James Taylor, “Fire and Rain” (1971)
I guess it’s true, as Elton John says, that “when all hope is gone, sad songs say so much.” When I was in my 20s, if I heard a song like James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” or Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” — even muzak versions in a department store or public transportation hallway — a heavy, intense melancholy would cover me. I’d get a lump in my throat and be on the verge of tears. I’d have to get away from the music.
Although I’m a lot less sensitive to sad music these days, I have to admit these are pretty sad songs. Sad enough that they could still, on occasion, throw me into a brooding gloom!
Back then, my companion would laugh and tell me that if a song is sad, melancholy, or otherwise mood-altering, it ought to be embraced until it becomes comforting. With a measure of distance, the music could bring on needed catharsis.
Yet it only made me feel terrible. If I wasn’t already in a melancholy mood, I’d quickly step down into one.
Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1977)
Since then I have grown more accustomed to and less fearful of hearing sad music. Over many years I have cultivated tolerance and appreciation. A middle, semi-blue period saw me able to listen to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Still, even then I couldn’t brave songs from the “Blue” album.
Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now” (1970)
Now I find some music sad but not intolerably so, like Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” album. I believe I’ve achieved the level of cool aesthetic appreciation for the sad that my long-ago companion kept trying to encourage.
Jackson Browne, “Love Needs a Heart” (1978)
I never understood it then, but now listening to Browne’s “Love Needs a Heart” and “Rosie” I realize I’ve made peace with poignancy. I can even manage to listen to these songs of love and loss from beginning to end.
Jackson Browne, “Rosie” (2011)
Whatever’s in my heart — pathos, longing, hurt, despair, regret — these songs bring it out.
Maybe they’d be good for what ails you, too.
– Nyla Matuk