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Long songs slated for extinction?

Neil Young's latest album has two epics clocking in at 14 and 18 minutes respectively. But as the music industry moves back toward a single-dominated world of digital downloads, long songs might become a relic.

Jello Biafra likes short songs, but there's an undeniable pleasure in long songs. "Hey Jude" (7:11) was groundbreaking at the time, especially for a 45rpm single, but it's really a typical three-minute Beatles song with a four-minute outro. To me, the first true rock epic was Pink Floyd's 1971 opus "Echoes" (23:25). Unlike their 1970 record-breaker, "Atom Heart Mother" (23:44), which was four instrumental sections stitched together into a single track, "Echoes" was a real unified song with a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure--along with a really long instrumental mid-section including several minutes of whale sounds. Like all great long songs, the individual parts seem relevant and necessary to the whole, although the funk jam/guitar solo that precedes the whale sounds is a bit overdone and could be used as a bathroom break.

Rick Wakeman eat your heart out: Neil Young's latest studio album has two tracks that top 14 minutes.

Instrumental "post rock" bands like Tortoise, Sigur Ros, and Godspeed You Black Emperor specialize in 10-minute-plus epics, and Fantomas purposely tracked their 2004 album Delirium Cordia as a single 74-minute track, although it consists almost entirely of broken fragmented bits of music (as all Fantomas albums do), plus a 15-minute outro of near-silence.

I picked up Neil Young's latest studio CD, Chrome Dreams II, for a bargain price a couple weeks ago in New York, and finally sat down to give it a straight through attentive listen last night. It's a mixed bag--I liked it a lot better than Pitchfork did, but I'm a big fan of his mid-'70s and early-'90s stuff, which this resembles. But the reason I bought it was the long songs. Neil's never been afraid of stretching a song out to six, seven, even ten minutes, but this one has two all-time stemwinders on it: "No Hidden Path" at 14:26 and "Ordinary People," which clocks in at a Neil-record 18:12. Neither is as strong as his last epic, 1994's "Change Your Mind" (14:39)--the long bent guitar note in the middle of that song is the pivotal point where the entire album (the excellent Sleeps with Angels) changes. But both of the new epics have a nice effect--they're slow and repetitive enough to have a hypnotic or meditative effect, but varying enough to capture your continuing attention. In this random-shuffle quick-twitch short-attention-span world, it's nice to sit in one place and just listen to somebody perform variations on the same theme for fifteen or twenty minutes.

Unfortunately, the music industry is inevitably moving back to a singles-driven business model, enabled by iTunes and other download services, which allow users to buy only the songs they know they like. I'm as guilty as any fan--whenever a long song comes up on random shuffle, I almost always skip to the next track. Long songs just don't fit into the shuffle paradigm--I want to be surprised, to have my mood shifted rapidly between heavy metal and 70's R&B, not sit down and listen to an artistic statement from start to finish. (I collect records for that.)

In this world, I wonder how many artists will feel encouraged to stretch a song beyond the typical three-to-five minutes that most listeners will tolerate in the middle of a playlist. It's sad, but apart from live jams, the long rock epic is probably as dated as a wanking guitar solo and paisley. Of course, there's always classical music.