I sometimes half-jokingly refer to one of my favorite genres of music as “sad folk.” It’s the kind of music that inevitably comes to dominate my Avett Brothers artist station on Pandora if I listen to it long enough. (The Avetts themselves are always painfully sincere and can be quite sad–have you heard “Murder in the City”?) The voices of this genre tend to be soft and introspective, and the music sounds like a rainy fall day: think Bon Iver or Alexi Murdoch. And yes, sometimes the lyrics can be rather devastating (the question is whether you can actually hear them). I tend to like sad songs in general, even if they don’t fit under the “folk” designation (which has recently gotten so broad as to not be very helpful). Here are some of my favorites.
- “She Loves You” by The Gaslight Anthem. No, this isn’t a Beatles cover, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the title is a deliberate allusion; TGA does love naming their influences. This was a bonus track on American Slang, and I feel bad for all the people who got the regular album and didn’t find out about this song. Brian Fallon’s voice can make any song sound sad, even Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” which he covered with side project The Horrible Crowes. The lyrics to “She Loves You” aren’t necessarily sad, though, just wistful. Like West Side Story and that Dire Straits song about Romeo and Juliet, this song places everyone’s favorite Shakespearean young lovers in an urban setting, which means that like most good Gaslight Anthem songs, this one has a strong sense of place. The tune is wonderfully singable and sounds like it’s been around for a long time (you know what kind of tune I mean?), which evokes another sense of the word “folk” even though this song fits more into the rock genre.
- “The Stable Song” by Gregory Alan Isakov. You’ve probably heard this singer’s beautiful, pained voice even if you’ve never heard his name; one of his songs was in a Subaru commercial recently. (One of the many reasons why hipsters buy Subarus, I guess.) I’ll be honest; I’m not 100% sure what “The Stable Song” is about, though I get hints of deep regret over a series of foolish decisions. (It’s definitely not about the stable where Jesus was born, though it did come up on a Christmas station I was listening to once!) What I love about this song, aside from its heartbreaking tune, is that it seems to have an Appalachian setting: it mentions the Ohio River, and one of its loveliest metaphors is “turn these diamonds straight back into coal.” Listen to the album version, but also check out the movie-score-worthy version featuring the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
- “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart. Despite the creepy cover, which shows a man with a sheep’s head, I own and really enjoy The Head and the Heart’s first album. (I just have to hide it behind my other records.) I’ve loved this song for a long time, but just in the past week, as I’ve been thinking about moving away from the place I’ve lived for 15 years and, in fact, entirely out of the Appalachian region (see above), where I’ve lived pretty much my whole life, I’ve started to listen to it in a new way. This song, like most of the album, is about coming and going and wanting to return. My favorite line, which in its matter-of-fact profundity sounds like a line The Avett Brothers would write, says, “My family lives in a different state/And if you don’t know what to make of this, then we cannot relate.”
- “A Little Bit of Everything” by Dawes. I posted a link to this song on Facebook the other day on National Chicken Wing Day because while there are probably lots of songs that rep chicken wings (mostly country songs, I bet), this is the only one I’m actually aware of. I included a warning that this is NOT some light-hearted novelty song, despite the chicken wing reference, so you should not listen to it unless you are prepared to weep. Dawes has written some of the most perfect rock lyrics since the classic rock era, and many of them are on display in this song. The verses are about, respectively, a would-be suicide who can’t nail down one reason why he’s about to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge (“it’s a little bit of everything”), a beaten-down-by-life older man experiencing decision paralysis in a buffet line, who reviews his bittersweet life and then decides to eat everything!! (this is the chicken wing part), and an engaged couple contemplating the life they’re about to embark on (this is the happy verse, though it still mentions the bride-to-be loving “the way you ache”). It’s a sad song, but it also communicates a defiant, white-knuckled determination to hold onto the good parts of life.
Maybe don’t listen to all four of these songs right in a row. Or maybe do. And while you’re at it, let me know what your favorite sad songs are.