I love sad songs. Whether or not I am, in fact, sad in that moment, melancholy music has always struck a chord with me. Most of my all-time favorite records are late night, punch drunk confessionals: Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, Tom Waits' Heart of Saturday Night, anything by Otis Redding and pretty much the entirety of country music, etc. There is a certain poetic beauty in sadness, which may be why sad songs usually resonate with me as much as, if not more than their more upbeat counterparts. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a pretty melody.
This year there were a number of great, mellow, melancholy additions to my stacks. To name but a few: chippy bedroom pop from Belle & Sebastian on Write About Love, swooning art folk on The Head and the Heart's self-titled debut, and an unflinching masterpiece from songwriter Joe Pug, Messenger.
Of course, there are many different types of sad songs. You've got your torch song, your break up song, the fuck you song, the lonely sap song, the clinically depressed song, and so on. Pop music is virtually overloaded with sad sack sentiment. To quote Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, "What came first, the music or the misery? … Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" Fair questions.
The thing is, not all sad songs are created equally. Because pop is over-saturated by songwriters who seem to think theirs was the first broken heart, the annals of rock and roll are littered with overwrought cliché, terrible, cloying songs that artlessly gnaw at the heartstrings rather than gently tug or assuage. Depressed? Write a song about it! It's a tack followed by far too many marginally talented artists. But who can blame them? To quote Def Leppard, "Love bites."
So what makes a great sad song? I doubt there's an easy answer, if one exists at all. And really, it is entirely subjective. What hits to your core might turn mine queasy. What makes me swoon could very well make you wretch. To paraphrase an old chestnut, beauty is in the ear of the beholder.
For me, it's usually the melody that hooks first. Throw in a clever turn of phrase or two and I'm yours for the night. Sing it with soul, and my oh my, it could be a lasting love. Then again, sometimes it's none of those things. Sometimes, certain songs or albums just catch you when they're supposed to. Sometimes it's just fate. Two such artists caught me that way this year. Some way, somehow, they entered my life at the precise moment I needed them most.
The first was songwriter Sean Hayes. His 2010 album, Run Wolves Run, is a gorgeously crafted, unchained treatise on love and life, and among my favorites this year. But that album wasn't what first turned me on to Hayes. Rather, it was one of his older songs, "Fucked Me Right Up," that, well … you know. There is a raw, visceral hurt in Hayes' vulnerable delivery that deepens his otherwise simplistic lyrics. The song barely has two verses, but by the time he bids us "good bye" again and again at the song's conclusion, you feel what he feels in no uncertain terms. It's chilling.
Here's a live version of the song from a house concert. It's a little rough around the edges, which I kind of prefer. The ragged quality suits the song. But if you'd like to hear the cleaner album version, click here.
This next artist writes great sad songs too, but in an entirely different way, which you could likely surmise simply from his name, Sad Brad Smith. Some might be familiar with Smith from his single, "Help Yourself," which was featured in the recent movie, Up in the Air. I've actually never seen that flick, or heard the song. But Smith's full-length debut, Love is Not What You Need, has rarely left my iPod since it came out this fall.
Smith's approach to melancholy is tongue-in-cheek whimsy. He revels in wallowing. He writes clever, heartfelt songs that both tease and admire the peculiar conundrum of the superficially depressed. Ever have that friend who is only truly happy when he or she is unhappy? Love is that friend's personal soundtrack. Or maybe the record Charlie Brown would have written if he grew up to be a singer-songwriter.
Here is live clip of Smith performing a song from Love, a typically overly underwrought charmer called "I'm So Sad." Enjoy. Or, um … don't, depending. And tune in tomorrow when we cheer the fuck up.