Long songs are like suspension bridges. If there’s not enough support they collapse into troubled waters, taking with them everyone on board.
But if the cords manage to hold and the concept and engineering is strong enough, the bridge delivers its travelers safely to the other side.
Songs that indulge in themselves must be engrossing enough to the listener as to dispel the feeling that the listener is wasting precious time crossing a bridge to nowhere. They must make a connection to the listener, through storytelling, relatable experiences or stirring riffs and chords. Sometimes one of these is enough and sometimes it takes all three.
This primarily applies to rock songs ranging from seven minutes and longer. Since most jazz and classical works rely on movements and improvisation, they’ll have to wait in traffic until this column is over. There’s no way to establish movements or improvise without taking your time, but things could easily fall apart just as well.
Storytelling, the simplest of these three methods, captures the audience using narrative suspense like in Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” or George Thorogood’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” Everyone enjoys a good story and if the tale draws us in, we usually find out what happens in the end.
Other artists use powerful phrasing and relatable sentiments to hold attention for long stretches. My Morning Jacket’s “I Will Sing You Songs” and Yes’ near 19 minute opus “Close to the Edge” achieve this effect quite well.
But it’s most impressive when these two techniques are combined with a display of sheer musicality. When the melodies are memorable and the riffs are rockin, no one will want to tap the right double arrow.
Examples include Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” Yo La Tengo’s “Night Falls on Hoboken” and, of course, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
Sometimes musicians cheat a little bit and stitch two compositions together into one long track like Elton John’s “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” But whatever you call it, the changeup is effective at shaking off boredom and listener fatigue, a pitfall to song length.
It’s difficult to recall specific songs that fall apart after a certain point, probably because culture forgets them or they lack inventiveness. But it would be accurate to say that sometimes boring riffs go on for too long and lyrics sound uninteresting and soulless at a certain point (“Revolution 9”). Not every song has to be as long as Sufjan Stevens’ 25 minute album closer “Impossible Soul.” I would prefer if they weren’t.
But long songs tend to be worth the effort, even if some might bring wasted time. They have more space to convey a moving atmosphere and make a sonic connection.
It’s all about staying in the slow lane of that suspension bridge and enjoying the scenic view. It’ll distract you long enough to realize that you’re already on the other side.