#47: The Beach Boys: ‘Let The Wind Blow’ (1967)

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‘Pet Sounds’ is obviously one of the most brilliant, beautiful albums ever recorded, despite containing two instrumentals and a sea shanty, but it was only after ‘Pet Sounds’ saw them completely “fuck with the formula” – as Mike Love disparagingly put it at the time – that the band truly got interesting. Between ’67 to ’73, The Beach Boys had an epic run of eight albums, plus a number of hit singles, and they did so mostly without resident genius Brian Wilson, who spent years holed up in bed addled by drugs and mental illness – often while the band dutifully worked downstairs in his home studio.

Everyone stepped up to fill this notable gap – Carl, Bruce, Al, even fucking Mike – all delivering some undeniable classics during this period. Brian was involved sparingly, but some of his finest material comes during this time-frame too, despite his obvious issues. The mash of different songwriters and producers, a steady flow of experimentation, earnest ballads, misplaced excursions in ‘groovy’ subject matter (Mike ended the ‘Friends’ album with a song called ‘Transcendental Meditation’ which is a blasting aural assault in fierce contrast to the tranquil quality of the rest of the album – more proof Mike will never get it), surf throwbacks, pastoral hymns, and whatever else they wanted to do – well, it all makes for an amazing, varied run of innovative records that recasts the entire band’s legacy.

Well, it would have recast it, had the band not have followed these albums by immediately joining the oldies nostalgic touring circuit and doubling down on the apple-pie surfer-boy reputation they had almost shaken. Then again, when you call your band ‘The Beach Boys’, you are dead before the ship sinks.

‘Let The Wind Blow’ is a Brian classic unfairly buried in their catalogue, sitting at track nine on 1967’s ‘Wild Honey’; an album that contains some of the Beach Boys’ finest songs (‘Wild Honey’, ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ and ‘Darlin’ come to mind) but suffers from being tossed together in such a haphazard sequence that you can feel the lack of love shining through the stained glass window on the cover (I think it’s a stained glass window).

A simple, aching tune, ‘Let The Wind Blow’ possesses a spooky beauty often found in Brian’s most intimate, broken compositions. Here, he is struck by the simple march of time, the impermanence of everything, the elemental beauty of nature. It’s all quite nice until he realises if everything can and does change, then so might his lover’s place in his life. So he begins praying for everything to simply be. “Don’t take her out of my life”, he barks, soon needing assurance. “Let me please know she’ll be a part of my life forever.” Of course she won’t – she can’t.

Knowing about Brian’s mental state around this period (this was just after the SMiLE sessions, which he shut down after fearing a song about fire was actually responsible for fires which were breaking out around L.A. at the time) adds a extra layer of fragility to this song, but you don’t really need to know the story – it’s all captured on the tape.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#46: Death Cab For Cutie – ‘The New Year’ (2003)

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New Year’s Eve is traditionally one of the worst nights of the year. The outrageous expectations of a capitalised Epic Night Out are enough to disappoint, but then there is the strike of the clock hitting midnight and those larger expectations: that this will be the year you finally get your shit together. You will join that gym, start that course, quit that job, eat more vegetables, love harder, fall less, try more, cigarettes, carbs, chocolate, chickens kept in cages. Of course, this all falls away bit by bit, as ‘never again’ becomes ‘just this once’ then ‘less than before’ and ‘hey, it’s hard to be a human’. The reason is obvious: you are still the same person on January 1 as you were on December 31, no matter what the ‘Peanuts’ calendar says.

It is appropriate that the opening track of what would become Death Cab For Cutie’s breakthrough album finds Ben Gibbard mere seconds into the new year, sadly realising that nothing has changed, nor is it likely to. “So this is the new year”, he singsongs, after a crash of guitars and firework drums triumphantly open the song. “And I don’t feel any different.” There is crystal clanging, firecrackers on the front lawn, but nothing here feels much like a celebration.

Gibbard is a vivid songwriter who – uncommonly in the world of popular song – always writes in complete sentences (It’s distracting when you first notice, but you get over this quickly.) “So everybody put your best suit or dress on. Let’s make believe that we are wealthy for just this once” he claps, sick of the artifice. He has no resolutions, and the fact he is mentioning this at all suggests he knows he is meant to. “I wish the world was flat like the old days” is a hilarious line, very ‘Seth Cohen’ (we’ll get to him, don’t worry), but the sting in the tail is that this old-worldy artifice would allow him to travel “just by folding a map.” He is missing someone. “No more airplanes, or speed trains, or freeways”, he daydreams. “There’d be no distance that could hold us back.”

