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Staff Top 10
Top Ten Lines From Sad Songs

his list, like all of mine, is a bit of a hodge-podge. I had one of those weird serendipitous moments recently when a few songs in a row came up on my computer that all had a similar feature. They were all sad songs, in some sense, and they all had a certain line that stood out for some reason. Often this was because the line in question revealed a previously obscured element, but there are exceptions. I stuck with just sad songs for no other reason that because that’s where I started, and if I didn’t limit myself at least that much cutting it down to ten lines would have been completely impossible.

10. Wake up without thinking / You're the one that I desire (Beck – Hollow Log)

A simple acoustic song consisting lyrically of a series of directions to someone, it wasn’t until I’d heard it a few times that I really listened to the lyrics. And that, of course, was when “Hollow Log” turned from a pleasant if harmless little piece of doggerel into a cryptically poignant request. Beck never wants her to find out, and we never find out why.

09. America’s watching / Blood-stained ink blotches (Wu-Tang Clan featuring Isaac Hayes - I Can’t Go To Sleep)

I admit to not knowing reams about rap, so take it with the customary grain of salt when I say “I Can’t Go To Sleep” is the saddest rap song I have ever heard. Hayes and Ghostface both do superlative jobs, but it’s the near incoherent with rage and pain RZA that is the heart of the song for me. The part where the strings rise again, nearing a shriek, and RZA spits out the above lines marks the beginning of the part of the song that first nailed me to my seat and continues to exert power hundreds of lines later. The part that sticks with me is the way he spits out “America’s watching” like it’s supposed to be a threat to the bad guys, and like he knows in his heart of hearts that they aren’t, and it’s not.

08. It’s not the biggest bridge / But it’s still something he did (The Wrens – Won’t Get Too Far)

The Wrens’ “Won’t Get Too Far” is a beautifully foggy lo-i quasi-ballad, all watery guitars untuning themselves before your eyes and luminous harmony. That it’s a gorgeous song about never leaving your hometown, about getting stuck, only tugs the heartstrings more. The lynchpin of the song is near the beginning, as the narrator talks about the bridge his brother helped build. The dull hurt of failing yourself, of not measuring up to self-created tests thrums through the song like a heartbeat. By omission the narrator assumes that he has done nothing, and for that he will remain in his purgatory for the rest of his life.

07. Fuck this, I’ve felt like this for a week / I’d put a knife right into his eyes (Belle and Sebastian – The Chalet Lines)

Rape is, as I assume is obvious, an exceedingly delicate topic to write songs about. I think “The Chalet Lines” works, from Stuart Murdoch’s deadened delivery to the oddly specific details in parts. But what really hit me the first time I heard it were these lines, delivered in the exact same way by Murdoch. They, among a few others (especially “She asks me why I don’t call the law / Oh, what’s the fucking point of it all?”) resist the easy classification of the narrator and what happened to her. You sympathize, of course, but the rather sudden changes in mood and cold certainty in Murdoch’s voice prevent most of us (and hopefully one day all of us) from really identifying.

06. Do you really want to break up? (Black Box Recorder - The English Motorway System)

Considering they are led by a supreme pop ironist, some might find it strange Black Box Recorder have managed to make some perfectly affecting “straight” songs. It shouldn’t–you have to know the rules in order to break them. “The English Motorway System”, down to its deadpan title, might be their best. No-one I’m sure is fooled by the ostensible discussion of the English highways, and Sarah Nixey’s characteristically brilliant delivery instantly confirms that she’s avoiding the subject via the chorus: “There are things we need to talk about / There are things I cannot do without”. And then twice, slipped in almost as an afterthought, recorded as though on tape, Nixey asks the real question. I had completely missed it the first few times I’d skimmed the song, and upon hearing it I listened to the track again with new ears. A masterful example of emotional obliqueness which, as always, conceals nothing.

