Songs So Good They Make You Cry

There’s nothing more boring than reading a blogpost where the writer apologises for not posting more. Well – sorry, but I have been really busy. As some of you may know, I’m a magazine editor, and I’m in the process of revamping the magazine a bit, adding columnists, changing layout and all that jazz. I really do love my job – it’s the first one where I feel totally suited to what I’m doing – but the hours are long.

But enough of my complaining. The other weekend, I was at ‘dazefeast with my wife and daughter. Between sets, the DJ was spinning a few tracks, and one came up out of blindside and righthooked me. It was an utter surprise, and I couldn’t even speak, just had to listen in dumbstruck admiration as my eyes moistened at the brilliance of it. The degree of articulation is phenomenal; it seemed to encompass everything I’d ever felt in my life. The encapsulation of the literary frame in the mind and the climactic advice “If you put down your pen, leave your worries behind / Then the moment will come and the memory will SHINE” is so wise, and the musical frame of the quiet murmured opening which builds in colour and potency towards a glorious outro of hope, defiance, and humanity is just so right.

The song was Belle and Sebastian’s “Sleep The Clock Around”.

And, as Robert Plant said, it made me wonder: what other songs are so good, so great, that they bring a tear to the eye? I don’t mean just emotional, ballad-type songs, but ones which fill you with amazement and wonder at the degree of their achievement. You’ll have to forgive me if I retread some familiar ground, but hey.

The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever”

“I knew you were going to say that, Mike!” Well, indeed. But what can I say? This song constantly astonishes me with how good it is. From the dreamy Mellotron opening, to the miraculous splice of TWO DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THE SONG (at 1.00, when the cellos enter), to Lennon’s slowed-down vocal (a radical reimagining of one of the best rock n’ roll vocalists ever – to think that just three years earlier he had been roaring through “Twist And Shout”!) to the drooping trumpets to the magnificent cellos (thank you, George Martin!) to the glorious climax – “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a song of dazzling imagination, articulation and artistry.

Mike Oldfield – “Tubular Bells (Part 1)”

The trouble, or difficulty, with the long song is that you must have either a vision or narrative. Without either, you end up with stitched together piece of waffle (see later Oldfield long tracks like “Crises“) or blancmangey piles of steaming nothingness (see the Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother” and The Doors’ “When The Music’s Over“). Shorter songs can always get by on the verse-chorus-verse-bridge-solo-chorus-outro structure (as memorably demonstrated by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty in their brilliant The Manual: How To Have A Number 1 The Easy Way) but long songs need to either tell a story or take you someplace. (Examples of story: The Who’s “A Quick One While She’s Away”, Guns N’ Roses “Estranged”, Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” (probably his finest solo moment). Examples of vision and taking you someplace: “Echoes” by Pink Floyd, Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew”, “Cop Shoot Cop” by Spiritualized (the only song I have ever heard which approximates the sound of a vortex)).

Anyroads. While Mike Oldfield’s later lengthy pieces were just crafted, stitched-together patchworks of nothing much, his early albums had an obvious sense of vision. He really saw what he was creating; they are so visual, so literate. Tubular Bells remains by far the most famous, but I also highly recommend Ommadawn, Hergest Ridge and Incantations. Take Part 1 of Tubular Bells as an example: section by section, it is some of the most emotionally resonant music I have ever heard. And the glorious build up of instrument after instrument seems like a glowing, rich metaphor for and testament to life itself. Amazing.

Nike Drake – “Cello Song”

Compared to “Strawberry Fields Forever”, this song is almost sparse – Drake’s accoustic guitar and voice, bongos, and cello. But my god! What stunning riches within. Drake’s guitar-picking is astonishing, almost mesmeric, and the cello deliciously melancholy. I don’t want to waffle on too much – just listen to the song.

Nirvana – Unplugged in New York

Hard to pick out just one song here. For some reason, and this is a feeling that hasn’t subsided as time has gone by, I feel more empathy with Kurt Cobain than any other musician I can think of. While obviously I hugely admire people like Bob Marley, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and John Lydon, with Cobain I somehow feel a connection beyond how I feel with the others. Maybe it’s the raw honesty of his music and interviews, maybe it’s his unfortunate crown as King of the Doomed Young Men (taken over from Ian Curtis), maybe it’s his role in tearing rock music away from the dreadful (if fun) posturing of hair metal, maybe it’s his pro-gay rights, pro-feminist, pro-choice, liberal politics. I dunno. But maybe it’s down to the aching grandeur of Unplugged in New York, an album which pulses with emotion. This is Nirvana stripped of all amplified rock ballast, baring their souls. Utterly affecting, it is a tragic hint of what could have been.

