"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
Though the death of the album format has been talked up ever since digital files became the dominating medium for listening to music, recently there has been a proliferation full-length releases that are both critically acclaimed and super duper long. Over the past months, albums by Kendrick Lamar, Titus Andronicus, Tenement and Kamasi Washington have all run near or well over the 80-minute mark. And sure it's great to have challenging and ambitious musical works to contend with, the reality is, do we really have time for this?
To try to understand the motivation for artists to make these extra long releases and what expectations they put upon listeners, Ducker spoke with Mark Richardson, the editor-in-chief of Pitchfork.
To baseline this conversation, how are you usually listening to music these days?
I spend a lot of time listening to albums, not necessarily start to finish, but jumping in at a point and letting them play a while. I am in a somewhat unusual situation because I have to listen to a lot of albums for work. I keep a few playlists on my iPhone of just songs I love and pop that on regularly. At home, when I listen to music for pleasure, I tend to listen to my records, which is generally older stuff. But I am pretty album-focused person.
Do you feel like that approach makes you an anomaly among modern music listeners?
To some degree yes. I tend to differentiate between hardcore music people, who follow music closely and really pay attention to music as a separate area of culture, and people who like music but mostly like to "have something on." That is one reason why things like Pandora have been so successful, because they fill the very real need for background music, for something where you can just hit play and enjoy it and not need to think about what is next.
As an album oriented-listener — and beyond that, a very specialized listener who is evaluating the music as part of your job — when you get an album that has 70-minute or so running time, does that present itself as something exciting or a chore?
In general, my immediate response is skepticism, and I worry that it will be a chore. I get excited when I see an album that is 38 minutes or something, and I think, "They really pared it down to the best stuff." When I see 70 minutes, I start to wonder how often I will be hearing the back half.
Do those albums seem to be a case of over-indulgence or indecisiveness?
I think less in terms of indulgence and more in terms of editing and indecisiveness — there is something to be said for trimming things back and leaving the music with the most force. Every good band should be allowed a White Album, where everything is kind of tossed in there, but those should really only come every five albums or so, and it should really be when an artist is at the peak of their power.
Are your initial feelings usually confirmed when you actually do listen to these extra long albums?
In most cases, yes. One long record from this year that does justify its length is Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. When I have listened to that heavily, I did find it very well structured and easy to absorb in long sections, and nothing really struck me as filler. But the more-than-65-minute album that justifies its length is pretty rare.
When you listen to To Pimp a Butterfly now, several months after its release, are you still going front-to-back, or are you skipping around?
Not so much skipping around, but I do tend to listen in chunks. I have gotten used to the flow of the album. So I might start with "Alright" and then listen for 15 minutes or so. I haven't heard it all start-to-finish in a few months for sure.
A few of the more notable releases of the past few months have had these long run times: Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Tenement and Titus Andronicus, for example. All those albums seem to be using their lengths as a way to say: This should be an active listening experience. Is that a fair thing to ask of listeners? And is it a presumptive statement to make?
Yeah it's interesting to think about the different ways that album length has evolved over time. For most of history in the album era, it was defined by format — first the 45 minutes or so of an LP, then the 80 minutes of a CD. In the LP era, you really had to justify the additional expense of production and the fact that you'd have to charge more. With CDs, that was no longer an issue, and in the '90s in particular you had some people feeling "ripped off" if an album only had 45 minutes of music, so in some cases artists would put on CD-only bonus tracks to make it seem like they were making the most of the format. But then of course file sharing and digital files changed all that, and suddenly, you could have albums be as long or short as you wanted very easily. There was an initial trend toward shorter releases, experimenting with a four-song or eight-song release, like the mini-albums Robyn released in the run-up to Body Talk.
