Five insanely long songs that don't waste a single second

Every second is priceless.
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“MURDER MOST FOUL” by Bob Dylan – 2020 (16:54)

Bob Dylan was among the first popular singer/songwriters to seriously stretch the length of the modern popular song. At almost seven minutes, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” was revelatory back in 1963. That was just his second album, released just after his 22nd birthday. He went over seven minutes on his next album, and he would continue mixing long songs into his albums over the next several years. It seemed he had reached a peak with “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the gorgeous finale to his double album Blonde on Blonde in 1966. It ran over eleven minutes.

Then, more than fifty years later, he closed his 39th studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways with an expansive examination of one of the most formative events of his life – the assassination of John Kennedy. Emerging slowly from a triple-keyboard attack, Dylan’s visceral writing is on full display: “President Kennedy was riding high – Good day to be living and a good day to die.” He tells the story of the assassination in an efficient two minutes.

And then he invokes Wolfman Jack. I can’t think of any other songwriter who would have made that connection, but in Dylan’s voice, it works. It gives him a conduit into the American culture before, during and after the shot that to a great many Americans, changed the trajectory of a nation. The references are too plentiful to cite here, and there have been countless detailed analyses of the lyrics and the cultural touchstones. There will be countless more to come.

I’ll just close by pointing out that this is not a poem. It is a song, and Dylan, though never an accomplished musician, understood how to use music to frame his stories as well as any songwriter ever has. These seventeen minutes do not work if all those words are not floating along a river of all-encompassing, elegiac music. The words make you think. The music makes you cry. It’s well worth the time invested.