Jules Gray's collection of songs to help you heal. Maybe you just need a good cry? These songs are for you. With love, from Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Lucinda Williams, The 1975 et. al. Let it all out.
Words and curation by Jules Gray, artwork by Mick Clarke
Music is for entertainment. Music is for dancing. Music is for bringing people together. Music is for fun. Music is for lifting the soul. It’s for all these things. But music can do other stuff. It can help us work through difficult emotions. It can reflect our pain and sorrow. It can let us cry. It can also nurse us and heal us when life is hard. This is a collection of songs that deal with loss and pain. That’s not to say that these songs are painful to listen to. Many of them are sweet. None of them, at least to my ears, sound jarring. But they talk of sadness, pain, loss, bereavement, grief, death – you know, all that difficult stuff that most of us don’t feel all that comfortable dealing with. Until we have to. Until we find ourselves in a situation where we don’t get a choice. I lost my partner of nearly 19 years very recently. She took her own life. It’s a very raw situation. It’s very hard to handle the emotions that follow such a devastating experience. Music can help. Songs by people who have experienced profound loss and despair can help, because we feel somebody else understands our pain. We feel less lonely. This is not to say that this playlist is only for those who are struggling with bereavement. Maybe you’ve been unlucky in love. Maybe you’re battling depression. Maybe you’re feeling sad, or lonely, or just plain feeling sorry for yourself. We’re not supposed to feel sorry for ourselves, are we? When did anyone decide that? Sometimes you have to wallow in some good, honest self-pity when you’re feeling bruised and tender. Maybe you just need a good cry. That’s OK. It can help us heal. These songs are for you. With love.
1. Humble Pie – Desperation (from As Safe As Yesterday Is, 1969)
“Take my hand if you don't know where you're going
I'll understand, I've lost the way myself”
Steve Marriott left Small Faces to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton in 1969. This was the first track from the first album. Later they became a pretty unimaginative rock ‘n boogie band, but initially Humble Pie had a little more versatility and depth. Desperation is actually a cover version, the original having been recorded by Steppenwolf. Marriott, Frampton, and Greg Ridley take turns at singing the lead, often swapping over mid-line. It’s very effective, even though Steve Marriott can’t help but steal the show with his incredible vocal power. He was a small man with a giant voice. The song tackles its titular subject matter head-on. It’s a truly cathartic song and performance.
2. Stephen Stills – Do for the Others (from Stephen Stills, 1970)
“She is gone, there is no tomorrow
It is done, so now he must borrow
The life of his brothers
And living in sorrow must do for the others”
Stepping out from under the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young umbrella, Stephen released his first solo album in 1970. This song was for and about erstwhile partner David Crosby whose girlfriend had died in an automobile accident the previous year. A touching and very supportive gesture, especially in light of all the tales of bickering and fighting that the group has become infamous for over the years.
3. Grateful Dead – Box of Rain (from American Beauty, 1970)
“Maybe you're tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted
With words half spoken
And thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do
To do for you to see you through?”
Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh had never previously taken centre stage as a writer or lead vocalist, but he was moved to write Box of Rain for his dying father. Pain can inspire great art.
4. Todd Rundgren – Torch Song (from Something/Anything? 1972)
“Somewhere in the back of my heart it’s there
And every day it finds me, and reminds me”
Before Todd went brilliantly weird, he specialised in aching songs of the heart like this one.
5. Neil Young – No One Seems to Know (from Songs for Judy, recorded 1976, released 2018)
“Once I was in love
Now it seems that time is better spent
Searching than in finding
But no one seems to know”
Nobody sits on a greater wealth of first-rate unreleased songs than Neil Young. Slowly but surely they are starting to see the light of day via a series of archival releases. I first heard this song on a bootleg recording many years ago. Something tells me that a certain Christopher Cross must have heard that same tape.
6. Nick Lowe – Cracking Up (from Labour of Lust, 1979)
“Everybody having fun
I don't know how they can carry on
'Cause I don't think it's funny no more”
Recorded by the mighty Rockpile (that’s Dave Edmunds on guitar and harmony vocal), this song sets a lyric of desperate anxiety to a slinky upbeat rock melody. That’s the mark of a great songwriter.
7. Leonard Cohen – Night Comes On (from Various Positions, 1984)
“I said, Mother I'm frightened, the thunder and the lightning
I'll never come through this alone
She said, I'll be with you, my shawl wrapped around you
My hand on your head when you go
And the night came on, it was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, go back, go back to the world”
My friend Simon once said to me that Leonard Cohen is so good that he makes almost every other songwriter look silly by comparison. And it’s true that nobody else I can think of can match him for emotional depth and mastery of language. Cohen wasn’t a songwriter aspiring to poetry; he was a poet who occasionally worked in song.
8. Paul Simon – Graceland (from Graceland, 1986)
"Losing love is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow"
Having just declared Leonard Cohen to be the untouchable master of lyric, I would now like to backpedal somewhat by declaring the above to be the most profound and moving lyric from any song I have ever heard. It always makes me cry. Everybody knows this song and this album, but sometimes things are popular because they’re outstandingly good.
