Sounds of discontent


Life is too short for the compact disc. It was often hard enough to get through an LP, with its 40 minutes of playing time, but CDs routinely clock in at close to double that length. While this has been accommodating for Beethoven and Brahms, it has put a strain on rock and jazz albums, which usually struggle to hold the attention over the length of what used to be thought of as an indulgence, the double album. Yet the trend is moving towards packages of music that prize biblical playing time over all else. The news at the end of last year that Neil Young, one of the most grizzled campaigners in rock, was planning a retrospective collection of previously unissued material which might stretch to 32 CDs set an exhausting new standard for contemporary music's boxed-set fetish. How much, indeed, is enough?

The CD itself, with its cool, neutered presence as an artefact, has long been a source of dismay among vinyl diehards. The clack of jewel-cases and the cold shine of the discs seem soulless next to the tactile warmth of the LP sleeve and the sensuous gleam of virgin vinyl. But CD sound has improved to the point where it can comfortably compete with high-end audiophile LP reproduction, as well as eliminating surface noise and inner-groove distortion. As a sound-carrier, the CD is as handsomely utilitarian as most of us require. Its convenient miniaturism, though, has begun to encourage a bloated and tyrannical new trend in the industry. Multidisc sets, outside of the classical milieu, were rare in the days of the LP. Now, with the major companies worried by a slackening market, they are ubiquitous.

The so-called "brilliant" jewel-case can accommodate two CDs in just the same space as one, so what would once have been a four-album set has now assumed matchbox dimensions. But this is small beer compared with the fashion for reissuing the comprehensive works of artists major and minor alike, in voluptuous editions. Tall multidisc packages, which look like chocolate boxes stood vertical, are made to line shelves like books by the yard. Whole careers are telescoped into bulging digipaks.

Sometimes, as in some celebrated jazz editions like Miles Davis's The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, a few days of recording has been reissued in its entirety: admirable for scholars, but how often will the rest of us want to take these discs out of their pigeonhole and play through them? The most committed of admirers welcomes this sort of thing, and always has done: that is why there has long been an industry of bootleggers, supplying every squeak a favourite artist has made on stage and in studio out-takes to those who will settle for nothing less.

Now, though, we are seeing what are effectively boxfuls of old tapes, perhaps once rejected, newly resuscitated and presented as prime cut. I much enjoyed Bruce Springsteen's four-disc Tracks, recently appraised here, but when I want to hear Springsteen, I will most likely put on one of his best studio records - Tunnel of Love, probably - and leave Tracks sitting on the shelf. And I know I would rather have heard a new record by him.

Neil Young is usually considered an old, wild card in the rock industry, who's seldom followed expectations and kept to his own cussed and individual idiom. I have just counted 19 Young discs on my shelf, and I think that will do for me. The idea of sitting through a further day-and-a-half of his music, even in bite-size chunks, holds as much appeal as reading through Britannica, or eating through a wedding cake. Records are not like encyclopaedias. They are made to be played. When they become as much work as this, they are like Jack - a dull boy.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium