I've long thought that the most depressing music is that which doesn't immediately announce itself as such. The work of Radiohead, for instance, is often dismissed as 'music to slit your wrists to', but it's not like Thom Yorke et al make any secret of that; nobody is going to mistake No Surprises for a happy song, and for me, that obviousness kind of dulls the emotional impact.
Conversely - and this is an example that I've used previously - Jonathan Coulton's Shop Vac sounds upbeat and chirpy the first time you hear it, and only later do you realise how depressing the song truly is.
To wit: the narrator and his partner have become almost completely detached from each other, to the point where they never spend any time together any more. Still, it doesn't matter if she cries about it, because he'll be downstairs, and her sobs will be drowned out by the Shop-Vac (whatever that is).
Have you ever seen a movie or a TV show where one of the good guys unexpectedly turned out to be a baddie? Remember how shocked you were when that person revealed their true loyalties? Well, that's similar to what I'm talking about here - Radiohead don't make me feel depressed, because I'm not expecting their songs to be anything but misery and doom. The truly upsetting songs, the ones that really make you feel hollow and horrid inside, are the ones that let you get close to them; the ones that let you listen several times and believe that you've found the feel-good hit of the summer before they spin you around and plunge a knife into your back.
All of which brings me to Day-Glo Dreams by Helen Love.
Surely these Scott Pilgrim-esque funsters don't have anything depressing to say? Right...?
At first, this record sounds like the soundtrack to Super Monkey Ball or something. There are shiny synths and catchy choruses and all sorts of sparkly sonic bells and whistles that hide, for now, the album's true subject matter.
"We lived in a house with broken windows, on the wrong side of the street
The clothes we wore were old and torn, but our hair was clean and neat
And the kids were waiting outside the shops to knock us off our feet
And all we had was Day-Glo Dreams!"
Perhaps you pay closer attention to lyrics than me, but this is the sort of thing that I don't properly notice until maybe my third, fourth, or fifth listen. Eventually, though, I realised what Day-Glo Dreams (the album) is *really* all about: escaping. Escaping from a crap life that's going nowhere. Escaping through cute cartoon avatars and 7" vinyl and music from Japan.
Of course, now that I've spotted this theme, it seems blindingly obvious: how could I miss the clues in songs like Our Mum and Dad ("Our mum and dad, they turned older and grey/I watched Margaret Thatcher take their jobs away) and Don't Forget About This Town ("Needles in the playground/And all around town more shops are closing down every weekend")?
It's not totally bleak, of course - Helen Love are clearly strong believers in the idea that music and mates can rescue you from practically anything, hence tracks like We Are All The Lo-Fo Kids and Spin Those Records. Still, I had no idea when I first picked up that cute, comic-booky CD case that this album would give me such an accurate impression of what it's like to live in Swansea. Sure, there are loads of great poppy hooks to be had here, but the whole package sounds quite a bit more melancholy when you realise that those hooks were mainly written to take the author's mind off the dullness, drudgery, and nastiness of the world around her.
Day-Glo Dreams is available from Elefant Records.