It’s sardonic but big-hearted, much like a lot of the band’s music, and much like Seth Cohen – the fictional Californian outcast on ‘The O.C.’ whose love of the band saw Death Cab go from a respectable level of independent success to international stardom then back to somewhere nicely in-between.

‘The O.C.’ was a remarkable phenomenon that was crippled by its own success: as the show caught fire, the demands of keeping up saw the writing staff burn through story line after story line, while struggling to stay grounded by the same meta-wit that hooked those who would never admit to being in love with a soap opera. By season three they had jumped the shark, by season four they had been cancelled, and now, some years later, all the hype surrounding it seems like a fever dream only half-remembered.

Which is to say, both the show and this song feels like components of the same time capsule: pre-social media, post-mp3, back when bands that sound like Death Cab could score a Gold record, and a network soap opera could be on the cutting edge of things – even if it was just a self-aware 90210.

‘Transatlanticism’ sold over half a million records, and – coupled with the success of side-project The Postal Service – made Ben Gibbard’s life very different, although whether he “felt” any different is for him to say. Since then Death Cab signed to a major label, Gibbard married and divorced Zooey Deschanel, quit drinking and took up distance running, and moved to California (here we come) soon leaving for the more appropriate gloom of Portland. I hope he feels different – in a good way – even if it means his music feels different as a result.

It doesn’t matter, this is a song for the ages, no matter how tied to a particular time (and county) it may be.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#45: David Bowie – ‘Letter To Hermione’ (1969)


David Bowie met his first love, the magnificently-named Hermione Farthingale on the set of a BBC drama in 1968. They quickly fell in love, bunkered down in a tiny London flat, wrote music together, tested different band formations including a three-piece folk outfit – and then in 1969 she broke his heart by following her career to Norway instead of flanking his. In doing so,  she inspired his most heartfelt creation, one of a rare few Bowie songs that suggests there is a real, raw beating heart underneath his alien exterior.

Bowie was a chameleon, which is an amazing attribute when steering a pop music career through six disparate decades, but one that relies on a trade-off of emotion. When you build a public persona as an untouchable, pan-sexual extra terrestrial who subsists on cocaine and milk alone, it’s hard for some to relate. We don’t look for vulnerability in Bowie’s music, because we assume it isn’t there to be found. He is untouchable. He isn’t even one of us – ‘us’ being flawed, flesh-and-bacteria humans who were born, and cried and loved and feared. Bowie was beamed down to provide light and art and to expect him to argue with his girlfriend about being more ‘available’ or something seems absurd. Even alien lifeforms can be left lonely, however, and ‘Letter To Hermione’ was the closest Bowie ever got to letting us see this.

It’s weird to see Bowie this emotionally lost. “I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do” he sings, “So I’ll just write some love for you.” He tortures himselfwith unsubstantiated  reports of her flourishing new life. “They say you sparkle like a different girl”, he sighs, with the knowledge that she may actually be better off without him. Still, he wonders. “Something tells me that you hide, when all the world is warm and tired, you cry a little in the dark.” Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, he doesn’t know. There’s another guy, too, as there often is, and Bowie tortures himself with vivid imaginings of their perfect Bowie-less life together:  he makes her laugh, he treats her well. “And when he’s strong, he’s strong for you, and when you kiss, it’s something new.” But, again, just maybe… “Did you ever call my name, just by mistake?” he asks, and it’s pathetic – one term you couldn’t level at Bowie ever again. This experience may have hardened him permanently – which makes me all the more thankful this song slipped out before he slammed the vault closed, for good.

In the end, Hermione’s departure did Bowie a massive favour, although it probably didn’t seem like it at the time. She popped up in other songs, too. “You fall in love, you write a love song. This is a love song”, he said on stage in 1990 before announcing ‘Life On Mars’, which takes half a verse to step out his relationship with “the girl with the mousy hair.” He details their bedsit love affair in more detail in ‘An Occasional Dream’, but as the title suggests, this song is more measured, more distant – a wisp of past emotion rather than the raw emotion showcased in ‘Letter To Hermione’. They both sit on the same album, but one seems in the midst of the heartbreak, the other is almost journalistic. He paints in more detail, but the colours are less vivid.

He never completely moved past this early heartbreak. In the 2013 video for his single ‘Where Are We Now’ he sports a shirt with ‘Song Of Norway’ written across it – the title of the film that stole Hermione from him back in 1969.

