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The Best Songs Are Really Long

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By Jack McLoone

I’ve always been a fan of long books. When I was in second grade, I started reading “Harry Potter” (at least, what was released by then) for the first time. The only book I read for pleasure my freshman year at Fordham was the unedited version of Stephen King’s “The Stand”, which clocks in at well over 1000 pages. By seemingly lasting forever, I don’t have to leave those worlds that sucked me in.

In the same way, I’m not sure there’s much better than a well-crafted long song. But like a Stephen King book, it needs to be long for the right reasons – I’m looking at you, “11/22/63”. A long song needs to have interconnected movements and to be more than just a couple of songs mashed together as one track for whatever reason, or just one with an overly long outro. The worst outro offender is Kanye West’s “Runaway,” which is a great song, but the full auto-tune outro lasts about two minutes too long.

My first time loving a long song was “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” the closing track from Kendrick Lamar’s good kidd, m.A.A.d. city. The whole concept of the song, like the album itself, is telling the story of people lost to the Compton streets. In the first portion of the song, he tells the story of a man who shot and killed a prostitute and then himself. In the second half – the “Dying of Thirst” portion – he posits that religion could be the way out for people trapped in the eternal loop of his portrayal of Compton. While these could be two separate songs, they need to play in immediate succession, because the latter is the answer for the former. And by stretching the song to over 12 minutes long, Kendrick walks around in this story, wrapping up the album with the help of a closing skit featuring Maya Angelou. By going that long, you get one last look at Kendrick’s Compton, one last window into what shaped him and the cycle he hopes to help break.

Another plus of living in long songs is when the evolution over the seven plus minutes are as much the point as the lyrics and notes themselves. Take “Atrophy” by The Antlers off their album Hospice. Part of the longer concept of the album, the song itself slowly atrophies until distorting heavily around the midway point, symbolizing the mental break of the protagonist of the album. It lasts for a couple minutes before breaking into a haunting acoustic guitar-accompanied epilogue, showing that he has snapped as well. It’s an emotional high point of an already emotional album, so poignant that it has a role in the reprise at the end.

While “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” may have been my first long song love, and “Atrophy” one of the cooler ones, my absolute favorite is Television’s “Marquee Moon” off the album of the same name.

I’ll be completely honest, I was ignorant of Television until the spring of last year, when I saw a long conversation on Twitter about how the album might be one of the best rock albums of all time. I was skeptical, and after listening it turned out I was wrong to be skeptical.

Around the 4:30 mark, a guitar-driven instrumental starts. Around either seven hours or five minutes or never later, it ends with the lead singer, Tom Verlaine, singing “I remember how the darkness doubled.” That is what the proceeding five minutes consisted of, but not in a negative way. It was a welcoming darkness, the kind of darkness you get at night when it’s more freeing than claustrophobic, where you allow yourself five minutes to just feel about.

That’s what happens when you push past the maybe five-minute boundary of song length. It’s where you get sonic journeys like “Marquee Moon” and Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids,” the emotion of “Atrophy” and Manchester Orchestra’s “Leaky Breaks” or the story-telling of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and Telethon’s “Wrung.”
Long live long songs and the long stories they tell.

American indie rock band, The Antlers, released their album Hospice in March 2009. (Courtesy of Facebook)

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The Best Songs Are Really Long