Maybe tomorrow, a new romance, no more sorrow, but that’s the chance you gotta take if your lonely heart breaks.
—Roy Orbison, “Only the Lonely”
Songs help us process moments of importance, celebrating our collective experience and aspirations. We ask music to provide a living soundtrack: a good beat to dance to, stentorian marches to rally our spirits, amorous suggestions for our lovers and even sonic junk food.
We also need music for the darker parts of our lives. Sad songs help repair the wounds of lost love, tell the story of personal sacrifice for political ideals or the intimate struggle for personal identity. Almost every culture has shared its story through music — the endless variety of style, genre and language is fascinating. We deeply connect with “Amazing Grace,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” We seek Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” to remind us of our emotional determination. The enormous changes of the last 60 years have been chronicled by music. People of every background have shared their most intimate fears, hopes and regrets in song.
Sorrow found me when I was young,
sorrow waited, sorrow won.
—The National, “Sorrow”
Sometimes we can sing about things that are too difficult to say. People were shocked to hear Roy Orbison perform “Crying” in 1961, because men did not often talk about such things. Can you imagine a world without Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” or Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces”? These songs are more than entertainment, they’re a life raft. Legends like Umm Kulthum, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Cesária Évora, Billie Holiday, Caetano Veloso, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Presley and John Lennon have enormous impact on people’s lives. In many cases, their ballads (or religious work) touch listeners at their deepest core.
Rap music, despite its bravado and verbal virtuosity, chronicles tragic emotions, whether it’s The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts” or “The Return to Innocence Lost” by The Roots with poet Ursula Rucker. The shock of noisy bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins gaining ’90s mainstream fame was enhanced by their introspective recordings, be it Kurt Cobain’s lonesome version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” or SP’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Underground heroes like Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Diamanda Galas and Swans defied expectations with ballads. Codeine shocked audiences with powerful down-tempo dirges, followed by the haunting vocal harmonies of Low. Louisville’s Slint practically invented a genre, veering from antiseptic heavy jazz on their first LP to the intensely personal second album Spiderland. Its centerpiece, “Washer,” managed to use restraint, volume and tender lyrics to devastating effect, despite the prerequisite gripes of Bad Religion T-shirt-wearing teens in the audience. Soon, Will Oldham would provide solace with raw and elegiac song stories.
Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No.3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) became an unexpected commercial breakthrough in 1992. Performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw, the composition memorialized the lives lost in the Holocaust. Much like the reaction to Shostakovich’s breathtaking 1960 String Quartet No. 8 (“dedicated to the victims of fascism and war”), Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, audiences experienced real catharsis.
The ’80s Goth scene gave many scowl- and cape-wearing teens a way to release frustration and conquer self-hatred. Radiohead, Massive Attack and Portishead followed The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus, This Mortal Coil and The Smiths to explore dark terrains with stygian humor and dystopic lyrics. Closer to home, the excellent bands Wilco, The National, My Morning Jacket and Arcade Fire released albums that radiate pain, decency and sturdy perseverance. Lyrics about lonely suburbs, desiccated cities and the challenge of real communication struck a nerve.
I’ve acted out my life in stages, with 10,000 people watching. But we’re alone now and I’m singing this song to you.
— Donny Hathaway, “A Song For You”
Despite the amazing progress we’ve made toward a more tolerant, pluralistic society, there’s still no shortage of heartbreak and conflict. Perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that someone is out there, creating a song right now to help see us through.