September 27, 2011

"It is hard to write good songs that are sad without being needlessly dramatic."

"First, he is jilted and this makes him suicidal. I get that. This leads him to flashback to his parents' deaths and how all of this has left him alone. And his loneliness is palpable because there's nothing left for him to grab on to. The unwinding of the simple everyman (in a fortunately non-allegorical sense) is a story that's presented in a simple direct way without being flashy or even really pointing to its emotions. Consequently, I too have cried listening to such simple pain played out over my speakers."

A fine argument in favor of a song
I would never even have considered putting on the list of top 100 songs that ever reached #1, let alone giving the #31 slot. There are so many overblown pop songs, and if you loathe excessive drama, rather than rail against those songs — which is more drama — it's a nice strategy to honor the spare and simple, restrained expression of emotion of a song like this. Still, surely, there must be some other, better songs upon which to exercise this anti-drama strategy.


Suburbanbanshee said...

Yet another song where I could never make out the lyrics of the first verse, or most of the other verses.

Wow, that's a really depressing song when you can hear them. What the heck were they doing playing that on the radio? Sheesh.

Psychedelic George said...

Norwegian Wood?

Psychedelic George said...

Actually, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Now there's a bummer of a holiday song.

"But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now."


madAsHell said...

"Yummy, yummy, yummy, I've got love in my tummy" that was a really sad song.

Shouting Thomas said...

Truly, a terrible maudlin mess of a song. Got to remember, however, that teenagers are the principle purchasers of songs.

I'm more interested in a ban on triumphal feminist vocal acrobatics. Alicia Keys' New York song is one of the worst ever of this genre. Of course, this genre also includes the now mandatory feminist vocalist wowing us with stratospheric acrobatics during the singing of the National Anthem. I suggest strangulation as the only appropriate response.

For an example of great songwriting, I suggest Hank Williams III's Thrown Out of Every Bar.

I been beat up bad
I've been kicked around
I've been thrown out of every damn bar
in this old town
In this old town
I guess they don't like the way we like
to have our fun
'cause I'm always out there and I'm on the run
And I'm runnin' and gunnin' and a looking'
for a damn good time

No maudlin self pity there!

themightypuck said...

"Country" is the sweet spot for sad songs.

AllenS said...

Pretty hard to write a happy country western song after your dog dies and your mother is sent to prison.

LarryK said...

If you want 'sad without being needlessly dramatic,' how about the entire "Blood on the Tracks" album?

MadisonMan said...

She got the Gold Mine, I got the shaft?

prairie wind said...

"Country" is the sweet spot for sad songs.

Yes. I will say, though, that as much as this song makes me cry, there is much happiness along with the sad in it.

Can't argue with madAsHell.

DADvocate said...

"Alone Again" is a button pusher. If it comes on the radio in the car, I push the button for a different station.

"So Lonesome I Could Cry" by Hank Williams is a real tear jerker.

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die
That means he's lost the will to live
I'm so lonesome I could cry

Richard Dolan said...

"It is hard to write good songs that are sad without being needlessly dramatic."

I suppose it depends on what the lyrics use to create the feeling of sadness and how the music is used to frame the words. It's easy to imagine the same song orchestrated and sung differently to create an opposite impression on whatever scale of dramatic-ness is being invoked.

Same holds for operatic standards, like Vesti la giubba (the clown crying on the inside while preparing to make the audience laugh) or Dove sono i bei momenti (the countess thinking of happier times while her husband tries to seduce the maid). With a full orchestra and a big stage set, they define 'dramatic'. But they can be performed in a much more intimate way, and the emotion being invoked invites that treatment.

Bob said...

Let's not forget Seasons In the Sun by Terry Jacks, or Honey by Bobby Goldsboro.

William said...

This song is not as good as it sounds. Life is an ongoing series of bereavements, missed connections, and abandonments. The melody and the simple phrase "alone again naturally" capture this feeling. Most of the other lyrics are too much. To date, I have not been stood up at the altar, nor would throwing myself off the belfry be my preferred exit route. This is not the common fate of humanity. But alone again naturally is. I like this song with its fine melody and one sad catchphrase.

PatCA said...

I think this song is very underrated.

Its on my iPod and I listened to it over and over on vacation.

Bob said...

The late Steve Goodman knew how to mock a maudlin song.

MadisonMan said...

I also like this song. It's sad, but not overly dramatic.

Clyde said...

There are a few Carly Simon songs ("Let The River Run," "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of," "What Shall We Do With The Child") that just hit me right *there* -- strong emotional impact, and they're pretty much the only ones that do that to me. I make a point of not listening to them at work on my iPod.

raf said...

This is about the only GO'S song I like.

ricpic said...

We'll never know what the first draft of a song by Johnny Mercer or Stephen Sondheim was, but I'd be willing to bet such a song went through many drafts before either of those two had wrung the excess, or "needless drama" out of it and arrived at the irreducible diamond lyric that seems both effortless and obvious.

