Sometimes I believe that my life would be a lot easier to deal with if I could accept the idea that another person can like me in any way possible. Sometimes I wonder if I could somehow leap over this high hurdle that maybe I’d be able to find a way to love another and myself. How does one leap this barrier? Is it possible, because it doesn’t feel like it? Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who is unable to clear the wall, like the one kid who cannot do a sit up or pull up in grade school, or if that barrier is there for all of us and I am too narcissistic to recognize that it is a struggle we are all burdened by, or if my self loathing and navel gazing has led me to pass by more than one chance to avoid feeling alone all of the time.
Currently, I am in the midst of reading the book that my friend Mindy introduced me to: This Will End in Tears – The Miserabilist Guide to Music by Adam Brent Houghtaling, which may or may not be to blame for my recent resurgence of listening to the Smiths. Whatever the case, I highly recommend it for those people out there who immerse themselves into the music they love. The book is basically made up of an alphabetical list of a wide variety of artists and bands that have made music that in general has been considered somewhat of a downer. The breadth of genres and artist’s involved is impressive, as is the sheer amount of exhaustive research that went into each artist’s essay. These synopses, which are informative, are broken up into sections, which are opened with essays about miserable song themes such as disease, the rain, catastrophes, disease, death (murder), death (suicide), and death, while some specific songs are singled out for a closer look. The book ends with a Top 100 song list of the most miserable songs and it makes for a fascinating read.
What makes a song or an artist or band a miserable one? This is all way too subjective, but this book is a very nice introduction to an interesting dialogue. It makes one wonder what is our fascination with sad songs? We know that certain notes can have a mood inducing effect on people in general, but why would we seek it out? As Nick Hornby’s character Rob Fleming asks in his book High Fidelity, which came first, “the music or the misery?” Personally, I believe it’s the misery and the music is there to provide comfort, camaraderie and understanding. Though, there are instances where music can draw out deep levels of sadness that may at that moment have been buried safely away.
I offhandedly mentioned The Smiths earlier. I grew up with the Smiths and the Cure through my high school years, which like most people, is an awkward overly dramatic time filled with confusion and desperation, but I never really thought of the Smiths or the Cure as miserable, despite their legendary labels as such. Sure both bands have their strikingly dark moments, but I cannot listen to Johnny Marr’s music from those days and not feel energized and transported by his effervescent and inspired performances. Besides, the tag was clearly given directly to Morrissey and his lyrics, which admittedly can at times be so direct and honest and to the point that it’s hard not to wallow in the pits of loneliness and emptiness and worthlessness that he can emote (“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” and “Well I Wonder” are prime examples of songs that spoke to my experience then and, well, now), but to me his lyrics and singing style have always provided more of a cutting wit and disgust with the way things are in general and individually. Sure a song such as “Half a Person” is deeply sad and pathetic really, but it’s hard to take seriously. Similarly, the Cure has entire albums that dwell on the darkest subjects (Pornography anyone? Disintegration?), but the very first song of theirs that I consciously ever noticed was the silly jazzy “The Lovecats,” and I have often felt that no band around can match their ability to write silly energetic pop songs like “Why Can’t I Be You?,” or “Friday I’m in Love.” Depeche Mode is also a band that has been slapped with the miserable label, and they can be, but I never thought of them as such. Their well known “Blasphemous Rumours” spoke to me as a young teen who was struggling with the idea of the existence of a God, but the story told through the verses is so heavy handed and over the top that it makes me laugh (especially with the breathing machine sound effects!).
It is all so subjective and really all depends on one’s mood at any time, or even over time and experiences that can tie those songs into one’s own life story. Sometimes it isn’t the so-called miserable songs that can drive one down a dark road. For example, I have a good idea why the positively warm song “The Letter” by Allo Darlin’ makes me want to break down and cry every single time I hear it (a song that inspired my recent dry and needs a lot of work short story That Smiling Face), but to this day, I have no idea why Madonna’s early celebratory dance hit “Holiday” fills me with lament and puts a lump in my throat.
There are hundreds of songs and albums that I go to for comfort and understanding when I need to find solace in my collection of sad songs and I have written about a lot of them either via album re-evaluations, end of the year reviews or as the basis for my weak short stories. If I am forced to name a few examples, it’d be a struggle. There is the entirety of Mark Eitzel’s solo acoustic album Songs of Love Live, which is something akin to punching one’s own bruise or picking at a scab, but even though the song that opens that collection, “Firefly” reminds me of my biggest regrets, it has also provided goose bumps and chills down my spine. I have always found myself attracted to the claustrophobic and hopeless words and sounds of Joy Division, but even the brighter New Order’s “Regret” can make me inconsolable. I find myself easily saddened by the brittle heartbreak of the Field Mice/ Trembling Blue Stars/ Northern Picture Library/ Picture Center family of heartbroken songs, or the deep baritone of Michael Gira’s Swans when he draws out that voice over an acoustic or on top of a giant arrangement. Or how can I forget how the Wild Swans’ Bringing Home the Ashes album from 1988 that provided me with a moping soundtrack for the emptiness I felt as a high school senior. And there’s always the hyper specific life moment that I will always associate with Abecedarians’ two amazing songs: “Wildflower” and “They Said Tomorrow.” I could go on and on, but there’s no need to. The book started an internal conversation for me, but it’s one that makes me curious about what music tears others’ hearts out and why they go to them even though they know that they will feel miserable. Feel free to share!