The NME recently compiled a lazy list of ’50 beautifully sad songs’ (a title in itself so crass that it deserves them a place in Stool Pigeon’s brilliant Achingly Beautiful column). Entry-level misery-memoir such as Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2U, Radiohead’s Street Spirit or Johnny Cash doing Hurt, all of which appear on the list, are barely worth mentioning. And let’s not tar Portishead, Joni Mitchell, The Walker Brothers, Nick Cave, Nick Drake and Neil Young with the same brush as Kasabian’s Goodbye Kiss, or anything Damon Albarn has farted out after being dumped.
Since I consider myself something of an expert in sonic-downers (I’m not allowed near the playlist at parties), I’ve put together a list of my favourite miserable bastard music, which is sad, moving, and hopefully less predictable than the NME’s. Happy Monday!
During her set at this year’s End of the Road festival, Abigail Washburn told a story of a Chinese friend in America who received a letter, which to quote Washburn, said ‘ you’ve already been in America for four years. I’m afraid you’re not ever going to come back to China. And I’m afraid your child and I are never going to be able to come to America to be with you. We’re going to start a new life without you. Consider this the end. And he cried and cried and I watched him. And I didn’t know what to do with that, until I started writing songs.’ Before she was even half-way through her song, with it’s overtones of hope, optimism, and disillusionment, she’d practically broken the hungover and emotionally weak audience. There were tears rolling down my companion Emily and Iso’s faces. Reducing a festival audience to tears on a sunny Saturday afternoon? Now that’s quite a feat.
There is sparse instrumentation on this song, simply a cold, dark drone over which Shatner recalls the true story of when he was unable to rescue his drowning wife. If a listen to this doesn’t stop you in your tracks, you’ve got a heart of stone.
There’s a certain mundanity to Jeffrey Lewis’ brand of melancholy that he captures especially well on Moving. Many of his songs juggle with the pointlessness of life in the face of the inevitability of death, alongside the need to capture and enjoy life in light of it’s impending end, and by paralleling the droll symbol of an empty flat with the grand drama of a body that’s shed its soul in the following lyric, he shows his knack for exploring existentialism through the playful medium of indie music perfectly:
‘The room looks the same but there’s no life left and you start thinking about death. When you die will it be the same? No more thoughts decorating your brain, an empty space for the world to reclaim? You’re on the verge of thinking something deep, and then you hear the van give a beep’.
Mark Everett experienced the death of his father and the suicide of his long-tormented sister before the release of Eels’ first album, and the death of his mother to cancer following that. Needless to say, a good portion of his songs leave the listener realising their own life’s not so bad after all. Going to your Funeral Part I may not include the minor-key piano of Everett’s more traditionally sad songs such as Manchester Girl, Selective Memory, or Beautiful Freak, but its dazed, almost frantic beats, common throughout Electroshock Blues on which it appears, play out a more bereft, desperate sadness, that is much harder to hear.
When Sandy Denny sings ‘the hands of the clock keep turning around, they point to the time of the day, but timing is nothing with you by my side, though some time I’ll be on my way’, you know she’s singing about death. Love may be lurking between the lyrics, and the classic ’60s folk guitar makes the song sound upbeat, but it becomes tinged with sadness when you realise that singer and listener alike will inevitably ‘take a boat down the river my love, and sail away to the sea’.
Nick Drake’s rich and complex guitar playing can be hypnotic enough to distract from his fatal insularity, but the sparse picking, raspy voice and thinly disguised metaphors in the lyrics of Black Eyed Dog betray the desolate depression that ultimately took his life.
Nick Cave’s post PJ Harvey sulk, The Boatman’s Call, is by far one of the saddest (and most brilliant) albums in his downbeat opus, and any song from it could be the jewel in the crown of a misery-music list. NME chose the frank People Ain’t No Good, Black Hair demonstrates the creepy loneliness of the most severe heartbreak, and my mate Rachael hasn’t been able to listen to Into my Arms all the way through since Nick played it at Michael Hutchence’s funeral. But it’s I Do Dear, I Do, a one-man-Christmas song taken from The Boatman’s Call sessions, and presumably left off to prevent the rest of the album sounding like nursery rhymes, that is by far the most bleak, and most indicative that Cave got a stocking full of coal that festive season.
This new release is a typical ‘I’ll do anything for love, but I won’t do that’ tale, but with breathy vocals and clean slow-rock electric guitar picking instead of a bombastic Beauty and the Beast themed video, romantic twist or any motorbikes. A future misery classic I’m sure.
Unrequited love, a favourite theme of the more emotionally-attuned songwriter, dominates the mood of Vomit . It’s a great song, full of brooding lows and frustrated highs that would lend it nicely to a climatic scene in Dawson’s Creek or such-like. If that’s not qualification for a mood-song, I don’t know what is.
I know I accused the NME of predictability, and the inclusion of Joy Division in this list is hardly telling you something you don’t know, but can you really create a list of sad songs without Joy Division? They simply belong. The well-known biography of Ian Curtis lends all of their albums an even deeper darkness than they might have out of context, and with that in mind, any grain of optimism in Curtis’ repeated plea ‘don’t walk away’ is rendered all the bleaker with the knowledge of how his story really ended. The fact that this song was used following the pivotal suicide scene in Anton Corbijn’s excellent Ian Curtis biopic Control further heightens its melancholia when you’ve seen the film.
Like what you see? Listen to the full Miserable Bastard Spotify playlist here. NB: I Do Dear, I Do is substituted with Black Hair, due to Spotify availability.