9. R.E.M. – You are the Everything (from Green, 1988)
“You have been here and you are everything”
From when I first saw them appear on a 1983 edition of The Tube, until whenever it was that I allowed myself to realise that they weren’t quite doing it for me any longer, R.E.M. were my band.
I was particularly enamoured of anything they did that, like this song, was soaked through with yearning melancholia.
10. The Psychedelic Furs – Shine (from Book of Days, 1989)
“Days that never come
To shine a light on the damage done
Some days without a sound
I feel the dark even closer now”
The Psychedelic Furs had a strange journey. From underground post-punk beginnings, they became increasingly polished and commercialised to the point where they became shallow and hollow and in severe danger of besmirching their own good name. So for Book of Days, they retrenched and revisited their older ways of doing things, and of course nobody bought it. It’s difficult to know just what Richard Butler is singing about here, but it sounds like he’s been having a rough time of it.
11. Bob Dylan – Most of the Time (from Oh Mercy, 1989)
“I can smile in the face of mankind
Don't even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time”
Another towering giant of songwriting delivers the ultimate example of “methinks he doth protest too much”. Bob Dylan has a thick skin. He had to grow one fast to survive the white heat of fame. He doesn’t let his guard down too often. He doesn’t expose his soft underbelly too easily. When he does do so, the results are staggeringly moving.
12. Lucinda Williams – Sweet Old World (from Sweet Old World, 1992)
“Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm cradled in your arm
Didn't you think you were worth anything?
See what you lost when you left this world
This sweet old world”
I’ll let Lucinda Williams herself speak for this song: "It was one of the first songs where I wrote about suicide, and the whole idea and shock of it. People responded in a lot of different ways, but the majority said things like, ‘this song helped me get through this.’”
13. Pearl Jam – Immortality (from Vitalogy, 1994)
“Cannot find the comfort in this world”
Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam has denied that this song was written about the suicide of his contemporary, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. The lyric is opaque, but the feeling Vedder puts into his performance is anything but.
14. Sinéad O’Connor – In this Heart (from Universal Mother, 1994)
“This is my grief for you
For only the loss of you
The hurting of you
Sung a cappella by Sinéad and the Irish male vocal harmony trio The Voice Squad, this is one of the purest, most spine-tingling, and deeply moving performances recorded by anyone ever. If you can listen to it without tears streaming down your face, you may need to check you still have a pulse.
15. Del Amitri – Driving with the Brakes On (from Twisted, 1995)
“When you're driving with the brakes on
When you're swimming with your boots on
It's hard to say you love someone
And it's hard to say you don't”
It’s never made too clear just what tragic event has just occurred to the characters in this song, but you can work it out if you pay close enough attention. It takes true talent to navigate subject matters like this in popular song, and yet Del Amitri remain stubbornly underrated.
16. Paul Westerberg – Good Day (from Eventually, 1996)
“In the dreams you tell me
Tell them only you were tired
Sing along, hold my life
A good day is any day that you`re alive”
Paul Westerberg and Bob Stinson were bandmates in The Replacements. Their 1985 album Tim opened with a song called Hold My Life (“because I just might lose it”). Soon after the release of that record, Paul fired Bob from the band for being even more unpredictable and out of control that the rest of The Replacements. Bob died in 1995. The following year, Paul recorded this lament for his one-time compadre, referencing the older song in the lyric. Another instance where there’s not a dry eye in the house.
17. The Loud Family – Just Gone (from Interbabe Concern, 1996)
“And there's been water at my neckline, I sank low,
And it was all that I could do to keep myself from swimming”
During the 1980s, the state of British pop music had me scrambling for the American import record bins. I was a fan of R.E.M. I was hip to the so-called “paisley underground”. I’d even been turned on to those godfathers of everything jangly and power-poptastic, Big Star. So when thirty years later I discovered a band called Game Theory, who were produced by Mitch Easter, who were friends with various members of The Three O’Clock, Dream Syndicate, and Rain Parade, and who were fronted by a devoted fan of Big Star, I felt utterly baffled at how I’d missed out on them when they were a going concern. The band’s leader, Scott Miller, formed his second band The Loud Family when Game Theory ran aground. This is a beautiful and erudite song of loss from a man who was no stranger to pain. Scott Miller took his own life in April 2013 - the same week I first heard him sing.
18. Ass Ponys – Nothing Starts Today (from Lohio, 2001)
“I know damn well the weeds are growing
In the yard
I realise that it need mowing
But it's too hard
No matter what they say
Nothing starts today”
One of alternative rock’s best kept secrets, Ass Ponys’ Chuck Cleaver was (and still is, in his current band Wussy) among the most intelligent, bittersweet, and deadpan funny lyricists alive, and Lohio is one of the greatest albums ever released that almost nobody knows. Seek it out.
