The Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” is not a 10-minute song. It’s not even close (which we’ll define here as 8:50:00 and above). But for a band that has only broken the six minute mark once in its previous three albums (“In The Backseat” off their debut, Funeral), eclipsing their previous longest work by almost a third is a big jump.
Then you read the producer credits, James Murphy is involved, and everything makes sense.
Murphy today got a round of press for his work on a remix of David Bowie’s “Love is Lost” (SoundCloud, not embeddable) that takes a four-minute song and stretches it out into a 10-minute epic. It is, unsurprisingly, fantastic and already having praise heaped all over it by every imaginable music blog. And as justified as all that spilled ink is, we’re missing the larger point here—Murphy is the greatest long songwriter (8:50:00 and above) in history. (Settle down, “Hey Jude” is only seven minutes long).
Here are a few parameters: let’s focus on songs at the lengths noted above and exclude things like classic music, jazz, remixes and live recordings (all of which are prone to longer songs than what you hear on the radio, on any music blog, during most roadtrips, etc.). And to even qualify in the discussion, you should have at least two songs of this length to be considered. That caveat actually cuts out some musicians you’d immediately bring up—Peter Frampton only has “Do You Feel Like I Do” for instance—and a handful of modern ones with at least one song that meets the requirements (pleasant surprises from Foxygen for instance). Even a handful of jambands you’d assume dominate this category (Phish, Dave Matthews) don’t do this stuff on record.
Spotify is an imperfect system (for instance, my local music library clearly shows Led Zeppelin qualifies with “Moby Dick” and “Achilles Last Stand,” but they aren’t on Spotify). It’s hard to search for songs beyond the scope of a single artist, so this list was compiled by searching a local 30 GB music library first and then Spotify’ing a handful of the artists that immediately came to mind (your classic rock bands like Rush, your modern haze masters like Kurt Vile). It’s incomplete and can (and will) be updated when artists are brought up.
But looking at the initial playlist, it’s not even close. Murphy is responsible for six songs above 8:50:00 on his discography and there are some near-miss jams (“Hit,” “On Repeat” and “Pow Pow” are all above eight minutes but below 8:50:00) that had to be included just for listening’s sake. Only one artist came in with four (Sufjan Stevens) and another had three (The Decemberists) songs of this length.
In terms of quality, qualitatively there’s no argument you can make to me. Quantitatively is a bit harder, but using some readily available imperfect metrics:
|Artist||Song||YouTube views||Spotify ranking|
|LCD||Freak Out/Starry Eyes||19,525||4/12|
|LCD||Yr City’s A Sucker||32,861||4/12|
|LCD||You Wanted A Hit||N/A||7/12|
|LCD||Dance Yrself Clean||2,638,830||8/12|
|Decemberists||Crane Wife 1&2||271,105||5/12|
|Decemberists||California 1/Youth & Beauty||127,307||5/12|
|Sufjan||All Delighted People||22,434||5/12|
|Sufjan||Oh God, Where Are You Now?||16,068||4/12|
*YouTube views and Spotify rating counted as of 10/10/2013. YouTube views come from official video unless unavailable—then it’s the highest total from the first three Google search hits.
On this chart, Murphy has the only two songs rated above 5/12 in terms of Spotify popularity (view an artist’s page to see it out of 12, on search it’s out of more actually). He’s got the overall winner in YouTube views by way more than 100 percent and two of the top five overall YouTube’d songs of this length. These particular metrics likely have a recency bias and a populous slant, but at least when comparing Murphy to Colin Meloy or Sufjan Stevens they’re likely sharing large swaths of audience.
So today’s “Love is Lost” remix is only the latest example. In the audio, there are actual snippets of an interview with Murphy at the start. He mentions how he never uses samples (so it’s a “remix” but he laid down new instrumental tracks) and that this was born out of an idea. He got so excited about figuring out the instrument voicing for a part of Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” that he spun it off into its own beat/melody.
Here lies the heart of his long song brilliance. When you’re dealing with engaging a listener for this amount of time, things have to stay interesting. There must be multiple sonic ideas that you can link together through bridges or unite overall with a repeated phrase that gets deconstructed and passed around. Listen to the five minute mark of “Love is Lost” (lyrics start with “Say goodbye, to the thrills of life…”) and you get a glimpse at Murphy’s uncanny ability to do this. He’s got the composition abilities of a classic musician crossed with the beat sensibilities of the Pitchfork era. No one else crafts these extended grooves that you can get blissfully lost in for so long. Murphy’s lengthy tracks would also be worse off if he shorten them, because a listener would lose all the intricate subtleties he layers while building towards climaxes that make anyone move.
It’s not easy to write music of this length, especially now (Kanye has only done is twice, JT the same and only within the last year). No one wants to listen to some nobody’s 12-minute track on Stereogum—give me something that’s shorter that can go into a playlist, or I’ll opt for podcasts instead for work listening. But Murphy’s output speaks for itself and he’s the clear exception. So if you’re going to try to up the difficulty by stretching out to 10 minutes, follow the leads of Bowie or the Arcade Fire. There’s only one man to turn to.