But the longer albums now, in a lot of cases, and especially in all of these cases you mentioned, is a way to say, "This is important. You are going to have to spend time with this." It's a little harder to make an "event" out of a release if it's 35 minutes long. The initial feeing is, "This is all I could do." Whereas these [long] releases convey the idea of sprawling masterpieces, and by extension, they are presented as demanding art. I do think that, even though artists want to say, "This should be taken whole," in the vast majority of cases the albums are rarely ever experienced that way. It's a little bit of a thing where artists present the work this way and the listeners kind of play along, and may even pay lip service to the idea, but probably the truth of it is that people are picking and choosing.
Do you think in the back of their heads (or the conscious front) the artists know that picking and choosing is how people are going to really listen to their albums and that the length is a way to construct a narrative or perception around the album to get it attention?
They probably do, if only because they are also music listeners, and I would guess most of them experience a lot of the music they listen to that way. This reminds me a little bit of a quote I liked from an article on Jim O'Rourke in the New York Times, explaining why he didn't like releasing his music in digital formats (he only did so with his Drag City albums very recently), and that is he didn't like giving up control over the context of how the album was heard: "You can no longer use context as part of your work because it doesn't matter what you do, somebody's going to change the context of it. ... It sounds like old-man stuff, but I think it's disastrous for the possibilities of any art form." For him, it was important to have some input for how the records were actually listened to, and he presumably thought that by not offering mp3 downloads, he could avoid the skipping around so common on computers and the iPod. But O'Rourke is probably an exception in this regard, and for most artists, they must have some idea of how fragmented time is for most people. And of course when it comes to song-based stuff, O'Rourke is very efficient, his albums clock in at 38 to 45 minutes or so.
How can artists express the idea that a shorter album can be an active listening experience and not just a passive one?
This makes me think about length in other mediums, particularly fiction and film. The director's cut is almost always longer (a famous exception to that is Blood Simple, which the Coen Brothers later made a few minutes shorter), and long books tend to signify "importance," right or wrong. The artist is asking for an investment, and the audience in turn expects more from them. So I'm not sure if artists who favor brevity necessarily need to send a message to audiences that is, in effect, "Take this seriously," because listening to a shorter work doesn't require as much time.
You referenced Robyn's embrace of the EP and disinterest in the album. She's continued on that path with her recent collaborative releases. Do you think her music is particularly suited to this approach or is it something more artists should think about?
She seems to have kind of mastered this form and somehow she makes a record seem like an event even when it's brief. That's partly because she takes her time and seems to plan out a series of shorter releases over a fixed period of time. If they came like clockwork every six months I'm not sure if it would still work, but the fact that she took a couple of years off gets people excited for a new slew of material. She really is making it work and seems like an artist that others could come to emulate.
It's their right for their albums to be as long as they want them to be, but do you think musicians should be more mindful of what listeners are legitimately able to handle right now? Going back to your film comparison, I pretty much don't watch summer action blockbusters any more (except Mad Max: Fury Road) because they've all become bloated past the two-hour mark and I literally don't have time in my life to go out and see them.
Going forward smart artists will be thinking about how albums fit into people's lives, how they actually use them, and will tailor them so their audience really does get to experience them the way the artist intends. For some of these longer records that probably rarely happens, that they are listened to how the artist hopes. The Titus Andronicus record is good example; there is a lot I really like on it, but every time I put it on, I thought about how it seemed to go on forever, and the onus was on me to try and wade through and figure out how to create some shape out of it. I wound up returning to it less frequently for that reason. But I think there is a certain amount of vanity that goes into these huge epics that probably won't go away, it's probably the same thing that drives certain writers to write 700-page books. When records are really long, it's almost always because the artist is thinking about their own needs rather than how it's going to be received.
Well, now we're getting into a more theoretical argument (which is good!). Should music be consumer-based or should it be in service of the musician being able to purely express their artistic vision? And that question is complicated by the idea that "no one buys music any more."
