For those especially well versed in today’s hip lingo, you could say that I don’t usually come down with cases of “the bummers.” But I do love sad songs, more than any other style of song. I don’t trust happy songs.
It may have something to do with my natural inclination toward cynicism, but listening to songs overflowing with smiles (think The Mowgli’s “I’m Good”) can become nauseating. Often these songs feel artificial, like the band sat down one day and decided they wanted their music featured in an insurance commercial so they wrote lyrics about “lots of love” and tossed in some #GoodVibes for safe measure.
Sad songs are uncomfortable. They remind us of the past or the present, of our various failings, scattered and half-hidden throughout our memory until a lyric or a note excavates it, often painfully and without permission.
The most powerful sad songs are the ones that would exist regardless of whether or not the artist was famous. They capture human emotion beyond “my girlfriend/boyfriend dumped me and it hurts.” It’s something deeper than that, something so isolated and illuminating about human nature that you wouldn’t notice otherwise if the lyrics appeared in an old poetry collection.
Here are a few of my favorites.
- “No Surprises” – Radiohead
“No Surprises” isn’t your average everyday sadness. It’s advanced sadness. It goes well beyond the realm of bleary-eyed snifflery and dives deep into downright depressing territory.
It’s got a simplistic, nursery-rhyme sound that seems almost comforting. It is, in a way, because if you’re able to wade through Thom Yhorke’s swampy bayou of enunciation, you’d see that the song is about an individual who’s given up, who welcomes suicide as a way out of their unremarkable life.
But holy shit does it get more depressing. The chorus goes “No alarms and no surprises (x3)” plus a “please” at the end. The subject of the song wants a life without worry or fear or any of the other emotions that plague people on a daily basis. But, according to the subject, there isn’t any escape from these feelings, and the listener hears this person come to terms with this realization.
The song ends with each line of the chorus echoed with “let me out of here” until the subject lays him or herself to rest, staring up at the ceiling, embracing the “handshake of carbon monoxide.”
- “Cornerstone” – Arctic Monkeys
“Cornerstone” is about a girl who’s broken the subject’s heart. This isn’t new territory, but what sets it apart from other breakup songs is that the relationship is already over by the time we get to listen. We aren’t sure how long they’ve been broken up but it’s clear that the subject is still in love.
The song explores the concept of a jilted lover projecting their still present affection for their ex onto other people they become involved with. It’s a very real and unfortunate problem many people have experience with, either on the giving or receiving end.
Each verse finds the man in a different bar, spotting a different girl who resembles his ex. He doesn’t really want to get to know the girls because he values them only for their looks, and looking like her. At the end of every verse, he asks if he can call the girls by his ex’s name. WOULD NOT RECOMMEND.
The most heartbreaking lyrics come in the bridge toward the end: “Tell me, where’s your hiding place?/I’m worried I’ll forget your face/And I’ve asked everyone/I’m beginning to think I imagined you all along.”
Damn does that hurt. It can be so strange, seeing someone that was such an important part of your life act is if none of it mattered. But sometimes their complete absence from your life is worse, like being in some alternate reality where they never existed and you made it all up.
But what makes this song so sad is that after seeing his ex in multiple girls at multiple bars, the man finally gives up on trying to rehabilitate himself and instead calls a prostitute. He indulges in the fantasy, finding comfort in a stranger that mostly resembles his ex and is willing to be called by her name, which gives him the satisfaction he so desperately desires.
- “Holy Shit” – Father John Misty
I chose to end this list with “Holy Shit” because it’s simultaneously the most depressing and most uplifting song that I’ve ever heard, and it’s a love song. The story goes that FJM (Josh Tillman) wrote the song on his wedding day as he came to terms with embracing an institution (marriage) that he previously approached with ambivalence.
Most of the song is spent discussing the pointlessness of life, including its institutions and contradictions. Twice the subject returns to the line “Oh and no one really knows you and life is brief,” suggesting that none of it all matters because you’ll die alone soon enough, but is then immediately followed with the line “So I’ve heard, but what’s that gotta do with this black hole* and me?” Complaining about life and its inevitable outcome is totally justified and completely pointless.
However, to disappoint the nihilists reading this, there is a glimmer of hope at the end. “Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty/What’s your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?/Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity/What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me.”
The subject concludes that while life is pointless, and everything means nothing, none of that matters because he is in love, and that means something to the two of them. Which is the single most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.
*The second line reads “atom bomb”