How about you?


5 thoughts on “Songs So Good They Make You Cry

  1. A few thoughts: first, that Belle and Sebastian song is ear candy – thanks for sharing. They’re an awesome band. Second, I don’t recall you being a Spiritualized fan – another good band (although I was disappointed in their live performance) and “Cop Shoot Cop” has always been one of my favorites. Lastly, to answer your question, I’d say anything by Neil Young gets me – I might break down into tears just from hearing him hiccup – but “Out on the Weekend” may be the song I like most. Wilco “Jesus, Etc”, Bill Callahan “Too Many Birds”, Elliot Smith “A Fond Farewell” and Pink Floyd “WYWH” are some of my favorite tear-jerkers.

  2. I don’t think technical excellence in song construction is capable of causing a moistening of the eyes on its own. In anyone. If it were capable of doing it with anyone, it would probably would achieve it with me! (I perhaps get close with some pieces of classical music, but not with any popular songs, I don’t think.)

    Songs that move us in that way do so either because of the content of their lyrics (the music may occasionally contribute, but I doubt if it can achieve it on its own), or because of the particular personal associations that we feel with them. Some songs achieve a particular resonance with us, and so acquire a particular power to evoke memories in us years later, for a wide variety of reasons – many of which have little or nothing to do with what they are about or how good they are.

    Kitty, a traditional Irish ballad sung by Shane MacGowan at the end of the Pogues’ first album Red Roses For Me, regularly makes me blub like a baby. But that’s because of content (an outlaw’s forced parting from his lover) and context (it makes me ponder wistfully on my Irish ancestry), and mostly especially because of unique personal associations (I began crying over it a lot during dreadful depressions I suffered as a student), not because it’s such an exquisite song (although it is).

    I’m afraid I don’t find your nominations here a very persuasive representation of the idea, Mike. I might allow you the Nirvana (although I think it was their musicianship and their attitude/mystique that distinguished them rather than their songwriting craft; and it’s curious that, though they won their fame as a down-and-dirty rock band, you have a softer spot for their acoustic performances). But even Strawberry Fields is a rather unconvincing choice. The Beatles in their psychedelic phase were at their most self-indulgent, and did tend to chuck the kitchen sink at some of the songs: quirkily processed vocals – check; allusive, incoherent lyrics – check; jangly sitar – check; extended, superfluous outro – check. I quite like Strawberry Fields, but I don’t think many people would cite it as their favourite Beatles song, or even as one of the top 5 or 10.

    Tubular Bells is not a ‘song’! Having Viv Stanshall announce the instruments at the end does not count as ‘lyrics’.

    And as for the other two… Cello Song‘s stripped-down sound is quite arresting, but musically it doesn’t go anywhere, the lyrics are a ragbag of cliches, and Nick’s doing his droney-folkie voice. There are other songs of his where his singing is much more appealing. A few of the lyrics in Sleep The Clock Around are quite striking, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of the great title; it feels like an unfinished song, stuffed with placeholder lyrics. Though I find it almost impossible to listen to, anyway: for me, this is electronica at its worst, just a jumble of irritating noises; a lot of it sounds as though it was played on a Stylophone.

    You like what you like, and that’s fine; tastes differ. But I think the fact that you like these songs so much has led you to overrate how good they are. 99 times out of a 100, it’s not ‘excellence’ that we fall in love with.

    • Hmm! Lots of things we obviously disagree on. First, re: Strawberry Field Forever – it is regarded by Mark Lewisohn, Ian MacDonald (in “Revolution in the head”) and Alan Pollack (see his series here as one of their greatest. Your “kitchen sink” comment is a bit unfair – everything in the song is a means of articulation: the song is so incredibly rich with them that it never bores me and I keep relishing different aspects. Same with the lyrics – hardly nonsensical! There’s a definite (childlike, deliberately stumbling) sense to “No one I think is in my tree / I mean it must be high or low”.

      Tubular Bells – song, track, movement, whatever: still an astonishing piece of music.

