Music is one of those things that has the potential to convey a ton of emotion or to convey a lot of nothing. Like all art, most music tends to be the latter.
I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Contrary to the Thom Yorke theory of music, there’s no reason to be so serious all the time. I don’t necessarily always listen to the words when listening to music, because sometimes you just want to have some music on. However, there are plenty of songs our there that, despite your best efforts, will make you listen to the words, and sometimes, these songs are quite sad. Now, this may sound like one of the biggest “well, no shit, Sherlock” statements I have ever made – sometimes songs are sad – and it is, but here’s another one. Sometimes these songs are absolutely depressing. Incredibly so. These are some serious “I am a totally emotionally stable person and - stop that! You’re putting chinks in the armor!” almost-made-me-cry songs. And you know what? Maybe you will almost cry too. Maybe you will cry. Maybe you’ll make it through some of these songs and think “oh, well, that wasn’t so bad”, and then get to that one song that just gets to you. And then you will start fucking bawling.
So enjoy the list!
“Fake Plastic Trees” – Radiohead
Oh, Radiohead. I could probably compose this entire “five songs that have almost made me cry” list with you guys alone. Five times over. But in the interest of efficiency, I’m just going to mention the big one. Friends of my have told me that when they first heard this song, they did actually cry. Which isn’t really saying anything, you don’t know who my friends are, but what if I told you, say, Thom fucking Yorke collapsed on the studio floor in a fit of tears after recording the vocals for this song. That’s right, this song took down Thom Yorke. The man who considers “Lucky”, a Radiohead song with the lyrics “Kill me Sarah / Kill me again” to be a “happy” song. Live versions of this song are especially painful, where the electric guitars let loose at the third verse, right as the song’s narrative, previously a sprawling sort of tale of people with perfectly normal and perfectly meaningless lives, rolls into first person for the first time, as the speaker tells us “She looks like the real thing / She tastes like the real thing / My fake plastic love”. This isn’t a “Soylent Green is people!” sort of tasting, this is a “Well, this is what I take into my life” sort of thing. And it’s fake. And it’s normal. If there’s any easy way to tear at the listener’s heartstrings, it’s to switch to first person and suddenly speak vaguely about the shortcomings in an interpersonal relationship. Oh god. What if my life only tastes like the real thing? What can I do? We turn to the speaker for guidance, dammit, man, you’re right, but at least we’re in this mess together! Tell us, what do we do? How did you solve this problem? At that point, the song concludes with “If I could be who you wanted all the time…” Leaving us hanging. Forever. Because that’s just life.
“This Year” – The Mountain Goats
Now, wait, you might say, the chorus for this song is “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me”. How could that be sad? It’s a little bittersweet, certainly, but that’s a confident, reassuring statement! Right? Well, it sounds happy and optimistic enough for a while, and then you get to the verse about they guy’s abusive step-father. And infers all sorts of violence. And then, out of left field, the line “There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year”, and then we’re right back into “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me” and you find you have to leave the room for a few minutes to compose yourself. I don’t know how exactly it all comes together like that, but it tears you apart. Something about the combination of those two lines. That new one and then the repeated one. The one that’s repeated again and again. Aaand again. I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me. Repeat times a million. Because that’s about how many times you’re going to have to reassure yourself, hey, things suck, but, um, at least they’re almost over? And then things are better?
“A Better Place, A Better Time” – Streetlight Manifesto
So remember that little depressing narrative trick I shared with you earlier? Write a lyric about an unspecified female character and BAM automatic sorrow? Now write an entire song about an unspecified female character. Trying to kill herself. Now have the narrator spend six and a half minutes pleading with her not to. Now, it’s almost cheerier than “Fake Plastic Trees” in that at least he doesn’t collapse in an existential crisis by the end. Nope, instead, he’s fully aware how powerless he is to change her mind. He’s so desperate to help, but isn’t sure how. He says “I’ll draw your bath and I’ll load your gun, / But I’ll hope so bad that you’ll bathe and hunt”. Is he doing kind of a shitty job keeping someone from suicide? Maybe. But how does he know? All he can do is “swear that you’ll wake in a better place in a better time”. The song contains a ton of her half of the argument too. “The saddest day I came across / is when I learned that life goes on without me”. And so on. It kind of piles on, actually, and by the time it’s all done, we’re left with this:
I know that you think that you’re on your own
but just know that I’m here
and I’ll lead you home
if you let me
She said “forget me”
but I can’t
“Heaven” – Talking Heads
The chorus is simply the repeated statement that “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”. How fucking depressing is that? Just let that thought sink in for a minute. We have the concept of heaven, so well embedded in our language that a definition not only isn’t even necessary, but just about insulting, and here it’s stated, as plain as can be, that it’s a place where nothing happens. Now think about nothing. Now think about the afterlife. Put the two together. Ohhhhh shit, things just got a little real, didn’t they?
Now think about how each time the chorus rolls around, David Byrne’s voice strains a little more. How it’s a little more pained. How each time he says it, he screams a little more. How each time he says it, the universal existential hell is a little closer.
“War on Drugs” – Barenaked Ladies
The Barenaked Ladies album this song comes from, Everything to Everyone, was the first album I ever owned. Embarrassingly, not because it’s a bad album, but because of “Another Postcard”, the “oh shit, I know you guys are actually a really artsy band, but you’re only popular in the States because of ‘One Week’, so suck it up and write more funny rap-pop songs”, to which the Ladies obliged to and then probably responded with “War On Drugs”, a lullaby from hell. It’s not just depressing for the sake of being depressing, this is like every person’s tortured inner struggle condensed into a few stark observations, ranging from “Won’t it be odd to be happy like we always thought we’re supposed to feel but never seem to be?” to “They say that Jesus and mental health are just for those who can’t help themselves”. It’s like for every line they wrote for this song, they thought “Man, I don’t know if we’re getting the point across yet. Let’s add a verse about the Bloor Street viaduct.” Here’s the kicker, it’s not a bad song. It’s goddamn beautiful. Yet it gets even bleaker in retrospect, after Steven Page left the band after his cocaine arrest and the resulting feud/pissing match between him and his former bandmates, and it seems like the point of the song kind of got missed somewhere along the line. But at least it isn’t six and a half minutes of talking someone out of killing themselves like Streetlight Manifesto’s “A Better Place, A Better Time”, right? He does come to the conclusion that suicide isn’t worth the trouble. But it comes off as a little unconvincing when the song ends with “another died and the world just shrugged it off.” The song does its very best to convince us that we all need to do a better job helping each other, but only sort of. It does a much better job addressing the futility of the human condition.
Now, if I did my job correctly, at least one of you is crying now. Don’t bother leaving a comment tell me that you didn’t cry. We all know you’re lying, you pansy.