Monday, August 20, 2012

The Five Most Soul-Crushing Songs of All-Time

My picks for the most depressing, dispiriting and disheartening pop ballads ever

- Rob Gordon, “High Fidelity” (2000)

This probably won’t come as a surprise to most people, but I’m what you would call a “wishy-washy-weepy-wimp-o” when it comes to popular AOR love ballads. It doesn’t take a lot to get me emotional when it comes to music; I used to get misty-eyed playing “Maps” in the first “Rock Band” game, I’ve bawled my goddamn eyes out to several Ramones songs and I even got a little choked up hearing Roy Orbison’s “Crying” when it was played in “Gummo” - as in, the 1997 movie about cat-slaying, glue-sniffing, anti-social Ohioans that beat each other up for fun. You can call me a sap if you like, but darn it, I can’t help it; I’ve got the romantic sentiments of a 19th century poet, and when popular art hits just the right spot in my ribcage, I’m a hormonal mess.

I’ve heard some spirit-crunching numbers over the years, and while even the archaic stuff by Everclear and The Verve Pipe can do me in on particularly nostalgic afternoons, there just so happens to exist five pop songs, in particular, that I consider the absolute cream of the crop when it comes to making listeners feel emotional pangs. These are the kind of songs that act as aural scalpels, those deft, haunting melodies that pierce through your flesh and tear those old emotional wounds from way back when all anew. You’ll probably disagree with my list, so if you think there are any songs out there that are more heart-shredding than these, feel free to post your own top five at the bottom of the page. Hey, why can’t we ALL reveal in the misery of popular music together?

Number Five:
“Black” by Pearl Jam 

KEY LYRIC: “I know someday you'll have a beautiful life /I know you'll be a sun /in somebody else's sky / but why, why, why / can't it be, oh can't it be mine?”

Over the years, I’ve noted that two songs in particular absolutely DECIMATE the sexual mores of Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, upper-middle class white girls. If their leanings are more toward the Goth subculture, it’s “Fade to Black” by Metallica, and for the more alternative/punky/mallcore lasses out there? THIS FREAKING SONG. You could have a Quaker in the passenger seat, and as soon as this song comes on, she’s tossing her panties out the window - it’s like Eddie Vedder’s pained vocals activate some sort of chemical chain reaction in their glandular system, and they just HAVE TO put out because of some carpe-diem, hypothalamus-enlarging bio-science that occurs as soon as the song tickles their cochleas.

I’ve never really been a big fan of Pearl Jam, but there’s no denying the emotional impact of this song. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people weeping on my shoulder while this one played…female AND male colleagues, for your information. If listening to early ‘90s grunge was like arranging a dentists’  appointment, this song would have to be the emotional equivalent of enduring a root canal.

The urban legend I always heard was that the lyrics were so harsh that Eddie Vedder refused to look at them while recording the song. It’s a little far-fetched, but I can believe it; the way his voice sheens off lyrics like “and now my bitter hands cradle broken glass” is just too anguished-sounding to be manufactured. There’s got to be some meaning there, and there’s definitely some real-life resentment booming past those morose bicuspids of his. And then, there’s the part where he talks about seeing some kids play in the park, and he’s absolutely outraged by their ability to be happy while his life is a swirling vortex of misery. It’s such a simple, un-dramatic lyric, and it feels realer than perhaps any of us would care to admit. This is a song that just flat out HURTS…in the best way possible, of course.

Likelihood You’ll End Up Drunk Dialing An Ex The Next Time You Hear It? VERY, VERY HIGH. 

Number Four:
ANYTHING from “Altered Beast” by Matthew Sweet

KEY LYRIC: “Stop what you're doing to me / my love don't want to see / then, we were young and strong / now, everything is wrong / did you want me? / did you need me? / could you not say, you believed me? / and our love is in a time capsule” (From “Time Capsule”)

Yeah, I know I’m cheating here, but I think it’s a disservice to Matthew Sweet - the absolute master of heart wrenching power pop - to include just ONE track from his magnum opus of grief, 1992’s “Altered Beast” on the countdown. The reality is, this entire album is just one dagger into your soul after another - and even when things seem to get upbeat, all you have to do is peel back the lyrics a bit and you realize this whole CD is the work of a man absolutely torn apart by lovesickness. All in all, there’s more human misery on this one album than there is Kurt Cobain’s entire discography COMBINED.

