes long and they’re lovely, as the multiple and shifting relationships between the players and the played are played out.
Mark Kozelek’s Red House Painters were capable of stretching their limpid, languid songs into soft acoustic landscapes, at times slashed with clouds of distortion. Have You Forgotten (8:38) dwells in its details, the song addressing a friend who needs advice…a lot of it. A majestic melancholy suffuses all his work. He’s even made AC/DC songs sound poignant. In his solo incarnation Sun Kil Moon (named after a Korean boxer) he’s not afraid to allow his gorgeous songs to take the time they take.
Sometimes it’s about minimalism, at others about bringing new strata of sound to bear on the body of a song. See how you find Lost Verses. (9:43)
In live performance, or music-alone in the studio, a long song draws the writer, performer and listener into a different relationship with time, given time. It’s about what’s refrained from, and what becomes a refrain.
Life’s too short to not listen to a long song every now and then.