Staff Top 10
Top Ten Lines From Sad Songs

this 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
Published on: 2004-07-09
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