Sad Songs Say So Much
In Tennessee the wilderness threatened to envelop me.
Not the dark woods beyond my window; I knew little of the Smoky Mountains to the east. I was consumed0 by the wildness that lived within me, the outgrowth of something deeper, more disorienting.
During my wife’s two years in graduate school, I strayed from a once-sure career path. In a new place, lacking a compass and living with the locusts, I accepted a job without reading the fine print or appreciating the bold type. What initially sounded like a job in service to struggling homeowners revealed itself as a glorified collections job.
My days went on marked by labored breathing, troubling conversations, and biding time. Then a mad dash home each evening to the respite of a caring wife and some low-stakes TV. Before I lay me down to sleep, often to dream anxiously of account numbers, I switched on the stereo.
After sharing quarters with a college roommate who fell asleep to music, his habit became mine. In Tennessee, my lullabies moonlighted as laments. Before drifting off, I played songs that could loose all the sentiments I lacked the courage to utter during the day.
Ray LaMontagne sang, “Oh mama, don’t walk away / I’m a goddamn sore loser,” his voice on the edge of breaking and bleeding. I savored the sadness. We belonged to the same fraternity.
Peter Gabriel pronounced two words, “I grieve,” as if gasping for air between rolling waves. And I shuddered at the touch of icy waters.
More than a decade later, I fall asleep in a still room, lulled by the soft rhythms of my wife breathing, the gradual decrescendo of my inner monologue. My wilderness lullabies offer little consolation now; I left the hinterland long ago. But the power of a sad song remains something I long to harness.
In a superlative 2017 essay for Catapult, Laura Turner wrote of fighting fear with fear, inborn anxiety with the imported thrills of horror movies. Seeing her worst-case scenarios and raising them something scarier, her perspective widens at the same rate as her pupils.
“This is why horror movies harbor such strong appeal—they remind us that the worst thing has not happened to us,” Turner wrote. “Horror movies also give us a chance to identify with the victims, who embody so many of our anxieties: isolation, the inability to be saved through effort or intelligence; the proximity of evil; the inevitability of death.”
As someone with an anxiety diagnosis, and who treats art like a sieve to sift my experiences, Turner’s words ring true. Sad songs do little to diminish my sorrow; they offer no benediction nor do they send me off to count my blessings. But the best ones prompt a kinship, a common grace so strong it staggers.
When Spoon frontman Britt Daniel, all frayed nerves and fragile footfalls, sings “I came home last night / I had no good news” in “Rainy Taxi,” I experience the soul equivalent of trepanning, that long-discarded practice of boring a hole into the skull to relieve pressure.
When anxiety flushes my body with heat, or brokenness bubbles up like goosebumps on my skin, the majestic woe of a Bon Iver or Trampled by Turtles song rests on me like a cold compress.
A perfect mixtape, representing every genre and mood, Scripture shelters its share of sad songs. Punch the numbers for chapter and verse into the biblical jukebox, and you hear all manner of lonely ballads and somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs.
I don’t know whether David sang with Ray LaMontagne’s 80-proof timbre or Jeff Buckley’s tenor, but he strums the heartstrings like he’s playing the harp. Soul-sickness, broken relationships, distance from God—it’s all in there. The Psalms ring with the mournful cry of pedal steel or the longing peal of a tenor saxophone in the hands of John Coltrane.
Whether in modern rock or ancient texts, righteous lament qualifies as proper mercy. By their mere presence, singers of sad songs encourage me to be kinder to myself. They reach out to help me correct before steering into the sense that I’m the only one who ever felt like this, the only one ever cut so deep.
If more than one of us exists, perhaps none of us are broken beyond repair. If I hear myself in their hurt, maybe someone else does too. A man of sorrows with the power to do something about the scars we bear.
Sad songs gift us the language to name our particular darkness. And naming the pain we feel—calling it into the open, calling it what it is—is a first step toward dividing the hurt. We exercise choice: how much to discard outright, how much to keep, how much might be transcended or at least, to borrow a phrase from John Piper, transposed into another key.
The victory promised in the next life often feels like an albatross in this one. The healing Jesus pledges for our somedays, and begins working out in us now, should affect how we sing together and to ourselves. Yet so often we feel pressure to stack our corporate and personal liturgies with booming choruses and Lumineers-esque “heys” and “hos.”
The sad songs which surround us, and those within our own holy book, permit us to keep lamenting—at least for another verse or two. And when we move on to sing something else, grace abounds: to shift keys and tempos at our pace and pleasure. Leaping from a lament into an anthem might feel as jarring in real life as it does on vinyl or in concert.
The gradual slide from a sad song into a slightly more hopeful one might be most satisfying—and most honest. One of the truly radiant songs I know takes the shape and sound of a lament. Pick up with me and the singer, Rich Mullins, in the second verse:
And I wake up in the night and feel the dark
It’s so hot inside my soul
I swear there must be blisters on my heart
So hold me Jesus,
Cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been king of my glory
Won’t you be my prince of peace?
Hear that? The something more which sits just beneath the surface? The hum of hope girds the melody. All the soul sweat, all the shaking like a leaf—the sadness echoes, yet to fade away. But the difference is absolutely audible, lyrics and music working together to reinforce that sad songs say so much, but they never receive the final word.