When I was eleven years old, I chanced upon the video clip for Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’ while scrolling through the channels on my old family television set. Hearing that song for the first time proved to me unequivocally that pop or rock music could be… kind of pretty. This song was lullaby-like and even had some gentle glockenspiel tapping along upon the surface of the arrangement. I was in awe and this would mark the beginning of musical exploration beyond what the mainstream and top 40 radio could provide at the time.
I would go on to form a deep love of Radiohead and, in particular, the tremendous range they offered when it came to evoking any kind of emotion from me. OK Computer (on which ‘No Surprises’ was included) was one of the first albums I obsessed over and listened to on repeat for hours on end. Lyrically and sonically, it has an undercurrent of paranoia, technophobia and a general gloominess that I can’t quite put my finger on. In short, it is hardly a feel-good album. But something about listening to it made me feel so, so good.
As I got older I would discover bands such as Eels who would take me to much more defined grim emotional landscapes. Their album, Electro-shock Blues, unabashedly tackled the process of grieving as experienced by Eels frontman, Mark Oliver Everett following the suicide of his older sister. The dark lyrical content was in many instances juxtaposed by the seemingly light-hearted and, at times even up-tempo, melodies and arrangements. The idea that you could create a whole new insight into a powerful emotion by taking this approach was also, I felt, extremely revelatory.
Ben Folds, a personal hero of mine, isn’t afraid to drift between comical narratives about friends or people he’s met to much more solemn material. His band’s breakthrough song, ‘Brick’, took everybody by surprise when it was revealed that the somewhat vague (although still very literal) wording he used was an account of a teenage abortion. The topic at hand is truly harrowing in and of itself. Nevertheless it is an undeniably beautiful song.
This is just a handful of examples of music that has engaged and moved me and done so due to its melancholy nature. But, be it Billy Joel’s, ‘And So it Goes’ or Mozart’s ‘Requiem’, I find something so compelling and profoundly lovely about sad music.
This music may not put a smile on your face. It may not make you want to tap your feet or leap out of your chair and start dancing. It probably won’t cheer you up if you’re feeling down. Well, not exactly, anyway.
Ultimately, it is my belief that these kinds of songs are perhaps among the most powerful tools we, as people, have in our arsenal when we need help accessing more complex and nourishing emotions. Maybe, in particular, when it comes to finding hope.
Hearing a singer describe a situation or even just a feeling that you can relate to, directly or indirectly - just on some level - is an incredible experience. You feel connected, not just to the artist, but somehow you become more connected to the rest of the people on the planet. To have this experience is to be removed from isolation and reminded of the fact that, even if it seems it on the surface, we are not alone; that we exist through every emotional encounter alongside somebody else who has felt something similar or precisely the same.
A song can simply make us feel sad. But that is, in context, a wonderful thing. Being swept, through nothing more than a sound, into a state of fighting back tears is as humbling as it is extraordinary. If a song has that effect on you, in a matter of moments you can go from being cheerful to sad and back to cheerful again as the last notes are played. Does this not consolidate in our minds the fact that our emotions are passing, so that later when we need to somehow emerge from a deep depression, the memory of these fleeting feelings will give us the strength to? I can think of no greater reassurance that feelings of grief, despair, helplessness - all of them - can and will pass.
I think that a sad song can do all of the above things to, and for, a person who listens.
And I think that is simply incredible.
Do you agree? What is your favourite sad song, and why?
Feel free to share your thoughts with me on Twitter: @glynchmusic