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As I'm sure everyone reading this knows, Bob Dylan released his first original song in eight years last week. As I'm sure everyone also knows, it's almost 17 minutes - his longest song to date.
One of my first thoughts listening to it was, too bad he'll never play this live.
One of my second thoughts was … well, won't he?
This sent me down a rabbit hole, figuring out how many of his longest tracks he has played live. The results are encouraging.
His longest track until now, "Highlands" (16:32) he has played a handful of times, including once on this spring 2000 tour. Of the five next longest, he's played three: "Desolation Row" (11:18), "Joey" (11:06), and "Brownsville Girl" (11:03). The two he hasn't: "Tempest (13:55) and "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" (11:22).
In some cases, he gets through these marathon songs by lopping off a verse or two. In the most extreme example, "Brownsville Girl," he lopped off all the verses, just repeating the chorus a few times and letting his backup singers do the heavy lifting. The edits aren’t usually not quite that dramatic, but even "Desolation Row" rarely gets the full ten verses. On the other hand, he sung all 20 verses of "Highlands" on this tour and still managed to knock five minutes off the run time by picking up the pace and cutting some instrumental bits.
So "Murder Most Foul" could easily get performed. Maybe he'll cut out the Wolfman Jack playlist in the second half. Maybe he’ll only sing that part. Maybe he'll sing the entire thing faster. Hell, maybe he'll crop it to give it a happy ending. "President Kennedy was a-ridin' high / Good day to be livin' - Alright, thank you Boston!"
The fact that Bob released his longest song almost sixty years into his professional career got me wondering if his songs are getting longer overall. And since I've got nothing but time right now (what am I going to do, go outdoors?), I plotted out each album by average song length. I excluded covers sets and soundtracks. I found the results interesting, and not quite what I expected.
Here's the graph, then I'll point out what it showed (other than that I have too much time on my hands):
1. The trend is not exactly that Bob songs get longer over time. However, three of his five recent “comeback era” albums feature the longest songs of his career. If "Murder Most Foul" ends up the next album, that trend will surely continue.
2. Up until this latest run, he follows trends. His songs get longer and longer for a while, then they get shorter and shorter. I half expected this scatterplot to be all over the place. It's not.
3. He's lurching around more in this current period than he ever has before. But again, to continue the trend and lurch back down, the other songs on his next album would have to be pretty damn short if "Murder Most Foul" is included.
4. No surprise that the acoustic-retrenchment period in the late '60s and early '70s featured extremely short songs, but I was surprised they were so much shorter than the initial folk run. That is, other than the first album (which was mostly covers so doesn’t even really count, but seemed like I should include).
It would be fun to do this with live songs sometime - what years did he play each song forever, etc - though there are so many data points I'm not sure where I’d begin.