We often feel that we haven’t fully grasped a musician’s artistic statement unless we’ve listened to a full album by them, thinking that singles are just a vehicle to sell said albums. But what if the reverse is true?
What if singles are a truer artistic statement than the whole album? There are of course exceptions: concept albums like Sgt. Pepper and the self-titled Deltron 3030 come immediately to mind, as do barn-burner gems like Neil Young’s Harvest and Radiohead’s Kid A. All the same, when we discuss “appreciation of a statement”, aren’t we really talking about active listening? And isn’t active listening more potent in small doses?
For example: Archy Marshall, who these days releases records under the name King Krule, first came to my attention when he was using the moniker Zoo Kid. I was transfixed by his baritone voice and emotive, shape-shifting ballads. Here’s the early single, “Out Getting Ribs”:
Marshall recently released his second album, The Ooz, and although some of it is intriguing, I find it lacking in emotional impact. It’s full of interesting references to soul, ska, and the blues, but it doesn’t compare to the raw power of “Out Getting Ribs”. Why is this the case? Perhaps, early in their career, an artist pours everything they’ve got into that one opening salvo of a single, but hasn’t learned to channel the same energy over the course of a whole album—even during a second go-around. In such a case, to me, it is better to dive deep into that one single, than to survey a half-baked album. We, as listeners, get more out of it, and the artist’s integrity shines brighter.
Or take The Clash and the song, “London Calling” off the album of the same name. This single gives the listener everything The Clash stands for, in one manic go.
Then compare that to the very next track on the album, “Brand New Cadillac” which barely even sounds like The Clash.
To become a DJ at a college radio station you usually have to do a few internship sessions. You visit DJs during their shows and become familiar with the equipment and the various ways one might appropriately host a show. DJs usually ask you to prepare a track you’d like to play on air, to get your feet wet.
I remember one of these visits from a late night in 2011. I sat in the booth with a disagreeable insomniac in his 40’s who worked IT at the university and served as the program director at the station. I brought an 18-minute track from Richard Youngs, a droning wash of vocals and atmosphere that I thought (and probably still think) was an otherworldly piece of art for the ears. I played it, and about halfway through he asked me to step away from the board, and cut the track off. He said something to the effect of, ‘we don’t want to put the listeners to sleep’. Over time, I’ve realized that he was absolutely right. For the purposes of radio, broad statements of artistic integrity are not ideal. They become unnecessarily formalist and dry, hitting the listener in the mind before the body.
New York-based band Sunflower Bean have released a couple of albums and are now starting to sound more and more cookie-cutter in their sound:
But I’ll always remember the freewheeling, ecstatic energy of their single, “2013”:
I am a big fan of rocker/critic Ian Svenonius. Some of his writings are extremely left-field, and I find they tickle the place inside me that embraces the hidden absurdity inherent of some musical forms. In 2006, he published a volume of essays entitled The Psychic Soviet that blends farce with seriousness in short pieces that range from discussions of Beatles vs. Stones, to the origins of the Cold War. Included in this collection is “Time as Money”, which establishes music as the primary art form,with film coming in as a close second. His premise is that if we equate time and money, as the aphorism goes, then music tops the podium because it forces us to engage with it over a period of time. Visual art can be absorbed in a minute or an hour, but music’s demands on our time budget are finite, and in the case of an album, longer.
I call for an inversion of Svenonius’ premise (and given that he releases more singles than LPs and constantly changes projects, I believe Svenonius truly feels this way as well). Living in an atmosphere inundated with noise pollution and supposed extra time rendered by technological advances, we might actually want to use less time—on singles rather than albums—when we listen to our music. Its value may increase as time decreases, rather than the other way around.
We get caught up in purchasing more and more deluxe double-LP remasters, no doubt in an attempt to get closer to the music. But we must not forget that in the Pantheon of musical purpose, feeling reigns—and feeling often doesn’t sustain itself over the course of an entire album. When it does, we often fall in love with that album, as well we should.
To my mind, we are better served when we embrace actively listening to singles, when we embrace the raw feeling that stems from an artist cramming all they’ve got into a timeframe less than 5 minutes long. Sometimes, less truly is more.