As for Hermione, she is now a 66-year-old Pilates teacher, living in Bristol. The Daily Mail tracked her down a few days after Bowie’s passing (because respect for timely grief is overrated) and she seems like a class act, saying: “I’ve nothing bad to say about my time with Bowie. There are too many girlfriends coming out of the woodwork claiming a little bit of the limelight. I think this is a time for close family.”

Even at 21, it would appear David Bowie had impeccable taste.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#44: Everclear – ‘Heroin Girl’ (1995)

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Of all the drugs, heroin has had the biggest impact on the musical world. Miles Davis helped shape the sound of jazz while hooked on the stuff, James Taylor’s mellow gold was spun despite an addiction which stretched decades, while Seattle’s Space Needle now stands as an iconic, ironic reminder of the damage the drug did to the city in the late ’80s and early ’90s. John Lennon dabbled during the dying days of The Beatles, Slash recorded classic albums with a needle never far from his arm, while Kurt Cobain self-medicated, first as an escape from debilitating stomach pains (which is like trying to heal a paper cut by chopping off the chunk of skin around it), then as an escape from everything else.

The drug’s track marks can be seen throughout numerous genres; its effects both celebrated and mourned. Lou Reed felt like Jesus’ son while on the stuff, while Lennon sweated and screamed his way free of its grip in ‘Cold Turkey’. ‘There She Goes’ is a sun-soaked, coded ode to heroin, equating it to the rush of early love – a beautiful young mitress who elicits pure bliss. John Prine sings of the “hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes”, and Trent Reznor zooms in on “the old familiar sting” of the needle piercing his skin. ‘Beetlebum’ makes it seem ethereal and drowsy; ‘Golden Brown’ makes it sound dainty and antiquated. Alice in Chains makes it sound hollow and creepy; Elliott Smith makes it sound beautiful and lonely. “Every junkie’s like a setting sun”, Neil Young warned in 1971 after seeing two of his close friends succumb to the drug, while in ‘Under The Bridge’ – the only RHCP song not about either California or having sex in California – Kiedis threw his life away on the drug (under said bridge). It was written as an ode to Hillel Slovak, who was the band’s guitarist until he OD’d and was replaced by John Frusciante – another addict.

Keith Richards, Evan Dando, Brian Wilson, and Courtney Love have outlived addictions; Sid Vicious, Kristen Pfaff, Layne Staley, and countless others did not. Art Alexisis from Everclear falls into the former list, his girlfriend Esther into the latter. It’s an arbitrary list, because it’s arbitrary who ODs and who doesn’t. Heroin doesn’t care about your plans to kick for good after this shot, or about how much your body can usually tolerate, or whether or not you are a talented guitarist. You can be nice to people and overdose. You can be terrible to people and live. Your entire essence means nothing at all, and as “all the dead bodies pile up in mounds”, as Lou Reed bluntly paints it, you can become nothing but a statistic.

Art Alexisis’s girlfriend in ‘Heroin Girl’ was a statistic. During the first half of the song she was a girl: two pierced nipples, black tattoo, lover of Mexican food. She appears to be the most stable out of the pair, both heroin-addled, sure, but she was the one caring for him and his disease. They were the typical young couple cocooned and sheltered from those “talking in the real world” by their love, their drugs and their happy little hell.

Halfway through the song, Esther became a statistic.

“They found her out in the fields
About a mile from home
Her face was warm from the sun
But her body was cold”

This news crashes in from nowhere, like all the worst news tends to. The most brutal lyrics of the song follow: “I heard a policeman say, ‘just another overdose’. Just another overdose”, he repeats angrily, unable to believe his ears. Sadly, this line is based in reality: his mother overheard a policeman make this comment when she was identifying the body of Art’s older brother – her son – who had just died of a heroin overdose. It’s heartless, but it’s also the numb way most would respond in a world where finding dead overdose victims is so commonplace that the words “just” and “another” come into play.

Esther was wild and nurturing; she drank Mexican beer; she was the entire universe to someone. To someone else though, she was just another overdose.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#43: Joshua Kadison – ‘Jessie’ (1993)


“From a phone booth in Vegas, Jessie calls at 5am, to tell me how she’s tired of all of them.” Considering that Vegas isn’t exact an early morning kale-shake power-walk type of city, I think it’s fair to say that Joshua Kadison got drunk dialled by an ex. And not just any ex, either – this song is reportedly (in other words: it is) about Sarah Jessica Parker, who dated Kadison sometime in the blurry pre-Carrie, post-Flight Of The Navigator period of her career.

Wistful and windswept, ‘Jessie’ is a remarkably poignant piece of songwriting: perennially uncool, defiantly romantic, and the musical offspring of Billy Joel and Elton John.

