I was listening to Uncle Tupelo’s Still Feel Gone and I realised that there were at least four or five fine examples of sad songs (probably sadder than the Tupelo one I used earlier in the series). I also remembered that three of these songs were ones I have tried to play versions of on my guitar.
The track True To Life is a “what the hell are we doing here” song from the point of view of a normal working person.
true to life is another hangover
true to life is more and more politics
true to life is always having to look over your shoulder
true to life is assembly-line sickness
On Cold Shoulder you get quiet observations of difference such as Your heaven looks just like my hell and pretend downing so I hold myself down, ’cause I like the way it feels. All of this is sung quietly and the singer sounds a bit down. But the real bitterness is saved until after the second chorus, the song breaks into a more forward vein and the words are spat out:
How could I have ever needed
such a cold heart to count on
and how could I have ever wanted
such a cold shoulder to cry on
I’ve decided to resurrect this Drowning series even though it was meant to be just twelve posts (+ I elected Num’s album as the thirteenth).
Townes Van Zandt was an American singer-songwriter who wrote of a legendary, but not pretty, America with Cowboys and Hobos. He was blessed with a low voice that could carry pain and disappointment along with it. On the song Marie he tells the tale of an unemployed Railyard worker who meets a woman called Marie. They spend the summer sleeping under a Bridge after his unemployment payments end. As the weather begins to get colder, Marie thinks she is pregnant.
In my heart I know its a little boy, hope he don’t end up like me
He is too broke to even buy a harp to busk but there is the hope of a little casual work. That falls through and he returns to the bridge to tell Marie the bad news. Next day,
Marie she didnt wake up this morning
She didnt even try
She just rolled over and went to heaven
My little boy safe inside
I laid them in the sun where somebody’d find them
Caught a Chesapeake on the fly
Marie will know I’m headed south
So’s to meet me by and by
If there was ever someone that epitomised my “Drowning In A Well Of Sadness” then it is Num. In that series I found twelve of the saddest songs or albums ever played. So Num is Number Thirteen and that should be unlucky. Except that, in my world, bad luck, unhappiness, and pain can all be turned into an experience that leads to great music.
Num is the work of Tony MacGregor up there in cold and windy Edinburgh. He makes no allowance for people who want to hear a happy ditty to brighten up their day. Instead he explores the world of feelings of disappointment and disillusionment in a way that can enrich your life. I don’t deny the cadences of the vocals are always downbeat (I wouldn’t want to deny it) but there is so much melodic strength in his voice and songwriting that he creates an intense and satisfying sound, He supports himself with a sometimes surprisingly jaunty instrumentation and lush texture of sound. This is music of an intensity and honesty that even old-style hippies would be taken aback by it. Sharpened sadness wrapped in velvet.
Sure, love hurts, but that pain is also a necessity to make you into an empathetic and whole human being. Num helps you to get there.
I have a vague idea that Mike Johnson was the drummer with someone like Dinosaut Jr – but I may be wrong. All I really know is that he made an album Year Of Mondays that is a classic in the history of depressing music. Mike sings in a low voice over a backing of almost jaunty country-tinged indie rock. The real quality is that he sings lyrics from a point of view of disappointment and failure – and this permeates every minute of the album. Whoever Mike used to play with, I just want to tell him that he made a record that has meant a lot to me over many years. I have played it when I need to understand sadness and it just helps to hear someone exploring their own hoodoos.
I think I shall end this series here. The point has been that you can embrace sadness and strengthen yourself. Sad music helps you through the bad times and is still worth listening to in the good times.
Now we get onto the real meat. I’ve only spoken about individual songs so far but there are a number of totally sad albums. How about You Might As Well Live by Revolution 9? Every song is a downer. You can wallow in self-pity as much as you like. With an album named after the Dorothy Parker poem/quip, you would expect nothing less. To whet your appetite here’s some lyrics from Now That Your Lover Has Gone:
Picture his face, he was so out of place in your life, you must have been blind.
What did you see in him, how could you be with him, why did you waste so much time?
But who’s going to spoil you, massage and oil you, until all of your aches are gone
And who will undress you, who will caress you, now that your lover is gone
Here’s to the future, no time for losers, so put him right out of your mind
It’s no use regretting, it’s best to forget him, from now on things will be fine
But who’ll reassure you and never ignore you, and tell you you’re right when you’re wrong
And who’ll sympathise with you, who’ll empathise with you, who’ll dry your eyes when you cry?
It overshadows Leonard Cohen. And yet, despite all the disappointment expressed about love, life and relationships, it’s still an inspiring piece of work. It’s kept me enraptured for many a dark night.
There’s a song I first heard on an Uncut compilation (Uncut is a music and films magazine in the UK) Resplendent by Bill Malonee and The Vigilantes of Love. It obviously isn’t from personal experience – probably from a book or something. But it is a bleak song and I love it for that.
Lost my firstborn that Winter, my wife on the first day of Spring.
So I poured my sweat into the earth, and see what that harvest would bring
I remember hell and fury, just like a plague of locusts
Egypt’s punishment for sins of pride, exact now what has come over us
How much of this was meant to be, how much the work of the devil
How far far can one man’s eyes really see in these days of toil and trouble.
Julie Doiron is a Candian (I think) singer-songwriter. She brought out an EP Wil You Still Love Me that was unique in it’s pervasive downbeat pathos. Sometimes you think “snap out of it girl – get drunk and have a laugh”. Other times it just wraps you up in it’s mood and brings comfort and tenderness. She has a great voice as well and just wrings out the tear-sodden hanky in slow, simple songs. The track I particularly love is Will You Still Love Me In December
So you finally said I could leave but I didn’t want to leave then without you
Will you love me in December?
I could see many days and it wouldn’t make a difference without you