Last night I got home from a mini-tour of the southern Midwest. We managed to cover three thousand miles in five days, cramped up in a little red SUV sprinkled with a cross section of the insect population of the United States. In the fifty hour round trip we worked our iPods to the point of exhaustion, spinning first songs, then albums, then whole catalogs. After two hours of Chuck Berry tunes we got to talking about diversity from song to song, and from album to album.
It’s a pretty new phenomenon to want every song to sound different from the last. Before the early sixties albums were a luxury that most people couldn’t afford, folks bought singles or just listened to the radio. This meant that an artist’s new single could sound similar to the last one since they were less likely to be played back to back. Just buy a Greatest Hits from someone like Fats Domino or Little Richard, and even though they are incredible songs and performances you can hear that these songs were not designed to be played in rapid succession off of the stage.
Then around the time of the British Invasion full albums started being made more affordable and the newer rock crowd began amassing collections of LPs. This meant listening to the same voice for a longer period of time, and by necessity songs were forced to distinguish themselves from each other. In rock this meant more ballads. Because of the pressure of radio, the last generation had to put out mostly up-tempo singles, since you can only play so many slow songs on a pop station. The newer crowd, however, could afford to bring down the energy for a song or two, since people were listening to them for a longer period of time.
Nowadays the situation is a little more complicated. While full albums aren’t quite as popular as they used to be, music collections are growing. People tend to have large collections of songs by a single artist instead of collections of albums. So modern artists now not only have to worry about two songs sounding similar on a given album, they have to think about their whole anthology. Your average listener could build a playlist with a song from Darkness on the Edge of Town right next to a track from The Rising.
When you get down to the heart of the matter it’s a question of control. At first, artists could control what single they wanted their audience to hear at a certain moment of time. Later the LP meant control of a greater amount of time, but it came with certain limitations as far as the relation of the tracks to each other. Now you can listen to an entire discography in any order you see fit. This means you have an entire career to get your ideas across, but you have a much greater responsibility for how you do it. It’s like the Boss says:
Nothing is forgotten or forgiven,
When it’s your last time around,
I got stuff running around ‘round my head
That I just can’t live down
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org