      Nick Drake – the atmosphere conjured up from those fairly simple elements is to me incredibly vivid: I can SEE the yews and oaks swaying in the summer dusk, the slight wind tickling through their leaves, I can hear the river at the other end of the meadow, with the Riverman perhaps waiting there. No song, no artist, embodies the richness of the countryside as much as this.

      Generally, you seem to be much more into lyrics, or the lyrics as they form some kind of story or narrative, than me. Fair enough. Though I like a good lyric, to me it’s only one part of the overall mix of sound. I always think vocals get privilegised as the source of meaning in music (through what academics might wankily call logocentrism), but surely the main thing is the emotion or atmosphere conveyed. I’m often baffled when people tell me what a song is “about” – generally such points completely pass me by (unless it’s glaringly obvious). What emotion is conveyed and do I empathise with it – that’s how I judge music. All songs here are killer examples – to me anyway!!

  3. Ah, yes, ‘logocentric’ – that’s me!

    It’s not a song unless it has lyrics, and if it has lyrics, I’m going to pay attention to them. The music’s important too, and how well it ‘fits’ with the lyrics; but it’s hard to concentrate on the musical elements alone, and filter the lyrics out. I’ll tolerate the occasional weakness in the lyrics if the music is truly outstanding, but a really dud lyric always bugs the crap out of me.

    However, I’d agree that ‘mood’ is perhaps the most important thing, and that can come primarily or entirely from the music rather than the words. Also, the words often don’t deliver any conventional meaning. You know I love Tom Waits, but many of his lyrics are wilfully obscure, if not outright nonsense. Nevertheless, they have a poetic resonance about them; you can feel what he’s getting at, even if you can’t articulate it in conventional terms.

    I think any songs I’d nominate as “so good they could move me to tears” would be the ones I listed on your ‘great lyrics’ post a while back. Although I think I noted there (and/or on your post on great vocalists) that music, lyrics, and vocal performance tend to come together in a ‘great song’. Is it a case of creative excellence in one dimension dragging the other elements up to a similarly elevated level to join it (I would hope so!), or is it just that we tend to overrate the other virtues of a song that we’ve come to love primarily through just one of these aspects?

    And for admiration to spill over into tearfulness, I think we need that morbid or melancholy strain in the content of the song itself or in the associations that it has acquired for us. (I’ve been thinking for a while of doing one of my ‘Top Five’ posts on songs that make me cry.)

    Almost all of Tom Waits can do this for me, and it is perhaps as much admiration as melancholy in most cases (although most of them seem to be about death, nostalgia, or thwarted love; so, melancholy is always on hand!). Many of Michelle Shocked’s songs do too – especially Anchorage, V.F.D., Memories of East Texas, Prodigal Daughter, and The Ballad of Patch-Eye and Meg. And Janis Ian’s At Seventeen (which I rediscovered just a few months ago, having not heard it in more than 35 years) is so good it sends shivers down the spine.

    Queen have some breathtakingly good stuff, as well, particularly from the earlier part of their career. There’s a reason why Bohemian Rhapsody is such an enduring favourite, and it’s not just cheesy ’70s nostalgia or the exuberant novelty of doing a ‘pocket opera’ in a rock song; it is – musically and lyrically – quite stupendous. Many other songs of theirs from that era are similarly rich in invention; I have a special fondness for Good Company, where Brian May imitates an entire jazz orchestra with his guitar.

    In the next decade, the best bits of Dire Straits (pre-Brothers In Arms, where it all got a bit overblown and/or cheesy) almost attained similar heights: Skateaway, Tunnel of Love, and, most especially, the epic Telegraph Road.

    In more recent times, Pulp’s Common People would also be a contender (but again, the content of the song is a big part of its emotive power for me). And much of Radiohead. I have to mention – wilful provocation! – Black Star as a prime example: the emotional highlight of their best album (it mystifies me that you don’t ‘get’ it!!).

    For a song that blows me away for the music alone, I’d have to cite Led Zep’s Black Dog. The lyrics are a joke, but musically it is mind-blowing; I never get tired of listening to it.

    A couple of albums that came to mind recently as being stunningly good, musically and lyrically, all the way through, are The Beautiful South’s debut Welcome To The Beautiful South and Joe Jackson’s Big World (one of those albums that EVERYBODY I knew at college bought; it’s a three-side album, and a curious experiment in blending studio and live recording styles – each song recorded in one live take in front of an audience, to capture that sense of energy and immediacy; but carefully rehearsed, meticulously miked, and with the audience injoined to remain silent until after the last note fades).

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