Sweet Emotion

Sometimes sad songs say so much.

Okay, I'm a sad sack, I'll admit it. I have a thing for sad music. "Why in the hell would you intentionally listen to music that makes you depressed?" someone asked me once, completely befuddled. Simple. While I enjoy balls-out rock as much as the next guy, sometimes it feels good to just listen to songs that make you feel bad. All my life, I've been drawn to music that makes me feel something, even if it's sorrow. For the most part, it's the lyrics that usually grab me. If somebody's genuinely pouring out their heart, you can bet I'll be captivated. Other times, it's just the context.

There's this song by Johnny Ace called "Pledging My Love," for instance, that stops me dead in my tracks, every single time. Thing is, if you listen, there's nothing inherently sad about it. Although Ace's own story is tragic — he allegedly died by his own hand while playing Russian roulette in between sets at a show in Houston on Christmas night in 1954 — nothing about "Pledging My Love" is particularly downcast. As the title would suggest, he's simply pledging his undying love to someone. Since the song was played at my uncle's funeral, however, it has become permanently associated with him. So every time I hear it now, it destroys me.

And that's how it should be. Like I've always said, music, when it's done right, should provoke some sort of emotion in you, be it happiness, anger or, in this case, sadness. With that in mind, here's a handful of tracks that have moved me over the years.

"I Can't Stop Crying," by Sam Phillips: Every time I hear this track, I'm instantly transported back to that summer after graduation when I experienced my first real, inconsolable heartache. I was utterly paralyzed with grief and couldn't (or simply didn't) get out of bed for three days straight. I remember listening to this record on constant repeat and identifying with every syllable. I had tunnel vision back then, and the lyrics seemed so wistful and profound to me, especially the last lines: "I know that this heartache is a speck in the sky of love/But it's all I feel around me." Of course, that's all ancient history — I ended up getting the girl — but this song still has a hold on me. Listening to it now, even all these years removed, reopens those old wounds, and I feel the familiar pain of my self-absorbed youth.

"Brick," by Ben Folds Five: Taking his girl to get an abortion the day after Christmas while her parents are out of town? Selling his gifts to buy her flowers? And trying to keep the whole thing hidden until he and his girlfriend just can't suppress their emotions anymore and finally end up breaking down? Holy crap, man, talk about heavy. Seriously, it's doubtful Folds could have imagined a story line any more morose than this one. Whatever your stance on this powderkeg of an issue, you'd have to agree that the pathos on display here is palpable. With a scant few words, Folds paints an unbelievably stark portrait of tangible despair as he describes getting dressed in the dark, breathing in the cold air and feeling numb as he drives to her apartment while the rest of the world is sleeping.

"Llorando (Crying)," by Rebekah Del Rio: If you've ever heard the original version of this song, then you know it's already pretty somber as is — sung in English, girded by Roy Orbison's distinctive warble. The sentiments are simple yet universal: "I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while/But I saw you last night, you held my hand so tight/As you stopped to say "Hello"/Aww, you wished me well, you couldn't tell/That I'd been crying over you, crying over you." In the hands of Rebekah Del Rio, though, who sings the entire tune a cappella and in Spanish, the words almost become window dressing for the raw, unparalleled emotion she expresses. (You'll find this chilling tune on the Mullholland Drive soundtrack.)

"Dance With My Father," by Luther Vandross: The first time I heard this song was shortly before my dad passed away. By then, I knew his death was imminent and ultimately beyond my control, which left me feeling helpless and alone. Driving home one night, I distinctly remember hearing this song and having to pull over to the side of the road. As Vandross sang the words "If I could get another chance/Another walk, another dance with him/I'd play a song that would never, ever end/How I'd love, love, love to dance with my father again," my eyes welled up, and I sat there sobbing uncontrollably. Needless to say, I could relate. It's been almost two years now, and I still shudder when I hear the opening chords of this track.

"Sorry the Very Next Day," by Jeffrey Gaines: This song is built around a spare acoustic guitar figure, a hauntingly simple melody, and lyrics that resolve with an incisive double entendre. Gaines spends the first part of the track bemoaning the disaffection he experienced at the hands of his alcoholic father. He remembers being disillusioned at his dad's inability to stand upright when he was drunk and how he'd come home screaming and shouting, causing Gaines to cry himself to sleep cursing his name, and how, invariably, his dad was "sorry the very next day." By the end of the song, as Gaines reflects on his childhood, he recognizes the demons his father wrestled with and decides to cut the old man some slack, finding new life in forgiveness. Sadly, though, time runs out for both of them: "Then all too late I found a friend in you/Did all the things that good friends do/Worked together and talked about girls/Talked of dreams and traveling the world/Then your life was taken away/And I was sorry the very next day."

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