05. I never will (The Smiths – Back to the Old House)

Morrissey writes supremely good sad songs, whatever his other faults may be. “Back To The Old House” is like a dark mirror of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, the protagonist now looking back on how he never told the object of his affections his true feelings rather than trying to sum up the courage to do so. What truly distinguishes this, as well as “There Is A Light…” and his other classics is Morrissey’s scrupulous honesty. “Back To The Old House” is a mere nostalgia trip, however pretty, until Morrissey admits “I would love to go back to the old house / but I never will / I never will”. The third time he repeats “I never will” Morrissey’s voice escapes his throat in full flight, a lifetime of stifled mourning given inadequate expression.

04. Did you go bad? (Radiohead – Fog)

Some songs just sound sad, and the subdued digital burble and downcast bass of “Fog” (Radiohead’s finest b-side, and one of their finest songs period) qualifies. Thom Yorke’s delivery of the minimal lyrics only makes it worse, singing quietly and clearly with a note of regret, but no energy and no anger. One might expect some given the ending refrain and his observation that “some things will never wash away”. But there’s just that quiet disappointment and acceptance in his voice, ripping your heart out. Note also how the guitar gnarl of the end of the song makes a tambourine one of the saddest sounds in the world.

03. I could not foresee this thing happening to you (The Rolling Stones – Paint It, Black)

“Paint It, Black” is one of the saddest songs ever written. It is about the human being as dead-end, reduced to perceiving only dichotomy (good/before, evil/now). The lyrics in full are eminently quotable, everything from the narrator’s desire for oblivion in the setting sun to the famously bleak “like a newborn baby it just happens every day”. But the full weight of grief (which Jagger handles surprisingly well given or perhaps because of his reputation) is really apparent in this one line; this is every regret we have when our loved ones die, every wasted day, every sliver of guilt that the casket drives in. He is utterly blameless for not foreseeing “this thing”, but that does not, will not matter to him.

02. They never say to come home (Songs: Ohia – Blue Factory Flame)

There is a moment on each of the seven songs that make up the Songs: Ohia album Didn’t It Rain that make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. But none of those moments are as strong as this line from “Blue Factory Flame”. Jason Molina has already given us burial instructions for his own death and sung of going home where he is “paralyzed by the emptiness”, but while your attention can wander as the track slowly unfurls, when Molina softly sings that he hears ‘them’ calling and then yells out “they never say to come home” the pain in his voice centers the song, draws its vague disaffection up into something towering and monstrous, some deep well of hurt that people inflict onto each other. Molina and his ilk may sometimes be accused of nothing more than bleak miserabilism, but here the man channels pure electricity.

01. Some people they leave home every day (Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci - The Humming Song)

This is the song that started this list in my head, the paradigmatic case for me of a line standing out in sharp relief from the rest of the song, casting new light unto it. “The Humming Song” is already pretty gloomy, with its closing reminder “But this is the humming song / You sing it when you’re on your own”. Like all the songs here, the delivery is what really gets to you, but the line I’ve picked here, tucked away at the end of one of the verses, really digs the point home. With its possible double meaning (mourning for those enslaved to their jobs and those with no homes any more equally) it has to be heard, Gorky’s beautiful classicist rock rumbling on in the background and Euros Childs’ voice becoming even softer and more plaintive for the moment. It’s nothing more than a description of our world, but it’s uttered like a prayer for change.

