Chuck Cleaver, who is the impetus behind two very fine Ohio bands few people have ever heard – Ass Ponys and Wussy – recently wrote about the songs that stop him in his tracks, that reduce him to a quivering mass of blubber because of their overwhelming sadness. Some of those songs were standard mopester/unrequited love fare, and I’m fairly sure that most people can identify at least with the sentiments expressed, if not the music. Others were more surprising, and involved connections that were far more idiosyncratic and personal. Chuck listed a few of his favorites, and a couple of them happen to be my favorites, too, for much the same reasons. Given the recent spate of curse- and sob-inducing news, I thought I would compile my own highly idiosyncratic, highly subjective Top 10 Blubber Songs, in no particular order other than alphabetical.
The Blue Nile – Because of Toledo
In general, atmospheric synth bands don’t do much for me. I make an exception for Glasgow’s The Blue Nile because a) I’m a sucker for a good Scottish burr, and b) lead singer/songwriter Paul Buchanan has a wondrously supple, soulful voice that adds some needed humanity to the icy chill. All of the Blue Nile albums are worth seeking out for those qualities, but it’s the opening line of this song that slays me every time: “Because of Toledo I got sober and I stayed clean.”
I don’t know what happened in Toledo, and Paul Buchanan isn’t telling, nor is he even telling if he’s singing about Toledo, Ohio or Toledo, Spain. It doesn’t matter. But I have my own version of Toledo, which has nothing to do with Toledo, Ohio or Toledo, Spain, either, but it will do. It’s the place on the psychic map where you say, “That’s it. I have to change.” These are good if sometimes painful places to revisit, and I do every time I listen to this song.
Bruce Cockburn – The Rose Above the Sky
This song, which borrows heavily from T.S. Eliot, comes from Bruce Cockburn’s divorce album “Humans.” I’ve never been divorced, so I don’t know, but I suspect that the anger and the helplessness are much the way Bruce presents it. And sadness, infinite sadness. “Something jeweled slips away ‘round the next bend with a splash/Laughing at the hands I hold out, only air within their grasp.” At the end of a tough, harrowing album there is this song, which is perhaps the beginning of acceptance; rueful thankfulness, but thankfulness nonetheless for what has been. Occasionally you find an album that cuts through the bullshit and presents life poetically but in stark honesty. “Humans” is that album.
Bob Dylan – You’re a Big Girl Now
Another divorce album, this one from The Voice of a Generation, and arguably the greatest songwriter of the 20th century. So it’s rather ironic that the best bit of this song comes as a wordless moan. The words are certainly powerful enough; Bob Dylan recounting the parting dance, the uneasy shuffle as a husband and wife move apart from one another. The moan comes midway, his Bobness conjuring the image of his wife in bed with another man. Then comes something that can be roughly translated as “Oooohhhhhh,” but is not so much a word as an existential groan, the inarticulate speech of the heart. It’s among my favorite musical moments, even though I realize that “favorite” is a sorry excuse for a word meant to cover something so visceral and painful.
George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today
The reason being, of course, because he died today. By all rights, this song should not possibly work. It features country cornpone over-emoting, sappy strings, and a spoken-word interlude that is so sloppily sentimental that even the Hallmark Company would blush. It works because George Jones is the greatest of country singers, and the catch in his voice is the sound of the wind howling at 3:00 a.m. in desolate places. It also works because the sentiment is true. If you don’t know what I mean, too bad for you.
The Left Banke – Walk Away, Renee
Unrequited love, pure and simple. What makes it great is that the song was written by the then-16-year-old Michael Brown, and 16-year-old Michael Brown perfectly captured the “oh fuck, all of the meaning has just been sucked out of the universe” despair of unrequited love as only 16-year-olds can do. There are thousands of songs that express these sentiments, but this one might be the prettiest, and features a lovely little chamber-pop arrangement. Baroque ‘n roll, indeed.
Joni Mitchell – The Last Time I Saw Richard
Unrequited love, but with a few zingers thrown in. Joni feels bad about ol’ Richard, to be sure, and wants to be left alone to drink at the bar, but she’s not above throwing in a couple catty lines about the nondescript suburban woman he married and the stupid kitchen appliances he bought her. And really, those lines rescue the song from maudlin sentimentality. Anybody can write a song about feeling miserable and drinking alone at the bar. Only Joni Mitchell can turn that into a rant about the vacuousness of consumerism.
Pentangle – Lord Franklin
An old, old British folk song – some 200 years old now – given a bit of a folk/rock update by Trad band/hippies Pentangle in 1970. This is a sad, nay tragic love song, but it’s a sad love song told from the standpoint of a sailor mourning the loss of his captain. The captain – in this case the titular Lord Franklin – lost his life in a foolhardy expedition to sail to the North Pole. “Ten thousand pounds would I freely give/To say on earth that Lord Franklin did live.” This is the melody, by the way, that Bob Dylan appropriated/stole for his early song “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”
Sun Kil Moon – Glenn Tipton
Mark Kozelek only writes sad tunes. Really, he’s recorded dozens of hours at this point that could serve as the soundtrack for wrist slitters worldwide. But I’m particularly fond of this song, which finds him looking past his navel for once:
I know an old woman ran a doughnut shop
She stayed up late servin’ cops
And then one mornin’, baby, her heart stopped
Place ain’t the same no more
Place ain’t the same no more
Not without my good friend Eleanor
I haunt a few places like that. I’ve known a few Eleanors, and I miss them too. This song reminds me to remember the sweet people on the periphery.
Tom Waits – Kentucky Avenue
An early trashcan symphony that is part poetic childhood reverie and part surrealistic nightmare. In Tom Waits’ universe, the juvenile delinquents and hookers have hearts of gold. Here they play strip poker, spit on kids, flip the bird, slash car ties, and exhibit extraordinary sweetness and kindness:
I’ll take a rusty nail, scratch your initials in my arm
I’ll show you how to sneak up on the roof of the drugstore
I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wing
And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet
I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad, cut the braces off your legs
And we’ll bury them in the night out in a cornfield
Just put a churchkey in your pocket, we’ll hop that freight train in the hall
And we’ll slide all the way down the drain to New Orleans in the fall
Diamonds shining in the mud. It’s heartbreaking.
The Weakerthans – Elegy for Elsabet
This being an elegy, one assumes that poor Elsabet, whoever she might be, is a personage of some stature. The guitars crank up in proper elegiac fashion, and the chorus swells grandly, celebrating … what? It turns out that Elsabet is a young woman who lives a nondescript life, browbeaten by her parents, watching too much TV, finally succumbing to something that may be no more consequential than terminal boredom. Whoever she is, she is a cypher, someone who has never really lived. The thing that I love – and the thing that I love about John Samson’s songwriting in general – is that this makes her a person worth eulogizing. Let every sound consecrate the whispering words that Betta never heard.