There’s something really satisfying about sad songs, when you need them. Remember that sketch on SNL last season where everyone uses “Someone Like You” to trigger a much needed crying jag? I thought that sketch was weirdly brilliant. Like a good cry, a good sad song can be cathartic. Give these a listen, but maybe just one: I went on a sad song, re-listening bender with these and ended up a big blubbery mess.
“The River,” by Bruce Springsteen
The harmonica here will break your heart. It wheezes through the intro like a man’s death rattle gasp. The narrator doesn’t physically die; neither does his teen love and wife, Mary. But all the heady, wide-eyed stuff that made them alive is swiftly murdered, verse by verse. I’ve heard “The River” a 100 times. The part where Springsteen sings “Well I got Mary pregnant”? I still jump and think “Oh no!”
It’s a story you’ve heard before. Unplanned pregnancy, shotgun wedding, dashed dreams—two people trapped in a marriage, sharing a life they never wanted with a partner they wouldn’t have chosen. This is, oddly, classic Americana stuff. What’s less classic and more spellbinding is the unadulterated anguish of the final verses. He reflects on the old days at the river, with simple, perfect images of young love: “But I remember us driving in my brother’s car/Her body tan and wet down by the reservoir/At night on them banks I’d lie awake/And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take.” We see that his last flicker of happiness wasn’t the hopeful beginning we all think young love is; it was the end of everything. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,” he asks, “or is it something worse?”
Love is poisonous and life is hard and things might not work out—so says “The River,” which is why I offer you this advice: If you’re very sad and up late at night, don’t listen to this song more than once. You will blow your tear ducts out.
“Keep Me in Your Heart,” by Warren Zevon
I don’t remember listening to Warren Zevon before I saw “Warren Zevon: Keep Me In Your Heart for a While.” But I didn’t need to be a Zevon-phile to realize that I was seeing something special. Documentarian Nick Reed captured Warren Zevon’s last project, the recording of his album “The Wind,” which he began right after he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. I haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it being that kind of joyful that makes you tear up. Here was an artist making a conscious choice to spend the end of his life making a beautiful album with all of his friends, creating his last musical mark on the world while saying goodbye. I listened to all his albums. I cried when he passed away.
There are a couple things people say after someone dies, and one of them has always irked me: The too early declaration that life is for the living, and it’s time to move on. “So and so would want it that way,” is always the argument. By too early, I mean in the first week or so, and it’s always delivered with a measure of defensiveness, like death is a disease that you can outrun. What good does it do working hard to erase the people we love? Why would they want that? “Keep Me In Your Heart” for a while feels like the answer to that.
“Breathe Me,” by Sia
I’ve never gotten over the end of Six Feet Under. I’ve never watched it again. Once was enough. Let me set the scene: I’m over at Joshua’s apartment. It’s blazing hot. I’ve just decided, out of nowhere and to everyone’s surprise, that I’m not going back to my college town in a month, that instead I’ll go to school somewhere close to home. Which is what I’m saying, instead of turning right and acknowledging, to anyone, the tidal wave of depression that was rising in slow motion, just waiting to suck me under. I go over to my friend’s house to watch the finale of my favorite show, and every single character dies while this song plays. We all cry, but I just keep crying: Hysterical, jagged crying, the kind where you wonder if it’s ever going to stop. It did, after a while, and then Joshua and everyone else went back to schools in tiny towns. I stayed in Baltimore. I listened to this song a lot. I watched the wave speed up.
“I’ll Be Seeing You,” by Billie Holiday
Someone you love is every where other than right in front of you, which is exactly where you want that person to be. This song illustrates that deep heart ache, where a face appears in wishing wells and carousels, where time or distance makes it impossible to run into that person’s arms, even though there’s nothing you’ve ever wanted so much. Pair all of that with Billie Holiday, whose voice here rests in that lovely strange space between happy and sad, hitting joyful notes, then dipping into deep wistful valleys. It never gets any better, and then the song ends.
“Landslide,” by Fleetwood Mac
Landslide is a perfect, jolting reminder of your own mortality and the rapid passage of time. Stevie Nicks reflects on the current of fear attached to growing up and moving on. Nothing monumental or scandalous happens in the song’s narrative; it’s full of the strangeness and discomfort that exists in ordinary life. Nicks wrote this while she was debating whether or not she should go back to school, and if she should keep working with Lindsay Buckingham. She said her life at the time felt like a landslide, but her worries didn’t stem from anything splashy or strange—who hasn’t contemplated going back to school, or mulled over whether or not they should leave their job? If you’ve been anywhere or with anyone for a lengthy period of time, you’ve definitely related to “I’ve been afraid of changing/Cause I built my life around you” at some point.
I’ve listened to this song 10 times in a row to write this blurb. I feel like I need to go sit by a window and reflect. I think my heart might just break in half.