Bob Dylan's 'Desolation Row' is one of Joanna's favourite long songsJean-Luc

Father John Misty recently performed a new song, ’Leaving LA’, on 6 Music. It’s 13 minutes long. In the short interview preceding his performance, he said that “the song just explains itself”, a preface which seems to typify the aesthetic of the long song. Listening again to some of my favourite long songs, such as Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ or ‘Visions of Johanna’, and ‘Come in from the Cold’ from Joni Mitchell, I realised that they tend to be (self-consciously) sad, and, moreover, that I hold a sentimental attachment to all of them.

On the other hand, when I listen to previously unknown long songs recommended by friends, they more often than not feel overdone and self indulgent, and I became disengaged as they drag on. A long song has the power to make the listener feel something, and can perpetuate that emotion in a way that a short song intrinsically can’t. When a long song is successful, it’s exquisite.

Father John Misty's 'Leaving LA' is 13 minutes longJessica Fiess-Hill

In an interesting parallelism, some of the most poignant and heartbreaking shorter songs are somewhat defined by their brevity: ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ by The Smiths, or ‘For No One’ by The Beatles both break my heart every time they abruptly end. They create a potent emotional effect, using their length as a primary tool. Pop songs are so standardised within the 2:30- to 3:30-minute bracket that music which falls outside this norm intrinsically carries its unusual length as a defining feature, and the best poetic long songs, in a mirror-image of the previously mentioned short songs, exploit this to expressive ends.

There’s also an entirely separate category of successful long songs: those that are, as I’ve christened them, groove-based. ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ or ‘Love to Love You Baby’ are undeniably classics in their long form, and it’s their addictive basslines that make them viable. Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’, as well as ‘The Birds’ from Elbow’s stunning album Build a Rocket Boys!, are contemporary long songs which fit the successful groove-based model in a more subtle way. Musical simplicity is something which unifies successful long songs, and this link to techno and other forms of electronic music, where long tracks are the norm, is no coincidence.

There are successful long songs which still fall within pop, but they are often minimalist in style, such as ‘Hana Ga Saitara’ from Mariah’s album Utakata No Hibi, or Funkadelic’s instrumental track ‘Maggot Brain’. On the other hand, long songs which aren’t sonically consistent throughout tend to be less successful, or, in the case of ‘Kanga-Roo’ from the Legacy edition of Jeff Buckley’s Grace, or Frank Ocean’s ‘Pyramids’, simply give the impression of being two songs within one track.

The success of ‘Leaving LA’ comes down to its ability to engage the listener. The legacy of singer-poets such as Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan is clear, both in the intensity of Misty’s lyrics and in his simple musical aesthetic. I found myself drawn as the melancholic lyrics, repetitive harmonies and gentle timbre lulled me into a sense of reflective calm. As is the case in tracks by the aforementioned Dylan and Mitchell, the understated nature of the music means that the emotional energy of the piece builds in an insidious, unstoppable way. About 10 minutes into the song, I found myself feeling actively sad.

It certainly reaches a point where the length begins to feel deliberate and uncomfortable. I’d argue that its self-consciously unusual length is what provides emotional heft. Would ‘Leaving LA’ have been successful at eight minutes long, closer to the lengths of the Dylan and Mitchell tracks? Perhaps. But Father John Misty also represents a progression of the tradition of the long song, extending it further than we have become used to and creating a subtly contemporary effect in doing so

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