Achy-Breaky, Not Quite
Left to right: Sun Kil Moon, Okkervil River, New Ruins (photo by Tanara Yates)
This Century's Top 10 Sad Songs From Americana's Stranger Side
by Kevin Chesser
Look: I'm not gonna sit here and pretend that I'm an authority on Americana, folk, country, alt-country, alt-Americana, alt-folk, neo-folk, freak folk, gothic country, and whatever other vapid nomenclature the world of music has to offer. List-making, especially musical list-making, is eternally fraught with the gripes of contentious music aficionados who feel that their self-acclaimed authority on music is more, er, authoritative than anyone else's. So let's make a pact, right here, before things get ugly:
I, ___________________ understand that whether or not I agree that these songs deserve a superlative title, I fully acknowledge that the author has, in fact, listened to them, appraised them, and certified them as 100 % mope-tastic. Criticism of this article may NOT contain the words "How could you not have included" under the premise that music is a subjective media and the author doesn't feel like hearing about it.
OK, now that we have the sticky formalities taken care of, I believe we can get this self-deprecating, heart-mauling, painfully intimate party under way. So, in no particular order...
1) Sun Kil Moon "Carry Me Ohio" from Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003)
Even the initial peep at the lyric sheet makes this a classic contender for one of the great ‘sad' songs of our time. The first lines: "Sorry that I could never love you back / I could never care enough / in these last days." Mark Kozelek carries the piece for over six minutes, with multiple layers of rich, downtrodden guitars forming its base. Kozelek's unconventionally soothing, ghostly voice lends an earnest frailty to the song all the way through. The pain, like in any decent threnody or ballad, is exceptionally palpable. By the end of the song the listener is more than immersed; to say that this song's balance of melodic subtlety and lyrical gravity is addictive may be the understatement of the century (brief that it may be).
2) The Angels of Light "The Kid Is Already Breaking" from The Angels of Light Sing Other People (2005)
The songs begins with violins unloading a couple decades worth of stress into the speakers, squealing and groaning for just about twenty seconds before the song sheds its clothing and Michael Gira, in his bruised yet crisp intonation, decrees: "The kid is already breaking/ and he's just a little boy." The bulk of the song rides on its austerity. There's virtually no question of what Gira's singing about, his vocals sharp and articulate, and except towards the end, there are no other layers than a single acoustic guitar to distract oneself from it. There's an immense wave of guilt that pervades the song, but I don't think anyone would have trouble feeling Gira's sincerity when he says "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry/I did the best I knew how to do."
3) Low Skies "Cousin" from All The Love I Could Find (2006)
This song acquaints the listener with the deepest recesses of childhood angst and confusion, so intimately that one may feel repelled by the song at first. The entire album is comprised of slow burning, apocalyptic garage atmospherics, sounding like Explosions In The Sky trying their hand at dirty country-blues songs. "Cousin" is, ostensibly, about incest: "Cousin, you're the love of my life/ I was fourteen years old and they caught us kissin'." Oh my, it looks like we have a classic case of teenage confusion on our hands. Or do we? Next line: "And fumblin' to turn out the light / I'd wake up at night to watch you pissin'." Not quite, perhaps. The whole story is told fittingly through Chris Salveter's quivering, pseudo-Southern wail, with a stroke of female vocals for further accentuation, sounding almost as if the cousins had reunited to tell their story. The intimacy of this song may unsettle most people, but for those willing to enter into it on its own terms, it's heartwrenching, beautiful stuff.
4) Songs: Ohia "Blue Factory Flame" from Didn't It Rain (2002)
Something sad is afoot in Ohio, as evidenced by our dear friends Mark Kozelek and Jason Molina. As if the opening line: "when I die/ put my bones in an empty street" isn't jarring enough on its own, the song, in accordance with the rest of this album, does indeed sound like it was recorded in an empty street. Or the rusted shell of a city bus. Or a collapsed warehouse. You get the idea. The slow, minimal percussion and the sparse electric guitar make this song the perfect dirge for the constituency of every ghost town in the universe to march along to. Their rallying call could be the song's haunting refrain: "Paralyzed by the emptiness." Paralyzed, indeed, though Molina is not one for melodrama. Along with placing his bones in an empty street, he'd also like the Cleveland game on the radio and a couple of fishing poles. I think we can manage that.
5) Okkervil River "Kansas City" from Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See (2001)
Okkervil River has a knack for the crescendo, and arguably no other song in their catalogue demonstrates one quite as heart-wrenching and heated. But before we can get to the song's gushing climax (I'm really not going for sexual imagery here), you have to understand that it's prefaced with nearly 4 minutes of moaning harmonica, slide guitar, and violin, making for a build up almost as emotional as the apex of the song itself. Will Sheff tells the story of a woman looking for Kansas City and cocaine, while the narrator looks for her from across the expanse of river. Goodness, that's a mind-full. The song crawls along with sorrowful verse after sorrowful verse, until the great Okkervil River pay-off comes crashing in through the ceiling. Will Sheff's voice raises to a half-screamed wail: "Bye-bye baby, bye-bye baby, so long next tiiiiime." Then, it's all hands on deck for a freaked-out yet eloquent instrumental burst before the song slows down again and drifts into silence. Talk about emotional aerobics.