Sweet’s 1991 big-label debut, “Girlfriend,” was, itself, a pretty depressing album, written shortly after Matt’s divorce. Well, if “Girlfriend” was the sound of Sweet pouring tearfully over some old love letters, than “Altered Beast” might as well be the first draft of a suicide note. When Sweet titles a song “Somebody to Pull the Trigger,” he seems to be singing about EXACTLY what it sounds like he’s singing about - simply put, this material is about as dark as pop music can get without turning into a George Jones number.

The ballads on this one are just so sad and crushing, from the misanthropic “Knowing People” to the nostalgia of “Life without You” and “Evergreen,” to the absolutely hopelessness of “Devil with the Green Eyes,” which concludes with Sweet practically yelping the lyrics “every love I've ever known is dead” with the desperation of a deflated hot air balloon. I’ve got to be honest with you; I didn’t think anybody could make an album titled after a Sega Genesis game about turning into a werewolf and fighting rhinoceros monsters so depressing - which sorta’ makes me wonder how spirit-incinerating Sweet could have made an album patterned after “Dynamite Headdy” or “Ecco the Dolphin” in hindsight.

Likelihood You’ll End Up Drunk Dialing An Ex The Next Time You Hear It? PRACTICALLY GUARANTEED. 

Number Three:
“Luna” by Smashing Pumpkins

KEY LYRIC: “I’m in love with you / so in love / I’m in love with you / I’m so in love / I’m in love with you”

Admittedly, out of context, these lyrics look really humdrum and formulaic. So what, it’s just some bald dude that’s into the Chicago Cubs and pro wrestling saying he’s in love with stuff, right? Well, by the time you hit your mid 20s, you’ll realize there’s WAY more to this track than what, on the surface, it appears to be about.

Really, it begins with the opening line, which clues you into the context of the song. “What moon songs / do you sing your babies? / what sunshine do you bring?” Unless you’re really poor about deciphering things, it seems to be that Mr. Corgan is singing about an old flame who now has some kids of her own…and it ain’t you that sired them, muchaco. That’s a kind of hurt that makes all of the other forms of longing pale in comparison. So, you and your girl break up, and she finds somebody else. Well, that’s bad, but not as bad as finding out she got married which isn’t ANYWHERE near as bad as finding out she’s married and started a family without you. The only way things could get worse as if the entire clan gets offed in some gas-line leak, and the police erroneously think you’re the one that did it. And whoever writes that song can OFFICIALLY take the number one spot in this countdown in a legally binding redaction of the list.

I really think you have to be closing in on your thirties to truly grasp this song…which in turn, allows the misery to sink in that much deeper. Hey, did you kids ever see the final episode of “The Wonder Years?” Well, it concluded with Arnold telling the viewer that he sent Winnie Cooper a letter every week for eight years while she was in college…and when she finally got back to the States, he had married somebody else and had an eight-month old. That’s the kind of social arrangement you just can’t break off, you know, so you’re just kind of stuck there - you’ve got your own life, with somebody you care about deeply, and then the girl you USED to care about is off with somebody she cares about, but as it turns out - and as much as it makes you sick to dwell upon it - you still MIGHT have some feelings for her, anyway. It’s just this moral clusterschmazz of desire, and inner turmoil, and resentment, and guilt and personal disappointment - so when Corgan starts moaning “I’m in love with you” in this song,  it’s not a statement made out of nostalgia. Rather, it’s an admission that makes him ashamed and conflicted to the nth degree…and if that isn’t the definition of “soul crushing,” I really don’t know what is.

Likelihood You’ll End Up Drunk Dialing An Ex The Next Time You Hear It? 145 PERCENT.

Number Two:
“Sometimes” by My Bloody Valentine 

KEY LYRIC: “ I don’t know, maybe you could not hurt me now / here alone, when I feel down, too / over there, when I await true love for you / you can hide, oh now, the way I do / you can see, oh now, oh the way I do”

This track, off the band’s seminal (and considering the countdown’s theme, aptly-named) 1991 classic “Loveless” is a real anomaly on this list, for a couple of reasons. First off, this is a song that I only heard over the last year or so…which means unlike everything else on this list, I haven’t had decades to marinate in the sorrow of this track. That’s both a testament to the song’s power and something of a warning to not listen to it while you’re feeling particularly vulnerable. Especially that second thing.

