I am a poser. As great as being sad is, faking “sad” while I’m actually quite happy could easily be one of my favorite pastimes. Music can be a vital accessory for this sort of psychological slumming. There’s something especially cathartic about sloshing down South University Avenue in the pouring rain (without a hood on, of course) while listening to Elliott Smith, assuming the role of the doomed romantic from the cozy vantage point of mental stability. It’s a little hobby I like to call “safe depression,” offering the nostalgic wallowing of bleary-eyed heartache minus all the messy bits.
Likewise, music can be just as deft at romanticizing actual, honest-to-God, I-never-want-to-get-out-of-bed-again misery. Listening to Jim Reid of The Jesus & Mary Chain plaintively croon, “You cut me dead / you nail me down and kick my head” can make one’s post-breakup trauma seem significantly less trivial. Knowing that there’s a whole subculture of open-heart suffering going on out there might make you feel like you’re part of an elite clique of broken-down dreamers. This sonic support system can transform your achy discontent into something poetic, letting you float unfettered in a womb-like void of shared melancholy. Certain musicians can take pain and whittle it into something beautiful and empowering, crafting bittersweet songs that allow you to take a step back and view yourself as the tragic protagonist that everyone’s rooting for.
So, in the spirit of waning seasonal depression and post-Valentine’s Day angst, I have compiled a completely non-comprehensive list of songs that perfectly straddle this happy/sad dialectic. They are songs that pluck the sweet spot on your heartstring between euphoria and hopelessness. Whether you’re happy or sad, these tunes are guaranteed to make you feel exactly the opposite (and then swing you back around, full circle).
“These Days” – Nico
Although essentially any song from “The Royal Tenenbaums” soundtrack could have made it onto this list, this one is particularly precious. As Nico spins failure and stasis into something emotionally purging, the listener is swept up in conflicting sentiments of vulnerability and invincibility. The rainy-day twang of the acoustic guitar, swirled with sweeping strings and her inimitable alto, lends the track an uncanny magic that makes you feel like you’re perched on the edge of the world, ready to tackle anything.
“When You Sleep” – My Bloody Valentine
This is shoegaze at its woozy best; listening to this song is like drifting through a pastel fever dream. Homesick guitars churn and whistle, free-floating around a sweet tooth melody, perfectly capturing the half-awake swoon of puppy love (or its untimely demise). If you like your exaltation a bit messy and art-damaged, then this is your song.
“She’s A Jar” – Wilco
As Jeff Tweedy’s endearingly grizzled voice rolls out non-sequiturs over a bittersweet stew of heart-on-sleeve organs and synths, you’ll have to forcibly will yourself not to get the shivers. With its evocative free-association lyrics, the song is like an emotional thrift shop, shifting meanings to suit the listener’s current plight or daydream. During the chorus, when Tweedy beckons “watch me floating inches above the people under me” and a wistful harmonica hook materializes out of the blue, it’s hard not to feel like you’re floating right up there with him.
“Autumn Sweater” – Yo La Tengo
“Autumn Sweater” could be the poster child for the tear-blurred line between happy and sad that this list is attempting to address. With his sparse but powerful lyrics, Ira Kaplan chronicles three stages of a relationship in haiku-like fashion, jump-cutting from the disbelief triggered by a knock on a door to images of forced smiles and yearning for “the beginning.” And Kaplan’s fragile vocals are sure to prod your nostalgia gland, regardless of what stage of the romantic washing machine you’re spinning in.
“Here” – Pavement
“I was dressed for success / but success, it never comes.” No band captured the breezy apathy of ’90s slacker culture as poignantly as Pavement, but “Here” is frontman Stephen Malkmus at his most tender. While he rambles incoherently about bad jokes and Spanish candles during the verses, the refrain of “everything’s ending here” never fails to strike a chord.
“Motion Picture Soundtrack” – Radiohead
This may be simultaneously one of the saddest and most uplifting songs ever written. It’s almost uncomfortable to listen as Thom Yorke warbles, “Red wine and sleeping pills / help me get back to your arms / Cheap sex and sad films / help me get back where I belong” over a lonely pump organ. But when the trickling harps chime in and Yorke unexpectedly announces in waif-like falsetto, “I will see you in the next life,” the song crescendos to an otherworldly optimism that defies human emotion.