By: Ian Mathers

Log In to Post Comments
Posted 07/09/2004 - 03:19:16 AM by Kevin_Worrall:
 "I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through, I'm ashamed of the person I am." (Joy Division - Isolation). A little obvious coming from Ian Curtis, but my personal heartbreaking favorite.
Posted 07/09/2004 - 08:52:01 AM by howardcos:
 Mark Eitzel's "Lazarus wasn’t grateful for his second wind" from "I've been a mess" has always done it for me.
Posted 07/09/2004 - 10:16:02 AM by clem_bastow:
 "Hello/How are you?/Have you been alright?/Through all those lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely nights": ELO's "Telephone Line".
Posted 07/09/2004 - 01:31:20 PM by IanMathers:
 Now this is the sort of response I like. Anyone got any more?
Posted 07/09/2004 - 02:01:36 PM by morninghollow:
 "glass on the pavement under my shoe / without you is all my life amounts to" from red house painters, "katy song" ... there's gotta be at least 40 RHP songs that could make this list, but that's always been my favorite. oh yeah, and from grace cathedral park (played live): "why did you hurt me like this?"
Posted 07/09/2004 - 02:01:50 PM by AUnterberger:
 "Don't say a word/the last one's still stinging"
Posted 07/09/2004 - 02:44:31 PM by verso44:
 Just about every line from Shudder to Think's "The Saddest Day in My life" would have to qualify.
Posted 07/09/2004 - 04:38:08 PM by Mman_-:
 "I'm not writing my goodbyes. I submit no excuse. If this is what I have to do I owe you every day I wake. " - Brand New, Guernica
Posted 07/09/2004 - 06:34:55 PM by mregan:
 do you really want to hurt me? / do you really want to make me cry? C'mon, let's not take ouselves too seriously.
Posted 07/09/2004 - 07:50:14 PM by Nick_S:
 Wow! One of my favourite topics, albeit one that I'd consider a big time guilty pleasure... Oh well can't resist contributing. I heartily agree with whomever mentioned RHP. One that really hits me is in "Trailways" when Kozelek announces "But you were my friend at the turn of my life's events" after a few lines of a typical Kozelek narrative. This to me is so tender. As for Joy Division "24 Hours" is my pet Joy Division heartbreaker... "Just for one moment I thought I'd found my way/ Destiny unfolded I watched it slip away" and that roaring guitarruption occurs. Another real potent one is in the Billy Holliday version of "I Get Along Without You Very Well" from 'Lady In Satin.' The schlocky arrangement coupled with her eeriely decrepit delivery of the story of someone pretending to themselves and the rest of the world that they're over a relationship is devastating to me. It's such an interesting combination. The highlight is probably the opening when she says: "I get along without you very well, of course I do; Except when soft rains fall and drip from leaves, then I recall The thrill of being sheltered in your arms, of course I do; But I get along without you very well." Ouch!
Posted 07/10/2004 - 11:07:11 AM by mobygrape:
 walking down a freezing street, scarf goes out behind, you say get them away, please dont say a word get me out of here get me out of here i hate it here get me out of here Big Star Nighttime
Posted 07/10/2004 - 11:10:01 AM by mobygrape:
 i have a date with a rich white lady aint life great, give me one reason not to do it.... Kings Road by elliott smith
Posted 07/10/2004 - 01:05:00 PM by snowface:
 clem_bastow's ELO reminded me of "Horace,this is it,he asks the girl if maybe they could marry,when she says "gladly." Horace cries. woo hooooo" maybe that's not sad... but it is emotional in the song. Made me tingle first time i really listened to the song. oh yeah the song's by ELO and it's called "Horace Wimp".
Posted 07/11/2004 - 02:58:36 AM by deadbody:
 kick ass piece. glad to see 'paint it, black' was listed.
Posted 07/12/2004 - 04:20:03 AM by mrleeward:
 "If I didn't no different, living alone'd probably be OK/ I got a long way to go/ getting further away" or "I never really had a problem because of leaving But everything reminds me of her this evening" both from Elliott Smith Figure 8
Posted 07/12/2004 - 05:49:30 AM by DomPassantino:
 No I can't forget this evening Or your face as you were leaving But I guess that's just the way The story goes You always smile but in your eyes Your sorrow shows Yes it shows
Posted 07/12/2004 - 06:18:39 AM by stagger_lee:
 "and drop them in to the muddy water off the Tallehatchee Bridge"
Posted 07/12/2004 - 11:38:37 AM by IanMathers:
 Dom, what's that song? It's on the tip of my tongue but just out of reach for some reason.
Posted 07/12/2004 - 12:56:22 PM by Snorfle:
 "So I told her I loved her/And she told me she loved me/And I mostly believed her/And she mostly believed me" AND "Count it a blessing/That you're such a failure/Your second chance/Might never have come" - Pedro the Lion "Options" & "Winners Never Quit"