The peculiar thing about the song, I suppose, is that it’s the first time I’ve ever been physically NUMBED by a song before. As soon as that lo-fi sound kicks in, it was like somebody tossed a blanket of disenchantment over my head and started beating me with batons forged out of pure melancholia. This is even more perplexing, because I had no idea what the hell these Irish chaps were saying - even though I couldn’t initially decipher a single syllable on the song, I just knew that whatever this guy was singing about was something sad, and super poignant. And then, I looked up the lyrics - two for two, was I.

Have you ever been in love with someone that didn’t love you back? Well, how about being in love with someone that doesn’t love you back, but at one point she DID love you back? Or how about being in love with someone that doesn’t love you, but at one point she DID love you back, that now hates your guts and refuses to acknowledge you ever exchanged glances at any point in time? Well, “Sometimes” is a song about all of that, I suppose - written from the perspective of a guy that just RAN into that girl, who didn’t notice him, or even worse, noticed him, and kept on walking just out of spite. He could literally call out her name, but…he just can’t. He just freaking can’t. And if your soul isn’t churning right now…it will be after listening to this song all the way through, I assure you.


Number One:
“The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley 

KEY LYRIC: “A little voice Inside my head said / "Don't look back, you can never look back” / I thought I knew what love was / what did I know? / Those days are gone forever / I should just let them go but…”

Anybody can write a mopey, sentimental ballad. It’s not really all that difficult to pen a song that strikes some sort of emotional chord with people - look no further than that one Kelly Clarkson song that even death metal elitists and gangster rap enthusiasts admit is a hell of a track. But to write a song AS soul-destroying as “The Boys of Summer” requires an almost superhuman effort on the part of the song writer. To this day, I’m convinced Henley’s objective with the track was to engineer the single most emotionally devastating H-bomb of a song in pop history - and for that, I both eternally admire the former Eagles front man, and will continue to hate his guts until the day I croak.

Not content with wallowing in the misery spawned by love lost in just ONE aspect, Henley explores THREE SEPARATE epochs of heartbreak in this song - all buttressed by the speaker’s recollections of his girl, walking around on the beach, eternally young and beautiful within the cinema of his mind. The first part of the song is sort of a mishmash between the past and the current, as the lyrics seem to indicate that the speaker is reflecting on the whereabouts of his old flame - even driving by her place at one point, even though he knows she isn’t going to be there. The second part is definitely a throwback to when the speaker initially lost his girl, and how he was ready to fight through hell and high water to win her back. And then, there’s the final part of the song, in which the speaker is an older, wiser man - perhaps with a wife and a family all his own - sitting in traffic, thinking about what’s her name, even though he knows its absolutely pointless to do so. It’s a veritable turducken of suffering, when you really get down to it.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve heard this song over the last few years, but every time I hear it…every goddamn time…it hits me in the stomach like a spinning back fist from Jon Jones. In fact, I think this song causes an especial individual harm to everybody that listens to it. Towards the end of the track, there’s a line where Henley says “Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” - well, I’ve heard at least two dozen covers of the song, and in EVERY SINGLE ONE, the lead singer decides to alter the lyrics and personalize it by changing that sticker to something that has some sort of meaning to him and his own inconsolable, interpersonal misery. It’s a song, more so than anything that I’ve ever heard, that just haunts you and haunts you - and even better, it has such a ubiquity to it that every time you’re out somewhere, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll hear it over the in-house stereo system. And believe you me, that’s a REAL easy way to ruin an otherwise perfectly good Cheesy Gordita Crunch meal, as has been my particular case on NUMEROUS occasions.


Well, that’s my list. As before, yours as sure to differ, and I’d love to hear some alternate takes out there. Got your own top five? Feel free to post them in the comment box, and we’ll all suffer as a collective. And just so we close out this hyper-depressing countdown on something that at least marginally resembles a high note….

1 comment:

  1. Great list with a lot of thought and insight into the deeper layers of the songs. And yes, the pain of looking back and seeing that once in a lifetime girl, radiant, glowing, basking in the sunshine, laughing with you, sharing quiet moment,s then knowing she is gone forever - that is a true gut punch. But for depressing - I mean, jumping off the cliff depressing - I don't know of anything that compares with the insane, wretched, screaming, hysterical ballad of a young man losing his job, so depressed that he kills his young wife and child then himself? THAT would be "Frankie Teardrop" by Suicide. The totally soul crushing lyrics, the semi-human, howls and screams of bottomless misery....


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