Monday, July 17, 2006

Welcome to Depressing Music Week

As promised, author Tom Reynolds has agreed to drop by this week to talk about his book, I Hate Myself and Want to Die, in which he shares his passionate, hilarious opinions about what he considers the 52 most depressing songs on the planet. His choices tend to be -- certainly in his estimation, but in most cases very objectively as well -- bad songs. They’re not depressing just because of their awfulness, but it helps. They also feature suicidal sentiments, suffering orphans, car crashes, overproduced minor-key music and, in at least one case, the voice of Celine Dion.

When I first heard of the book -- a while back, thanks to my exalted status as a publishing insider -- I was eager to read it because I’ve always loved my fair share of sullen songs. In fact, many are the friends who have commented on my affinity for Sad Bastard music, rifling through my collection of The Cure, Red House Painters, Low, and the like, and presumably wondering when I was going to start wearing black eyeliner and encouraging them to read an underappreciated biography of Sylvia Plath. I like to think my collection is a lot more diverse than that (and it is), but it’s true there are times when Belle & Sebastian would sound like Iron Maiden compared to whatever’s trying to summon the energy to crawl out of my speakers.

My favorite band is REM, whose name never appears far from the word “jangly,” but my favorite song of theirs is “Nightswimming,” a beautiful-but-bleak(ish) number aflame in piano-fueled nostalgia. I like people who write sad songs (The Innocence Mission), people with sad voices (Jay Farrar) and people whose work, voice, and fate are equally sad (Elliott Smith).

But a dissection of such songs and artists did not await me in the pages of Reynolds’ book, because, not to toot my own horn (or ear), those songs are good, and he makes a distinction between sad and depressing songs: "In short, sad songs offer the listener empathetic comfort, reflection, and wisdom. Depressing songs just make you want to stick a Glock-9 in your mouth."

It’s a useful line to draw. Take Girlfriend by Matthew Sweet, which is essentially a concept album about a marriage and divorce. Most of it is terrific, but the song I’ve always liked least is “You Don’t Love Me,” because it’s too straightforwardly bleak. Even the smallest musical or lyrical subtlety can help rescue a pop song from self-pity, but when Sweet just mewls the titular phrase again and again over a slide guitar, it sounds pretty pathetic. Not just sad, to the point, but depressing.

Similarly, Bloomed by Richard Buckner is a great record, but the third song, “22,” is a blemish because it’s impossibly downbeat and even verges on comical through a last-minute twist. It’s a suicide song about a rejected lover easing himself into a warm bath to commit the act, because of a “phone call that never came.” Buckner’s a good lyricist, and the song is an unceasing list of despairing thoughts and imagery, from the “mirror all steamed over with water, heat and shame” to the “red smoke in the water,” all delivered with a hangman’s voice. All of which would be bad enough, but then comes the last verse:
I was falling asleep
You see I felt a little weak
I closed my eyes and thought of you
As the phone let out a ring
The phone’s ringing! It’s her! It was all for nothing! Get out of the tub, Rick! Oh, please.

This week will be devoted -- not solely, but mostly -- to both sad and depressing songs. Starting very soon, I’ll be posting a multipart interview with Reynolds, who was kind enough to answer several rambling queries of mine over e-mail. The archives of the day will be excerpts from the book and there will be sad lyrics of the day, all of which are from songs I greatly enjoy, even if their messages are dispiriting as all get-out.

I’ve convinced Tom (I think) that my readership is larger than seven and that this exercise will not be a complete waste of his time, so please make him feel at home. Pick up a copy of the book, too. It’s composed of three- to five-page essays on each song, it’s likely to create good barstool debate, and it’s very, very funny. Those of you who regularly comment have proven to be pretty passionate and knowledgeable about music, so let’s hear some chatter this week. (Those of you who visit with any regularity but rarely speak up, now would be an opportune and polite time to get in the game.)


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