6) New Ruins "Flowers" from The Sound They Make (2007)
This song is a panorama of decay and ennui, with images of weeds and flowers growing in the floors of empty houses and cars rusting away into oblivion. The constant refrain of "I've been around this town now for so long" is like watching a miniature fault-line sprout up in someone's heart each time it's uttered. Elzie Sexton's stark, dim baritone is just as hollow as it is heartbreakingly sincere, and the simple yet impassioned acoustic guitar is accompanied by a somber cello. This entire album straddles the line between rock and folk, sorrow and release, but no other song seems to epitomize the record's emotional core than this one. Though they've been labeled by a handful of critics as "goth-folk," there seems to be less blood and drama (a la The Handsome Family, perhaps) and more earthly, small-town sentiments. Even the ghosts are less than fantastic: instead of frightening people, they wander around town like they did when they were alive. Every time I hear "Flowers," I question more and more whether Sexton isn't a ghost himself.
7) Jim White "Bluebird" from Drill A Hole In That Substrate And Tell Me What You See (2004)
Not every song that conjures up images of a painful past has to end on a down-note. Don't be mistaken though, when Jim White reflects on his past, it aint easy: "The lonely hiss of passing cars / feeds the ache of ancient scars/ like ghosts beneath my bed rattling chains./ No good luck charm or remedy ever proved to soothe my sanity / nor bad medicine served to ease my pain." The song is awash in a consuming but calm wall of swirling guitars and keyboards, and overall, the melodies and layers of this song ache out loud like few other tunes I know of. Though, this song is not all pain. Throughout, White talks about his love for the bluebird outside of his window, and holding his son in his arms; "I can see the heaven in your eyes /and I thank God them years I searched/ were not in vain," he says. Jim White, it seems, has finally found his way out of the rain, but damned if he isn't adamant about remembering what came before it.
8) Sufjan Stevens "John Wayne Gacy Jr." from Illinois (2005)
Admittedly, "Casimir Pulaski Day" is a close second to this song, but the delicacy of the instrumentation and the heaaaaavy lyrical content just barely edged it out. OK, so John Wayne Gacy Jr. was a serial killer who moonlit as a clown for children's birthday parties. True. Sufjan, however, refuses to settle for this synopsis. Gacy isn't demonized in this song, but simply documented. Sufjan has a subtle sort of sympathy for Gacy, taking the time to make him human, and understand the road he traveled to end up as a serial killer. All the while, the acoustic guitar and piano sounds fragile enough to crack right in half, and Sufjan's voice barely rises above a whisper. At the end of the song, he delivers perhaps one of the most crushing lyrics ever penned: "In my best behavior, I am really just like him / look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid." The true genius of this song is its approach to the subject. Instead of singling out Gacy as the sole monster amongst a world of victims, Sufjan instead views Gacy as the representation of the evil we all harbor within ourselves, finding the tragedy on all sides of the equation, not just the victims'. In the context of this song, we're all indicted, one way or another.
9) M. Ward "Post-War" from Post-War (2006)
M. Ward came through big on his latest album, with a full rock n' roll band in tow of his minimal-yet-brilliant folk musings. That's why it's no surprise that we see him actually using instruments besides an acoustic guitar to lead a song or two; its title track in particular. Led by lofty dabs of electric keyboard, "Post-War" fades in slowly and breezily, like a yellow newspaper blowing through a deserted city street. "Say the money just aint what it used to be / man how we used to tear apart this town / put a dollar into the machine / and you'll remember how." This sentiment is nothing out of the ordinary for Ward, whose albums are crackly, anachronous slideshows of the generations that preceded him. The song seems to levitate with emotional ambience, and the lyrical journey is the exact opposite of Jim White's "Bluebird." The protagonists of this song pine for days long past, but hey, it could be worse: they could have forgotten them all together, but Ward would never let that happen.
10) Silver Jews "I Remember Me" from Bright Flight (2001)
In terms of melody and instrumentation, this is joyous compared to the rest of the songs on this list. Which isn't to say that in the grander scheme of things this song is jubilatory: the verses are slow and quiet, and even when the chorus picks up it's drippy and reserved, not to mention that David Berman has a way of channeling the doldrums through whatever it is he might be singing. No, this song made the list because of its exceptional lyrics, a common trait of most anything Berman has written. Submitted for your approval: a man and a woman fall fast in love, dancing underneath a frayed moon, charging down water slides, throwing boom boxes into the sea. The man is hit by a truck, and sent into a coma deemed indefinite and terminal by the doctors. But alas, the man does awake!: "and when he finally came to/the girl he loved was long gone / she married a banker, gone to Oklahoma." Talk about all sorts of bittersweet. Our protagonist is left to reassemble his life: "(He) even bought the truck that hit him that day / he touched the part where the metal was bent / and if you were there you would hear him say / I remember her / And I remember him." If that doesn't moisten your tear ducts at least a little bit, you're probably a robot (incidentally, another reoccurring image in Berman's work).
So there you have it: yet another highly disputable, utterly incomplete list of music. But, regardless of whether or not you agree with the superlatives presented here, the point of all this gunk is this: these songs are great because of what they embody. Painful, but never melodramatic, reflective, but never unaware of the present, alleviated, but never forgetful of the tribulations that came before. This is longing and desolation done right, and I don't think there are many people who will argue with that. Yearn on, you great sad-saps.
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