Chip Ahoy said...

Jesse by Janice Ian covered by Robert Flack is brilliant.

Vagueness, that's the brilliant part. The song doesn't hint at what happened to Jesse so the listener fills it in. But that vagueness is contrasted by captivating specificity of visual imagery evoked by lines like this:

Jesse come home, there's a hole in the bed
 where we slept, now its growing cold.

and this:

And I'm keeping the light on the stairs, no I'm not scared.

I wait for you.

Vagueness compels listeners to fill in the larger missing portion to complete the picture of what happened to Jesse. When I first heard the song I imagined a Civil War situation and that is the imagery that stuck with me, but it could be anything. The comments on YouTube indicate people weep to this song and confess completing the picture by evoking exceedingly personally emotional imagery.

The lyrics tell of a person waiting at home for Jesse to return. The pace, the tone, the floors, the walls, the hall, the stairs (twice), the light on the stairs, the colors, the bed (twice), all wait for Jesse to come home. From what?

I think that Janice Ian thinks the song is clever for lines like this:

Jesse the spread on the bed,is like when you left 
and I've kept it for you.

And all the blues and the greens, have been recently cleaned
 and are seemingly new

I suppose that is decent poetry. Seems Ian-esque. Anyway, the song is available for your collection through the Althouse-Amazon portal.

If you are thinking about purchasing this song and would like to see and hear Roberta Flack sing Jesse before spending your 99¢, and what wise music buyer wouldn't?, you can view a 1975 concert version here on YouTube.

Alex said...

How about "The Boxer" by Simon & Garfunkel? A sad song without cliches, manages to be very dramatic but in a way to seems appropriate.

Mary Beth said...

I figured out which song it was by the second sentence. I was twelve when it came out and I had the 45. No painful drama is too over the top for a preteen.

Rob said...

"Alone Again, Naturally" is anything but cool, and so it has become fashionable to criticize it. Obviously, a heck of a lot of people bought a song which had almost nothing to do with standard pop music at the time. I think it is brilliant. A recent song of a similar nature is Lifehouse's "Broken", particularly the original version.

My personal favorite in the very emotional pop song vein is "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" by the Hollies. Also fantastic: "Since I Lost My Baby" by the Temptations. Heh, I can't stop: also "The Love I Saw in You was Just a Mirage" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Great.

jr565 said...

I too think its a brilliant song, both lyrically and melodically. funny thing though, if I didnt know the lyrics it wouldnt strike me as a particularly sad song. It is actually pretty toe tappy actually.

Ann Althouse said...

"Vagueness, that's the brilliant part. The song doesn't hint at what happened to Jesse so the listener fills it in. But that vagueness is contrasted by captivating specificity of visual imagery..."

That made me think of my favorite Elton John song: "Daniel."

blake said...

It may be hard to do but that doesn't mean there's a shortage of good examples.

Also, "sad" is kind of a broad category, and the phrase "needlessly dramatic" is sort of meaningless, isn't it? There are eight different varieties of "sad" on Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band" and some primal screaming. Needlessly dramatic?

I guess I'm not getting at what this guy is saying enough to get why this particular song stands out.

Sorrow stay, lend true repentant tears,
To a woeful wretched wight,
Hence, despair with thy tormenting fears:
O do not my poor heart affright.
Pity, help now or never,
Mark me not to endless pain,
Alas I am condemned ever,
No hope, no help there doth remain,
But down, down, down, down I fall,
Down and arise I never shall.

Kirk Parker said...

I stand in awe as the sun goes down,
And I see my days turn to gold,
And the moon and I, we are all alone
And she haunts the sky like a ghost;
And I stand in awe of the love Ive lost--
Will you be the one that got away?
And I built my house where youll never go,
And I stand in awe of all . . . that could have been.

Of course it's even better to listen to it, though the album version is even better than this live one.

jr565 said...

Raf wrote:
This is about the only GO'S song I like.

He reminds me of a Vegasey Paul McCartney, big on the schmaltz and cuteness. I recently discovered GOS through the song Claire, which despite sounding mildly creepy like an ode to love from a child molester (though actually quite innocent)is incredibly lush and tuneful. I played the song Get Down for my friend and he thinks that was a song he loved as a kid, because it had a video with dogs in it that was on a variety show.
So while I recognize the schmaltz I will also say, the guy is a a phenomenal song writer and i have to admit some of his songs haven't aged as badly as some from say Elton John for example. There's something to be said for tuneful schmaltz sung by a guy who sounds ilke a wimpier Paul Mccartney.

Psychedelic George said...


Patches, I'm depending on you son
To pull the family through.
It's all up to you.

The Herman Cain story, circa 1970.

EDH said...

I suppose one indication that a song isn't "needlessly dramtic" is when it's difficult to say whether the song is either happy or sad.

mrs whatsit said...

Somebody mentioned Steve Goodman, who sang (but didn't write) this great song -- gentle, but aimed straight at the heart.