Last Monday, my good friend Josh blogged a list of his Top 10 Sad Songs. Today, I'm doing the same - here are my favourite nuggets of lachrymose musical loveliness, roughly arranged from least to most upsetting:
Mistakes by Tindersticks (from The Bloomsbury Theatre 12.3.95)
Stuart Staples' stunning song of regret first appeared on Tindersticks II, but this live performance, recorded at London's Bloomsbury Theatre, is the version to seek out - the lush orchestral arrangement is brought even further to the fore, significantly upping the songs 'curl up in a ball and weep' credentials.
Selective Memory by Eels (from Daisies of the Galaxy)
Hazy, happy nostalgia...blighted by the blank bits in your own recollection. This is one of E's simplest, most beautiful songs, and that moment of silence that lingers after the track's conclusion (presumably to make Mr E's Beautiful Blues seem like more of a 'hidden' track) only serves to heighten the impact.
I Don't Believe You by Pink (from Funhouse)
While compiling my list and wondering which Pink song to include, I was torn between this song and Please Don't Leave Me. In the end, though, I decided that the desperate denial of I Don't Believe You was ultimately even more tragic than the begging 'n' pleading of Please Don't Leave Me.
A Place Nearby by Lene Marlin (from Playing My Game)
This gentle number is the final track on Playing My Game, and boy is it a weepy one. The lyrics are seemingly sung by a woman whose partner has recently passed away:
"And still I hear your last words to me: 'Heaven is a place nearby, so I won't be so far away...maybe you'll find me someday.'"
That chorus always gets me choked up. This song would be higher up the list, but actually, there is a glimmer of hope in the excerpt quoted above, and believe me, there's sadder still to come.
Hideous Accident by The Just Joans (from Love & Other Hideous Accidents)
The Just Joans are a Scottish indie band who are excellent at blending the funny with the desperately sad, as this song deftly proves. The object of the protagonist's affection has run off with another man, but he insists that he wishes neither of them any ill will. He fools nobody.
"I hope he buys you things - puppy dogs and diamond rings - and I hope he doesn't die in some hideous accident."
The truly heartbreaking part comes just after the chorus, when that lugubrious Scotch accent admits:
"I'm so sorry; I can't help it. I don't hate him, I just miss you. I miss you."
Throw in that cockle-warming, curl-up-in-ball musical backing and you've got yourself a classic sad song.
Sad Professor by R.E.M. (from Up)
Up, as you may already know, was R.E.M.'s 'experimental' album, and all of those clicks and beeps make this guitar-lead, au naturel number stand out like a sad thumb. Slumped across a lackadaisical rhythm and a slab of fuzzy feedback, the titular professor - one of Michael Stipe's best and most fully-formed characters - tells us all how much he hates his life. And it's beautiful.
I Know It's Over by The Smiths (from The Queen is Dead)
The saddest song by the sad band of our time. A straightforward break-up song would be melancholy enough, but what really drives this track into a dark, depressing hole is the fact that Morrissey isn't singing about the dissolution of a relationship; rather, the 'It' of the title is a fantasy, a dream that simply never came true:
"I know it's over. And it never really began, but in my heart it was so real."
It was only an unrequited crush, and now even that is dead.
Jed's Other Poem (Beautiful Ground) by Grandaddy (from The Sophtware Slump)
When removed from the wider context that The Sophtware Slump provides, this song just sounds like impressionist nonsense - not happy, by any stretch of the imagination, but not really lucid enough to be genuinely sad.
However, when twinned with the story revealed to us in Jed the Humanoid, it becomes a carnival of despair. See, Jed was a robot who, while initially very useful to his creators, eventually became obsolete and drank himself to death. Beautiful Ground is presented as a poem that Jed wrote before his sad demise, and when you bear this in mind, those surreal vignettes take on bleak new meanings:
"You said I'd wake up dead drunk, alone in the park. I called you a liar, but how right you were!"
Take Ecstasy With Me by The Magnetic Fields (from Holiday)
The Mags have a lot of songs that are superficially sad: break-up songs, unrequited love songs, songs for outcasts, and so forth. But Take Ecstasy With Me - contrary to the apparently light-hearted title - is one of the few Stephin Merritt tracks that leaves you with a real, lasting sense of despair.
The lyrics, sung by Merritt to his (presumably gay) lover, mostly consist of nostalgic childhood imagery...
"You used to make gingerbread houses, we used to have taffy pulls"
...but then there's this stinger at the end of verse two:
"A vodka bottle gave you those raccoon eyes - we got beat up just for holding hands"
And then, of course, there's the chorus, which basically consists of the song's title and nothing else: "Take...ecstasy...with me...baby". If you're looking for sadness, this is the kicker, because the homophobic violence alluded to in the second verse has seemingly rendered void such childish pleasures as gingerbread houses and taffy pulls. Now, the only thing that will make either of them happy is taking E, a considerably less innocent pastime.
Basically, it's a song about the youth that was taken from this couple by the people who kicked the crap out of them for being gay. And that's not even at the top of my list...
Putting the Dog to Sleep by The Antlers (from Burst Apart)
No less an authority than Peter Silberman himself once assured Drowned in Sound readers that Putting the Dog to Sleep was "a song about reconciliation...making peace...moving on." Ha, that doesn't sound too upsetting! Why is this higher up the list than Take Ecstasy With Me?
Details, dear reader. For one thing, Silberman sounds absolutely done in his delivery of this song; he sounds as if he's been hollowed out, dragged through Hell backwards and kicked in the gut for good measure. Then there are the lyrics, which may well have been written to evoke 'reconciliation' but which actually make you completely terrified simply to go on living:
"Prove to me I'm not gonna die alone, put your arm 'round my collarbone, open the door, don't lie to me...you said 'I can't prove to you you're not gonna die alone. Trust me to take you home, to clean up that blood all over your paws.'"
Okay, I understand the message: it's better to trust your lover than to demand evidence that they won't, one day, stamp on your heart with golf cleats. But that one line, the line in bold: "I can't prove to you you're not gonna die alone." It doesn't matter what comes after that line, because by that point I've adopted the fetal position and can't hear Peter Silberman over the sound of my own sobbing.