In our current age of ADD, I’ve been somewhat blessed with an extremely long attention span. Unfortunately, I don’t really use it to do anything productive, but it has given me a special love for long songs — really long songs. Whenever I see an album with a song over ten minutes long, I get really excited.
Long songs are special little nuggets in the music world, especially these days when most bands are focused on trying to create the next great three-minute pop single that can be added to someone’s “workin’ out” playlist on their iPod shuffle. They allow so many more possibilities for storytelling and showcases of musical skill. Of course, they also require a lot of ambition and are difficult to pull off effectively, which is why most bands steer clear of them.
My favorite recent use of long songs is easily Kate Bush’s late-2011 album 50 Words for Snow (which I stupidly left off my “best albums of 2011” list, something that still eats at me even though nobody else cares). It’s a delight for long song aficionados, with just seven songs that add up to a 65-minute run time — the shortest song is album closer “Among Angels” which is 6:49. The longest is “Misty”, which is 13:32.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also my favorite song on the album. In fact, it could be said that I am somewhat obsessed with “Misty” — not just the song itself, but all of the artistic qualities it represents. After the album came out, I excitedly told everyone about how it had a “13-minute song about falling in love with a snowman.” Because who makes a 13-minute song about falling in love with a snowman? Why would anyone do that? And how could it possibly be good?
Perhaps the only person in the world who could do it or would do it is Kate Bush, who in her 30+ year career has consistently pushed the boundaries of art and has an affinity for oddball subject matter. A very underrated trait among great artists, especially ones I admire, is the willingness to go through with ideas that seem insane on the surface. As someone who has a lot of half-finished posts sitting in my drafts folder on this blog, I feel a lot of respect towards Bush, who sat down at her piano and hammered this song out because she knew it would be good. I imagine her picking up the phone during the writing process and having to tell whoever called “I can’t speak right now. I’m working on my song about loving a snowman.” She probably put off other real-life responsibilities while writing her snowman song, confident that people would want to listen to it when it was finished. To me, that is pretty much the definition of an artist.
Now, when you read that the song is about falling in love with a snowman, you probably figured “oh, it’s a metaphor for being with a cold, distant lover or something.” Nope. Another reason why this song is great is that Bush attacks the subject matter head-on instead of using bland, figurative language. Above a recurring piano figure, she recounts building the snowman, then how the snowman ends up in her bed.
Unfortunately, like all one-night affairs with snowmen, Bush’s tryst was doomed to end in heartbreak. “I can feel him melting in my hand,” she laments, knowing that you only have a limited amount of time to be with a snowman. At about the 8-minute mark, a guitar and some light strings join the piano as the song picks up in tempo. “I can’t find him… the sheets are soaking,” Bush sings, her voice full of very real yearning. The seriousness with which Bush sings the song is just another way that I think she’s in on the “joke” and is aware of the song’s dark comedy and absurdity.
But even though this song is absurd, it has a genuine emotional impact. Once you let the initial concept sink in (and since the song is so long, it will if you have the patience), it becomes a pretty stirring tale of two star-crossed lovers who obviously can never have a future. She was the good girl from the high-class family who wanted the best things in life. He was three balls of snow stacked on top of each other with a mouth full of dead leaves. You can see why it would never work out.
“Misty” is probably not a song that everyone will enjoy — you have to have patience and a tolerance for some weirdness. But when it comes to unabashed love songs, I’ll take this one over just about anything from the last few years, especially the little three-minute radio songs. It’s an absolutely unique song by an artist who clearly doesn’t think like everyone else.