My renewed obsession with reading books combined with my lack of Internet access has led to a waning interest in listening to new music. It is sad, I will admit, that even if I did have Internet access, I would probably not be using it to procure new music. Furthermore, I am unable to listen to music while I read, as some can, and so the only time I listen to music lately is in my car, where I choose from a large but still limited selection of CDs.
But I have found a sense of freedom in all of this. I read all the time and I write all the time and as I grow in both of those areas, I am able to further appreciate music I’ve already heard in new ways. Undertones of emotion that were heretofore unheard by my ears have been opening themselves up to me, turns of phrase stand out not like sore thumbs but like oases, and song structure has become revelatory. Even production techniques – something that I had previously paid attention to only in a disengaged manner – are wells of inspiration. So it is through this disillusionment with music that I have come to appreciate music more.
I have always been a lover of lyrics; for as long as I’ve been listening to music, the words have been equally important as the music and melody. Lately though, I have been able to analyze lyrics more deeply, to pay attention to them not just as nice combinations of words that evoke feelings, but as skillful constructs by architects who are every bit as talented as authors of fiction novels. And as a result of that, I have been able to hew larger chunks of emotion – emotion I can define and relate to real life – from lyrics that I used to merely appreciate.
Here is a quick write-up I did of some sad lyrics because I couldn’t think of anything useful to write.
Patron saint, are we all lost like you? – Anberlin, “(*Fin),” Cities
Anberlin’s “(*Fin)” could be the most dramatic song I’ve ever heard, a song that skillfully skirts the thin line between effectiveness and gimmickry. Haunting imagery abounds, quite literally with mention of ghosts, but also in the role that the past plays in the song, that bitter force of memory that is always present. But what really elevates the song is the question, the pleading question that we all ask at one point or another: are we all lost? The phrase is given a personal slant in that it is a direct question toward a person, a patron saint, someone who is supposed to watch over all of us. And if he is lost, then what kind of hope do we have? As a final touch, made bold because of how easily it could have been cheesy, the line is sung by a choir of children – children who should be blameless and innocent but are instead wondering if they too are lost before their time.
So I’m left to pick up the hints, the little symbols of your devotion; and I feel your fist and I know it’s out of love – Antony and the Johnsons, “Fistful of Love,” I am a Bird Now
The tone of this song’s music is so light-hearted that it took me many listens to realize what Antony is singing about – abuse. Gorgeous piano, triumphant horns, and a saxophone solo all mask the dark nature of the lyrics, which are some of the most depressing I’ve heard. Antony’s voice is so amazing and feminine that it’s hard to imagine him singing about being physically abused, but his voice is exactly what makes the song so sad. The idea that someone could be abused and genuinely believe that it’s out of love is frightening but not unbelievable in the slightest. That this feeling is distressingly common gives the song an edge when it otherwise would not have had one. It is worse than denial; it is convivial acceptance, a willful settling for something that nobody deserves, covered up with pretty music.
I’ve been pouring my heart up through the floorboards, but you don’t live here no more – As Cities Burn, “Pirate Blues,” Hell or High Water
This image is one of the strongest I’ve ever heard in a song. It refers to a girl that used to live in the same apartment building as the singer. He would play his songs every day, hoping she would hear and be impressed. It is touching and sad, the thought of someone doing this every day, hoping to open up a door between himself and someone else and failing to do so. And after she moves out, he goes right on playing, hoping to impress the next person or, maybe, bring her back somehow.
I hope I won’t forget you – blink-182, “Asthenia,” blink-182
Tom DeLonge’s greatest triumph, “Asthenia” is told from the perspective of an astronaut in space. The production is cold and distant, and the lyrics are evocative and convincing. The music is almost mockingly jovial, with handclaps and bouncing drums. The entire chorus seems to be a lesson in simplicity – the repetition of “Should I go back?” – but then he hits us with the line that melts away all of the dross, the line that packs every other word in the song into seven: “I hope I won’t forget you.” The idea in itself is sad enough, but when you consider who is speaking – an astronaut – and the futility of his questioning, of his wondering if he should go back – because he can’t – then the song enters a new realm. The sadness does not come from the hope of not forgetting. The sadness comes from the inevitability of forgetting, from the knowledge that the lonely spaceman will succumb to the distance eventually, and we get the sense that he knows it.
You write such pretty words, but life’s no storybook – Bright Eyes, “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” Lifted…
This line stands out in the song because of its tenderness – something that is not present in the rest of the lyrics – and because of its denouncement of the written word in lieu of emotion. It is a backhanded line, for sure, but it is not spoken without a certain fondness. However, it’s sad because this sounds like just the sort of thing you’d expect to hear before getting your heart broken: “You’ve got your merits, but your merits aren’t good enough and, even worse, don’t even apply to real things, real life.” Oberst seems to realize that all he’s ever tried to do was conquer desire with his music, to lay his emotions out into a line that could be easily processed, but this particular lyric shows his realization that life rarely, if ever, works that way.
I need you so much closer, so come on – Death Cab for Cutie, “Transatlanticism,” Transatlanticism
This particularly wistful track from Death Cab’s breakout album is the pinnacle of their career. Distance is addressed over and over in the form of a massive flood separating everyone. That line is the clincher, repeated over and over, as if you can bring someone to you just by wishing it. Listening to this song, you’d almost believe it was possible.
Sing with all your heart: “Long live the queen.” – Frank Turner, “Long Live the Queen,” Love Ire and Song
The structure of this song is quite amazing. Frank sings the verses at a breakneck pace, barely pausing to take a breath before delivering another salvo. So quickly does he sing that, the first few times I heard the song, I didn’t even realize what it was about: a friend of his who died. It mirrors the way life races toward us at unimaginable speeds sometimes. He slows things down for the chorus, which ends with the line, spoken by his friend, “Stop looking so damn depressed and sing with all your heart that the queen is dead.” He tells of her death in the song’s bridge, but the news doesn’t sink in until the very last line, where he switches “The queen is dead” to “Long live the queen,” a poignant touch that brings the song full circle and really hammers his intentions home. After hearing that line, the listener is able to re-listen to the song with more scrutiny, trying to slow down Frank’s delivery and pick out the individual words that make up the sad tale.
Think of me when you’re out there; I’ll beg you nice from my knees – Paramore, “All I Wanted,” brand new eyes
Subtlety has never been Paramore’s strong point; this is never more obvious than it is on “All I Wanted.” The debasement in those two lines is unavoidable in its intent and slightly uncomfortable in its vague sexuality. This song breaks new ground for Paramore because the lyrics don’t aspire to be anything more than what they are, which is what makes them so effective. Hayley Williams’ willingness – eagerness, even – to debase herself to appease and satisfy the force of someone else’s memory is startling given the fact that, even with all her angst and obvious language, she never went as deep on other Paramore records as she does with those two lines without, it seems, even trying. The sadness comes from the realization that, in the right situation, we would probably all bring ourselves that low as well.
Give me some time and I might remember everything you ever did or said to me – Strung Out, “Swan Dive,” Exile in Oblivion
Without a doubt, the argument could be made that memory is the subject that lyricists write about most often – the memory of love, of good times, of bad times, of friends. Lyrics are drawn from memory, given life by the images in our heads. Anyone who has ever loved someone too much can relate to this particular Strung Out lyric. It is a uniquely depressing feeling to know that, given a few minutes to think, you could conceivably bring to mind every single thing that happened between you and that other person and feel an approximation of whatever feelings you had at that time.