Sad songs (Notes on Culture I)

A cursory examination of the landscape of sad songs suggest that they fall into a number of categories: break up songs, songs about missing someone, songs about falling apart — but the best ones probably mix all of these different categories and are about the sudden loss of meaning. Think of “Disintegration” by The Cure, and its despair:

[…]But I never said I would stay to the end
I knew I would leave you and fame isn’t everything
Screaming like this in the hope of sincerity
Screaming it’s over and over and over
I leave you with photographs, pictures of trickery
Stains on the carpet and stains on the memory
Songs about happiness murmured in dreams
When we both of us knew how the end always is
How the end always is

How the end always is
How the end always is
How the end always is
How the end always is

A good sad song allows for the complete collapse of concepts and truths around us, and captures that feeling of semantic uncertainty, our inability to assign meaning to what is happening, our lack of pattern. There is something there – the lack of patterns, the inability to make sense of the world, and the feeling that meaning is seeping away.

I think one of the best examples of this feel in general – a kind of Weltschmerz – is Nine Inch Nails “Right Where It Belongs”. Here the world is slipping away, the interpretations like claws on a smooth rock surface (this version is even scarier than the album one):

[…]What if all the world’s inside of your head?
Just creations of your own
Your devils and your gods all the living and the dead
And you really oughta know
You can live in this illusion
You can choose to believe
You keep looking but you can’t find the ones
Are you hiding in the trees?
What if everything around you
Isn’t quite as it seems?
What if all the world you used to know
Is an elaborate dream?
And if you look at your reflection
Is it all you want it to be?
What if you could look right through the cracks
Would you find yourself, find yourself afraid to see? 

The calmness with which the lyrics are delivered, the understated use of questions makes the doubt all the more personal and close. As the song slides into the last verse it comes closer and is drowned in the noise of a concert in the background, and we are invited to share the doubt carefully constructed through-out the song.

A variation on this theme of uncertainty, but brought home to a much more personal setting and therefore so much worse in a sense, is found in the National’s “About Today” (this version is perhaps the best one – but beware, it is 8 minutes). The lyrics sketch out, in the darkest possible way, the uncertainty – and it is a lack of certainty about exactly what the title says – about today. What happened, how it will affect us all, what it means for the future. The breakup is there, but radiating from it are the cracks and fault lines through out our lives:

You were far away
And I
Didn’t ask you why
What could I say
I was far away
You just walked away
And I just watched you
What could I say
How close am I
To losing you
You just close your eyes
And I just watch you
Slip away
How close am I
To losing you
Hey, are you awake
Yeah I’m right here
Well can I ask you
About today
How close am I
To losing you
How close am I
To losing 

The haunting drummer’s rhythm and drifting violin just add to the uncertainty, the first beginnings of fear in the way the singer almost doesn’t dare to ask, but murmurs the words.
There is a difference between sad songs and songs of sorrow, that is hard to articulate, but it can be clearly discerned from some of Nick Cave’s works. His “Push the sky away” is fundamentally a sad song:

[…]And if you feel you got everything you came for
If you got everything and you don’t want no more
You’ve got to just keep on pushing it
Keep on pushing it
Push the sky awayAnd some people say it’s just rock and roll
Ah but it gets you right down to your soul
You’ve got to just keep on pushing it
Keep on pushing it
Push the sky awayYou’ve got to just keep on pushing it
Keep on pushing it
Push the sky away

This song is all the more horrible because it deals with a variation of the team of meaninglessness – it is the feeling of being finished. All has been done. There is a certain kind of sadness that follows on completing complicated tasks or reaching ones goals, and the sense one gets from this song is that for this one person that sadness has spilled over, and now everything seems finished. They got everything they came for. They don’t want no more.

The album following this was the one Cave made after a horrendous personal tragedy, and I find it almost impossible to listen to – because those songs are not sad, they are filled with sorrow – and it is not that they are too private, it is just that that sorrow is so real that it cuts through. “Girl in Amber” is one example.

Songs of sorrow are songs that seek to construct meaning, sad songs are about meaning slipping away. Songs of sorrow have thing strands of hope in them. Sad songs come from a point of hopelessness, of determinism. Songs of sorrow look backward, and sad songs look forward.

The grammar of sadness is fundamentally distinct from that of sorrow.

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