Exhibiting the private life of music can be a soul-crushing exercise. To play a song for someone and have them nod their heads, fake an understanding for whatever secret element it is that only you can hear is devastating. You realize that you alone can understand the restless sadness in The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” the underlying loneliness in Sinatra’s “Luck Be A Lady,” the cataclysmic cry of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos,” the morbid good-wifery in The Everly Brothers’ “Til I Kissed You,” the grandeur of dripping pitch in Modest Mouse’s “3rd Planet.” And music is as lonely as it can be communal. As Tolstoy probably would’ve said, all happy listeners are alike; each unhappy listener is unhappy in their own way.
Maybe there’s a word for it in a foreign tongue. For the lonely feeling that hits you straight in the gut when you hear a song, rushing upwards through your body like a cool gulp of cornerstore vodka. The kind of feeling that implodes quietly in your chest until it engulfs you in desire, guilt and loneliness. All at once. As if you’ve fallen in love with your own stalker. It silences you, curdles your blood, bites into your bones. Shrouds you with delirium. Quietly. Chilling. Numb. You begin to self-destruct. Slowly. And yet you give in. Depress that play button again. You sell yourself a ragged fantasy. Fall for that drunk sincerity, that gorgeous breakdown. And lose that thing you desperately want to preserve. Your pickled morality.
Misery loves company. So let’s be alone together.
6 nihilistic earworms from my private hell: a Milton-esque darkness, illuminated.
- +44, “Baby Come On”
A heavily treated, airy drum kit choppers in, slicing through the silence. I come to from a syncope in the back of a friend’s car. I’m 13 and dehydrated. Wavy lines squiggle into steady vision. I down a bottle of water a friend hands to me, ask her to turn up the volume. No-good, problem girl Baby is front and center, friendless and alone. She is running out of alcohol, freefalling to the bedrock of her emotions. The roaring thrall of the chorus brings a taunting “Isn’t there something familiar about me?” that pecks at her shell and withers in hollow silence. She stays suspended between those four ominous guitar notes. Forever. He isn’t familiar. This isn’t familiar. And yet, I want to hear it again, to find out if Baby gets to the bottom of something, even if it is just another plastic cup. It’s a dangerous precipice. Playing by the philosophy of the song, they go on living this way, forever drunk, forever unremembered, fettered to the unbreakable patterns of their past. “The past is only the future with the lights on.” How can you know what it feels like, to not remember someone falling in love with you?
- The Cure, “This. Here and Now. With You”
The colors swirl on Essex St. The yellows of the taxi cabs, the neons of the bar signs, the clinical white-blues of 24 hour ATMs mix with the busy pedestrian flow, streak the sky the shade of electric blue. And the blue doesn’t dull, doesn’t fade into the night. I glide through a cheap pitcher, escape into “This. Here and Now. With You.” Behold the immensity of life. The city swivels. Cross-streets whirl. The doozy bass peters in behind the devastatingly distorted guitar. A cosmological force explodes into a chorus. And I’m slewed out of control by Robert Smith’s unrestrained, oddly claustrophobic vocals. Manipulative questioning intonations. Oh please don’t ask me who I am, or when and where my life began, or why I ended up like this, or how. Don’t ask me what I was before, if I was anything at all. It’s nothing you can know about me now.
- The Honorary Title, “Cut Short”
The guitar strums with careful politeness. Schemes to be nasty. Pretty and pristine. Bounces off wistful pick-up lines about two-door-seater sex in a parking lot, segues into an inebriated narrative. Drums conspire with guitar, excuse Gorbel like a callous wingman: “It’s fine, laugh it off, he’s just drunk.” Conspiratorial open hi-hats predict pre-chorus drum-fills. An ordinarily structured, ordinary song. Perhaps. But the disconnect in the abducting chorus gives it all away. “Why ask if you don’t care?” soars above the ordinariness with hopeless sincerity. A country slide whines in the background. Tries to shake some sense into the lily-livered guitar line, takes the drums to the smoky backroom and reasons: couldn’t you see that something was wrong? I feel wicked. A bystander watching this fresh-faced graduate living with mom and dad, getting wasted at a bar, deluding himself into believing: this girl is going to take him home. Resonates with adulthood, desperation, outlandish deception, and plain, devastating reality. “Cut Short” is about everything within the human capacity to feel, when the part of the brain that concerns itself with anxiety is dulled.
- The Rolling Stones, “If You Really Want To Be My Friend”
The cruellest man in the world wakes up one morning, needing love. No role-playing lover’s quarrel, this. More a plea for acceptance. A mean call for company. A ballad so grim it darkens the appeal of July, makes the Em-Em7-Em chord change sound like the most heartbreaking progression in the world. “You know, people tell me you are a vulture, say you’re a sore in a cancer culture.” Guitars burst. A soulful choir chimes in. Vamps and killers, related in need. Can’t you spare a song that biblically maps the problems with humanity six minutes of your time?
- Rilo Kiley, “The Good That Won’t Come Out”
A C train ride uptown. Sit back, watch the stations morph into one continuous blur. Jenny Lewis’ sultry sibilance worms into your ears, blows despairs about the modern age. The compressed snare dissolves into the tracks above the MTA announcements. I stare ahead into the sea of strangers clinging to the roof of the subway car like I’m weakly trying to remember something. Let them all drift in and out of your peripheral vision. The ground disappears, hands turn to dust. Get drunk. Fall down on the streets. The notion of being lost and alone in the world suddenly takes on a precarious, near-earnest tone. Plenty of reasons to feel sad: lost wars, signs pointing to the world’s end, but we’re still choosing to feel them. Despairing thoughts of a darkening world that the sounds of church bells cannot allay. Only heighten.
6. Leonard Cohen, “The Stranger Song”
The world, still asleep. Leonard Cohen warmed by the thought of dawn. “The Stranger Song” fills my ears for the first time. “It’s true that all the men you knew were dealers who said they were through with dealing every time you gave them shelter.” Charmed into thinking he’s talking about past romances. The stranger who comes and goes, asks for shelter and warmth. Makes you care for him and then accuses you of weakening his will with your love. The stranger weaves in and out through hypnotic strumming. Cohen’s seductive assurance: “It’s you my love, you who are the stranger.” And I get saddled with an idée fixe I’m not sure I like. The plot twists, I don’t know what to do with myself.
So I spend the next ungodly hour hugging myself in the shower, thinking, crying. Why do I keep going back to these songs that toy with my conscience, when they leave me nothing much, not even laughter? Musing over songs that rip my soul out of my body. I throw the record out. And in an apologetic rage, go and buy it all over again.
Why did the strange voice calling out to Baby seem so familiar?
And it comes to me, he never was a stranger.