Thursday, May 15, 2008

Long Songs

This is a post about giving people what they want in musical form.

Most hardcore bands can't write any song over four minutes without feeling that they have achieved "epic" status, with all the trappings of a sword and sandals film: long boring stretches, needless ornamentation, pretentiousness, cellos, overtures, spoken-word sections, etc. It is moronic. Compare with the metal band Darkthrone, who probably have never written a song under four minutes, but who don't bother to fill up that time with any trappings or even more than a couple of riffs. Which is to say, the punk motivation for writing a long song has never been clear to me, as punk is so devoid of emotional content and dynamics (the elements which power Meat Loaf through all of his long songs). 

Tragedy understand this perfectly. None of the songs on their last album are over 3:30. 

On their last album, Fucked Up had nine songs over five minutes (compared with, say, four on the Wu-Tang album 36 Chambers). In retrospect, the problem with Hidden World is not the length of the songs, but that it is hard to remember *either* differences between the songs, or different parts within any given song. That sounds like a crippling problem, but that the record succeeds at all given this sameness is quite an accomplishment. Over an hour of mid-tempo, strumming hardcore should be way worse than this. I credit the proliferation of "neat parts" and the band's refusal of boring intros (rather, they tend to stretch out the conclusion of a song, once your interest is already held). 

In contrast, I give you the monumentally boring diptych Guns and Roses released in 1991, Use Your Illusion I & II. These records are a real mess. But there are some real gems, almost all of them incredibly long, Zeppelin-esque monsters that truly pay their way: "November Rain" and "Estranged" being the best examples. Unlike Fucked Up's songs, you can tell right away "oh, this is not going to end for a while"---orchestration, pianos, no verse-chorus structure, guitar solos early and often. 

I want to really draw your attention to these songs, though. They are long and boring, but they earn it with HUGE parts. On the album as a whole, Guns and Roses are excessive and  over-indulgent, but one's patience is very much repaid when they succeed. The show-stopper moments in "November Rain" and "Estranged" are not mild pleasures--these are hooks big enough to hang a buffalo on. 

It sounds like this will end up with me saying that bands should "stick to what they are good at" (punk bands to short songs, bands with big pretensions to long songs), but really that is such a false distinction. That is why I introduced Fucked Up earlier. THEY ARE NOT GOOD AT WRITING LONG SONGS. Their album is just a bunch of short songs stretched out. And it's not a problem at all, because those songs are good. 

Many are familiar with Nietzsche's idea of the eternal return. Let me phrase it this way: would you rather spend your life listening (over and over) to a mediocre set of four two-minute hardcore songs, or one 9-minute monster with a lot of cool parts? 

It is harder and more worthwhile to try to write one good 8 minute song than it is to write a 2 minute song. If you can't do it (like Fucked Up), fake it. You'll impress people. If you genuinely can't do it, your 2-minute songs probably aren't so hot anyways. Or, I dunno---string a bunch of short songs together, like The Who and The Beatles, and pretend they are a "suite." But I don't go for this low-stakes business. (The real enemy of this post is Jay Reatard.) 

I also love short songs. But the pleasures should not be of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety. Give me something "to be intense upon" (Keats). Once you've done that, I'll forgive any  amount of cello.

Or let me be *very* blunt: why don't we measure our enjoyment of music by how much pleasure it gives us? This post would be proposing a pleasure-per-minute ratio that would judge very harshly a great deal of music that, by other standards, has a lot of capital or allegedly succeeds (though without giving pleasure).

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