That varies quite a bit based on the expectations of the genre and the sphere in which the artist is working. For a lot of pop music, and for people making pop music, if the album fails to resonate with people in a big way it's considered a failure, period. But for artists who are working on a smaller scale where there may be less at stake, they probably think in a different way. For the Titus record, for example, I feel like that was designed for Titus fans. It wasn't necessarily going to bring anyone new into the fold for the band, and a whole lot of listeners were going to be put off by hearing that style of music for 90 minutes straight, but for people who were already Titus fans, they probably ate it up. So that record was clearly made knowing that its appeal would be somewhat limited.
But a big pop artist, part of the way you measure artistic success is that the album is appreciated by a whole lot of people in a really broad way. I was looking at some other really long albums from this year, and another one that is very good but runs over 90 minutes is Prurient's Frozen Niagara Falls. That's a kind of dark electronic noise record that is often song-based, but the audience will inevitably be pretty small. Same thing with the Kamasi Washington record, ultimately, though he was smart there by breaking it into three pieces, which makes it feel more like three albums that you could listen to in 40-minute setting (which reminded me of the last Joanna Newsome record in that way).
You don't get to be a big pop artist by ignoring what people want. Yeezus — a short and tight album, but also a challenging one sonically — didn't sell great by the standards of how big a star Kanye West is, and I'm sure that bothered him, but at the same time, that is the music he wanted to make, he wants to challenge himself. I kind of contradict myself there, but I think there are two equally valid ways to look at it!
The Titus album is weird because it's clear that bandleader Patrick Stickles absolutely wants listeners to listen to it all the way through and to understand exactly what is going on within it, but then makes artistic choices that almost challenge you like, "I bet you want to turn this off or skip this track right now." Which I guess is something you can only really do (and not have people turn it off or skip the track) when you know the people who are listening have probably already bought into what you do.
Yeah, I think so. It's the worst possible album to start with for Titus, even though it has some amazing songs
In the late '90s there was this trend of rappers making double albums. Part of it was as a way to make more money and boast of bigger album sales (each double album sold counted as two copies), and part was a way to flex their status. The result was a lot of albums with a lot of filler. How do you think Vince Staples' recent debut double album, Summertime '06, fits into both this history and the current trend of "statement" long albums?
Perhaps the two CD format is a kind of homage, though interestingly, his two discs could have fit onto one if he wanted. And in the late '90s his record actually would have been considered to be on the shorter side. I don't think the Staples record has a lot of filler, everything about it feels more lean, but there might have been the feeling of trying to capture the kind of "bigness" that came with having the extra-wide Life After Death case on the shelf. I feel like the Staples record was a conscious decision to break it into smaller, more digestible chunks, and each disc does kind of work as its own small record.
Do you think labels should step in more and try to get artists to trim over-long albums down?
This probably functions differently for indie artists and those at bigger labels, and in both cases I'm not sure if the label has as much incentive to try and make things shorter. For an indie artist it's possible that vinyl costs come into play, but in general, your average indie label prides itself on being artist-centric and allowing a certain amount of freedom. From the major label side, longer stuff just doesn't cost them a lot more money, so I imagine there might be a "might as well put it out, see if people stream/download it" kind of feeling. It seems like the onus is on the artist.
With fewer limitations on how long an album can be, and with the cultural perception that length is tied to importance, do you think more artists are going to turn to extended run times?
I do think now that the formatting aspect of the equation is immaterial, the long album as a "challenging artistic statement" will be very much on the table for the foreseeable future. In a sense, the fact that the long album endures will be somewhat connected to the idea that albums, period, endure. We have heard about the "death of the album" for quite a while now, and the idea really seemed to have a lot of steam 10 years ago. For a lot of people growing up with music now, they are probably thinking less in album terms, and the album will little by little become more of a boutique thing. But the idea of artistic credibility, right or wrong, is still very much tied up with the idea of the album, that's just 40 years of albums and pop criticism at work. So artists who think of their music as art, and want to make significant artistic statements, will continue to make albums. And so if albums are in the equation, the longer, more difficult, and more demanding album will still be there too. It kind of takes the "album" idea as an artistic expression and intensifies it.