Posted 07/13/2004 - 12:46:53 PM by UpToPizmo:
 "I thought I'd be singing a different tune by now, but the song about you keeps comin out" - Owen And I agree with morning hollow on just about any RHP song
Posted 07/13/2004 - 02:53:49 PM by haroldchasen:
 A few of my favorites..."I remember quiet evenings trembling close to you" (Tom Waits - Martha). "Well, I love you so much/It's all I can do/Just to keep myself from telling you/That I never felt so alone before" (The Band - It Makes No Difference). "And I remember something you once told me/And I'll be damned if it did not come true/20,000 roads I went down, down, down/And they all led me straight back home to you" (Gram Parson - Return of the Grievous Angel). "Broken down and hungry for your love, with no way to feed it" (Jeff Buckley - Lover, You Should've Come Over). "Faith has been broken, tears have been cried/Let's do some living after we die" (Rolling Stones - Wild Horses). But the one I always think of is the obvious..."There's a club if you'd like to go/You could meet somebody who really loves you/So you go and you stand on your own/And you leave on your own/And you go home and you cry and you want to die" (Smiths - How Soon Is Now).
Posted 07/13/2004 - 09:39:50 PM by capnandtennile:
 The nice thing about your list is that it isn't about the lyrics but about the lines as they're delivered in the song--as it should be. In the past I've made the mistake of quoting song lyrics to people who have never heard the songs they come from. Obviously, this never works. So in the spirit of the song rather than the written word, I'll offer this one (mainly for originality): "It won't be long/before everyone is gone" -- from the widely-hated and forgotten "Little James"
Posted 07/14/2004 - 08:13:17 AM by ninja-bob:
 "she's a jar with a heavy lid, my pop quiz kid. a sleepy kisser, a pretty war with feelings hid. you know she begs me not to hit her." -wilco - she's a jar. that one really hurts. and the "i can't forget that evening etc." tune was "without you", sung by mariah carey, but written by dolly parton, if i'm not mistaken. and when chet baker sings "everything happens to me" there isn't a dry eye in the room.
Posted 07/14/2004 - 11:25:30 AM by haroldchasen:
 I believe "Without You" was written by Badfinger, although Harry Nilsson's cover from his Nilsson Schmilsson record was the version that ended up on the radio back in the 70's.
Posted 07/14/2004 - 02:03:10 PM by amnesoid:
 "an ambulance can only go so fast" in neil young's ambulance blues. and then the rest of 'on the beach' side B, on worn-out vinyl. but probably, in my wealth of experience, the taker of the prize is the black heart procession's 'the one who has disappeared'. "i am the one who has disappeared, and i'll reap my rewards" ; "when you look through me, i know i'm the one who has disappeared" ; "and when i turn, i turn away" ; "etc" jesus, this one would make vin diesel cry himself to sleep...
Posted 07/14/2004 - 04:10:33 PM by IanMathers:
 Thanks, capn, I think you're right (and you've certainly pegged the list). Thanks as well, ninja-bob, for clearing that up (I _knew_ I'd heard it before!), although I must say that "She's A Jar" isn't in my opinion the saddest song about spousal abuse (that'd be Bowie's "Repetition" - watch for the "Lodger" article soon). Harold, I thought of doing those very lines from "How Soon Is Now", but I'm a bit leery of writing about that song (yes, more so than "There Is A Light...") as so much has been said I'm not sure what I'd add. Plus, I've always loved "Back To The Old House" and someone had mentioned it to me via email recently...
Posted 07/15/2004 - 10:21:24 PM by clem_bastow:
 You know, a lot of people think "Without You" is actually cursed; after all, think what it did to Nilsson, Badfinger, Mariah Carey...
Posted 07/15/2004 - 10:25:04 PM by clem_bastow:
 Oh, and: "Shelter me from the powder and the finger/Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger/Think of me as one you'd never figured/Would fade away so young/With so much left undone/Remember me to my love,/I know I'll miss her" - WAAAAHHH!
Posted 07/17/2004 - 10:26:31 PM by sekaer:
 Good Job, morninghollow--Grace Cathedral was my 1st pick too. Here is the even more devastating full quote: "Tell me why are you like this? // Are you the same with anyone? Save me from my sickness // and tell me why are you like this // why are you like this?" Now that's some sad shit! Also, let's not forget the dean of mope-core Lou Barlow...Brand New Love or It's So Hard to Fall in Love are pretty bleak
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