I’m in the process of reviewing an album with 18 tracks on it. So what, I hear you ask; that’s value for money, right? Maybe, maybe not. I know that when I looked at the PR and saw the listing my heart sank a little, and that since then its got me thinking about the length of albums. Bear with me, ‘cos I think it might be a generational thing.
As a teenager, (fear not, it shall soon become obvious when that golden era was), I could say with a high degree of certainty that the vinyl I was carrying home from the record store would have a maximum of twelve tracks on it. Any band or artist worth their salt would have laboured over the running order, building a coherent journey from track one, side one to the final notes of side two. They’d start with a couple of firecrackers, track 3 would often be a slower number, the core of the work would be the killer album tracks and it would finish with either something epic or as fragile as the wind. It was the mid-80s, when the ‘album as a piece of art’ was on the wane but not yet dead, when there was still a point to the way one song followed another.
The advent of compact discs gave the artist another 20-30 minutes of space to fill. I remember having Bryan Adams’ Cuts Like A Knife (1983) on CD – 38 minutes and 53 seconds; eight years later A&M sent him back to Canada and asked him to double it. In 1991, Waking Up The Neighbours had 15 tracks and was 74 minutes and 52 seconds; I know which album I prefer. Songs that might have graced a limited edition 7″ single later down the promotional line were now tacked onto the end of the ‘album proper’, and numbers jumped from an average of 10 to 12, to an average of 14 to 15.
From knowing I could comfortably listen to an album, including the ritual of turning it over at the halfway point, within an hour, my listening regime had to adjust as albums neared the 70 minute mark. Oh, how the 70s Proggies gnashed their teeth in frustration at the thought of how much cheaper a CD would have been to manufacture than their (admittedly gorgeous) gatefold sleeves with two slabs of vinyl nestled inside – just think of the extra keyboards they could have bought! Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ had 10 tracks; ‘Highway 61’ had 9. ‘The Fabulous Johnny Cash’ had 12 tracks, clocking in under 29 minutes.
Evolution being what it is, the advent of Moore’s Law was only ever going to expand the time available to artists. With digital downloading and Mp3’s, the album has, for all but the most dogged of us, dwindled into the archives of recorded music history, and I say that in full knowledge of vinyl’s recent stroll back into the spotlight.
Given the above, you may think it strange that I hold no position either way on the way music is distributed in 2015 (though I’m very much on the artist’s side when it comes to the digital payment models they’re being shackled to right now). What does concern me is the thought that, with pretty much the entire recorded output of the human race within a few clicks of being heard, the artists, and perhaps more importantly, the labels of today may be missing a few salient points. I throw these out for discussion, then, and I’ll wrap shortly with my own view:
1. The attention span needed to absorb 18 songs is much greater.
2. Vinyl was a natural barrier to the worst of that artists’ output – songs that didn’t make the cut hit the studio floor, often for the right reasons.
3. The artist may well be pushing to write more to fill the time, either at the label’s request or because they think they need to fill the space; nature may abhor a vacuum, but music works better with space.
4. It encourages listeners to skip.
5. An album, particularly if it’s built to the old model (a journey; a set of linked stories etc.) is lost the moment you fast-forward to track 12 to see if it’s a ballad, doing more harm than good.
6. It suggests quantity over quality.
I’m generalising, of course. There are good and bad albums out there with 16 tracks on them, and the same for albums with 9 or 10 tracks on them. My point, if I have one at all, is that filling the space provided because it’s there may actually begin to turn listeners off. If the quality control, exhibited as a result of the restrictions caused by the distribution mediums of old, aren’t adhered to in the new world, both the creator and the listener are suffering. Aren’t they?