In Praise of Long-Ass Songs
If brevity’s the soul of wit, where does that leave longevity? Especially in the world of modern music, length has ended up too closely conflated with long-windedness. Pop songs are slimmed down to fighting weight before they’re loosed on the radio — chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and get outta there before you’ve overstayed your welcome. On her late sitcom The Mindy Project, extremely funny gal Mindy Kaling definitively declared, “Songs should be three minutes long and Nicki Minaj raps in the middle.”
Correct as she may be about that second part, someone’s gotta show some love for the musical epic, those songs that lure you in and maintain their hold for what feels like forever. Songs with hefty run-times evoke images of noodling rockers and brittle coots dragging listeners along on belabored prog odysseys. But there’s no signpost at the ten-minute mark warning listeners “Beyond Here Lies Indulgent Artistry,” trust me.
Below, I’ve laid out a mixtape made up of my favorite long-ass masterpieces. The rules were simple; I chose ten minutes as my arbitrary cutoff, and automatically disqualified all songs made up of smaller mini-songs.#
For the next 58 minutes and 17 seconds, allow yourself to get lost in the following five great long-ass songs:
Sufjan Stevens – “You Are The Blood”
For the grand centerpiece of Dark Was The Night, 4AD and the Red Hot Organization’s benefit album to fund AIDS research and prevention, Sufjan Stevens decided to leave the banjo at home and take a different sort of approach. He hand-picked a sparse single from Asthmatic Kitty labelmate Castanets’ catalog, surgically removed the beat and trudging central melody, and went to work cramming the source material’s open spaces to full-to-bursting with every sound he could get his paws on.
Bucking all homespun expectations, Sufjan opens with a markedly un-Sufjan electro breakdown before throwing the kitchen sink on the track. Everybody’s welcome to march in this creeping dirge. If Sufjan had initially had naming privileges, the song would’ve probably ended up somewhere closer to “Come Along Rock Guitars And Industrial Synths And French Horns, Sufjan Stevens Invites You To Freak out For A Good Cause!”
Suicide – “Frankie Teardrop”
Not all unusually long songs envelop their listeners in a sweeping, gorgeous soundscape. As seminal electro-punk act Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” runs on, it closes in on the listener. Every time it seems as if things have hit rock bottom for poor, poor Frankie, the song lurches into its next movement and grows darker and more claustrophobic, culminating in a far-too-realistic descent into hell.#
Martin Rev’s dissonant tape loops and Alan Vega’s ear-perforating screams are such stuff as nightmares are made of. When he whimpers, “We’re all lying in hell,” that especially includes the listener.
Krautrock – “Faust”
A quick primer from Ph.D of Musicology, Professor Spent-Too-Much-Of-His-Adolescence-Indoors: The term “krautrock” was initially coined as a playful pejorative by music press in the U.K., used to refer to the strain of music coming out of Germany during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Characterized by complex rhythmic patterns and psychedelia refracted through lenses as diverse as free jazz and art-rock, krautrock gained in popularity on the success of bands like Can and Tangerine Dream.#
Esoteric mumbo-jumbo aside, krautrock (the song and the movement) is defined by structure and chaos. The first seven minutes of the track undulate closer to and farther from the listener, approaching and receding in an artificial doppler effect. Just as soon as the drones begin to settle and the listener gains a foothold in the amorphous swirl, the chaos coheres to structure with the introduction of the drumbeat. The song snaps to attention with the driving percussion, while the guitars continue to wail above it all. It can make every walk feel like you’re walking into your boss’ office to quit a job you hate.
Panda Bear – “Bro’s”
“Hoo,” says the owl. “Hoo.” It begins with the simplicity of a children’s picture book, and after he’s allowed you a few seconds to get your bearings, Animal Collective frontman Panda Bear instantaneously creates an entire universe made purely of good vibes in “Bro’s”. With waves of effects-laden guitars that redefine “jangly,” that favored critical adjective, Noah Lennox nests patterns within patterns. The guitars swallow themselves up like an ouroboros, cutting up the Beach Boys’ mini-Wall of Sound into a wonder of repetition capable of putting the formal rigor of hard house to shame.
I’ve heard this song dozens upon dozens of times, and still couldn’t string three of Panda Bear’s lyrics together. I’m not entirely convinced he’s even forming words. His voice is just another instrument beatifically floating through the mix.
Steve Reich – “Come Out”
“I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” There you go. That’s the song. That little snippet of dialogue is the only brick that mad genius composer Steve Reich needed to build his modern Tower of Babel. He plays it for you once, then again, and then one more time for good measure. Then he sets his kaleidoscopic machine in motion, taking a simple noise to unimaginable sonic spaces through simple two-track phase shifting. Until you’ve settled into the rhythm, it feels like a close sonic approximation of what it must be like to go insane. But after a couple minutes, the echoes and half-spoken words mutate into breathtaking new instruments with the ability to create music once thought impossible.
The term “semantic satiation” refers to that weird sensation where words break down and lose their meaning after extended repetition, dissolving into noise. # That point, at the end of rationality and meaning — for Steve Reich, that’s square one.
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