19. Johnny Cash – Hurt (from American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002)
“Everyone I know
Goes away in the end”
You’d have to have been living on Titan not to have heard this incredibly moving recording, and you’ve almost certainly also seen the video too. Was there ever such dignity? Or such heart-breaking human frailty? And the song came from such an unlikely source too – Trent Reznor leads a hardcore, industrial punk rock group called Nine Inch Nails. All tattoos and heroin, self-loathing and nihilism. Nothing reminds you that a great song can come from anywhere quite like Johnny Cash’s cover of Reznor’s Hurt.
20. Toni Childs – Keep the Faith (from Keep the Faith, 2008)
“It’s hard to keep the faith when all around you is falling”
Where would we be without the support of friends or family, especially when life gets hard? My late partner Gill introduced me to this record. I’d like to dedicate it to Mark, Nettie, Dermot, Anne, Chris, Rob, Sarah, and my big brother Marcus, who all came to spend time with me when my world was falling apart.
21. Death Cab for Cutie – My Mirror Speaks (from The Open Door EP, 2009)
“With every sun that sets I am feeling more
Like a stranger on a foreign shore
With an eroding beach disappearing from underneath
And when my mirror speaks it never minces words
Because these eyes don't shine half as bright
As they used to do and they haven't for quite a while”
God, but I love this song. I think Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard is an outstanding talent (seek out a song called Me & Magdalena which he wrote for a recent Monkees reunion album if you need more proof). I only wish I didn’t relate to the lyric of My Mirror Speaks quite as much as I do.
22. Fleet Foxes – Blue Spotted Tail (from Helplessness Blues, 2011)
“Why is life made only for to end?
Why do I do all this waiting then?
Why this frightened part of me that's fated to pretend?
Why is life made only for to end?”
You won’t hear Fleet Foxes’ signature lush harmonies on this song, just Robin Pecknold’s vocal and guitar. It reminds me of Paul Simon at his melancholic best.
23. The Flaming Lips – Can’t Let it Go (from 7 Skies H3, streamed online 2011, released commercially 2014)
“I can't let it go
I can't just let it go
With my arms, my heart, my life”
Less than a year ago when I read that The Flaming Lips had made a 24-hour long piece of music, my head nearly exploded at the sheer scale of such an undertaking. Hey, even if it was a load of old rubbish, my hat was already off in order to salute their audacity. Why wasn’t everyone falling over themselves to talk about this? I started listening to parts of it, and it was far from being a load of old rubbish. I also bought the (very much) truncated CD version. I became quite obsessed with it, to be honest. I can’t listen to it right now though. The piece is about a man dealing with his partner’s suicide, so it cuts too close to the bone. I can listen to this part though. It’s the final 8 minutes (of both the original 24-hour long piece, and the 50-minute album), and the clouds are parting just enough to let a ray of light through.
24. Mark Knopfler – Haul Away (from Privateering, 2012)
“Now you lie alone in the deep dark sea
I’m a living man, and you’re a cold one”
I was, and remain, a huge fan of Sultans of Swing. I think it’s one of the greatest singles ever made. But Dire Straits lost me after that. For me, they became dull stadium rockers. I couldn’t believe just how popular they became. Gill bought this Knopfler solo album and began to play it a lot in the car. I had to admit, begrudgingly at first, but more openly later, that it was full of wonderful songs. Haul Away was always a standout. Of course now, because of the song’s subject matter, and because of how I came to hear it in the first place, it reduces me to a quivering puddle of wailing tears and snot. Don’t let that put you off though – it’s a remarkably great record.
25. Guided by Voices – Amusement Park is Over (from August by Cake, 2017)
“Amusement park is over
They'll exit holding hands
Amusement park is over
Tearfully they'll meet in Summerland”
My real favourite band is The Beatles, and it always was, and always will be. But if anyone asks me who my favourite band is and I feel inclined to give a more singular, more up-to-date response, I’ll tell them that it’s Guided by Voices. Robert Pollard’s story, his rise from 30-odd-year-old school teacher to indie rock legend, is perhaps the last great romantic tale in rock & roll’s history. Like songwriting’s other great Bob (ol’ Zimmy, if you need to ask), Pollard doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve all that often, but his sadder and slower songs are consistently up there amongst the ones I most treasure.
26. The 1975 – I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes) (from A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, 2018)
“But your death
It won't happen to you
It happens to your family and your friends”
I have no business being in the least bit interested in The 1975. They’re a pop group for “millennials”. They’re not for old men like me. Except that I know this man who is even older than I am, and he’s obsessed by them (hello, Chris!). So much so that it’s catching. And I have to admit that I admire their inventiveness, their passion, and how much they appear to care. And I love how clever the title of this song is. And if I’m still capable of happiness, then I’m happy to leave the last word to the youth. Because that’s where hope is still very much alive.
Thank you for reading and for listening. Jules, 18th September, 2019
Jules Gray is a singer/songwriter and an amateur music historian.