Let’s say, for libel’s sake, that this is a fictionalised piece of work. And what a piece of work, she is, too (BAM!) calling poor Joshua at 5am and spinning him some fairytale fiction about the happily-ever-after they always daydreamed about and never quite got right. She’s tired of chasing something else, someone else, chasing whatever lifestyle led her to Vegas. Of course, it’s unfair to make a value judgement regarding such a commonplace reaction: pinning hope where there is none; taking comfort in both the past and the future when the present seems so chaotic and unformed. Everybody has blurry far-off dreams, and clinging to these dreams during low points is vital. It’s one of their main functions, to keep us plodding forward – if only in our minds. So give poor SJP Jessie a break!

Jessie and Joshua share an ideal future together, but have different ideas of the present. Joshua allows himself to be pulled back into the romance each time, and each time he believes, and gets swept away in it because he just doesn’t want to give up on this big, messy, love story. Which is totally fine. As long as they both allow themselves to believe in the trailer by the sea in Mexico with Moses the cat, and tequila, and seashells and all those things that exist primarily on holidays or on mementos of holidays – it’s a possibility. “Who knows,” he sings at the end of the bridge, “Maybe this time, things will turn out just the way we planned?”

It’s a nice thought. And when you are in love with a person and a plan – or either one – ‘maybe’ is more than enough.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#42: Drake – ‘You & The 6’ (2015)

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Aubrey Drake Graham, much like Kanye West and John Lennon before him, is at his very best when a) filled with indignation at being undervalued, b) comparing his feats to the resurrection, or c) exposing all his deepest vulnerabilities. When these qualities are blended, it’s an beautiful thing, indeed.

‘You & the 6’ takes the form of a winding conversation with his mother, about everything from her disapproval of his girlfriends to his largely absent father. The song cycles between third and first person narration as Drake unpacks a lot of his frustrations with fame, criticism, and race. It is clear he is a wounded bear, annoyed at both his mother’s inability to relate to his circumstances, and his own annoyance at her; all she is doing is looking out for her son – worried and unable to contact him as much as she likes. “Ain’t been returning the texts, so she been reading the press. She got Google Alerts, them shits go straight to her phone”, he recounts, pissed off that an unfiltered online gossip stream is informing her about his life (wonder what she thought about Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree) while being double pissed that he is complicit in this misinformation by his own radio silence – if such a term can be used about someone who has dominated the format over the past few years.

These are all very specific, 0.001% problems he has, but they are real ones nonetheless. The dude who once boasted about being 25 sitting on 25 mil (also crowing “I swear, it’s been two years since somebody asked me who I was”) is now experiencing the full force of his own success. Magazines are trying to take him down, he has lost trust in most people in the industry, and he has become a target. His mother charmingly tries to set him up with a trainer at her gym but Drake knows how it goes when he tries to date ‘real’ (i.e. non-Rihanna) women. “I’m sure that she’s an angel, but she don’t want this life, the timing ain’t right.” He then bemoans the cut-throat world of hip hop and how it doesn’t jive with his sensitive core.

A quick interjection: Drake is part of a linage of emotionally-open hip hop artists who also adopt a swaggering sense of braggadocio when it suits. Ground zero of this might be Kanye’s one-liner from ‘All Falls Down’: “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it”, although Tupac may also have a claim to this dubious title too. Like Kanye, Drake has found his style being co-opted by other artist who first emulate him, and then attempt to challenge his supremacy. Like Kanye, Drake hates it. Of course, all hip hop artists boast they are the best; it’s a genre which rose from violent oppression, was perfected and showcased through rap battles, and emulates the loyalty and territorial nature of gang culture while mirroring the individual hubris of boxing – another pursuit heavily favoured by the disenfranchised. Ali claimed he was the greatest before hip hop was born. It doesn’t make for a nice playing field, though. This all leads to Drake’s confession, perhaps the most stark yet: “I can’t be out here being vulnerable, momma.” Ironically, it’s one of his most vulnerable lines to date.

He also touches on the idea of race  – and more specifically the idea of ‘blackness’. Due to his ubiquity, it is easy to forget what a singular success story his is: a Jewish, mixed-race, Canadian child actor who became the biggest non-Kanye name in American hip hop. Of course this makes him an easy target for claims of inauthenticity, regardless of how true the opposite is. “I used to get teased for being black, and now I’m here and I’m not black enough, cause I’m not acting tough or making stories up ’bout where I’m actually from”, he spits towards the end of the song, sick of the assumptions.

More than any of this though, ‘You and the 6’ is a HSC-style compare and contrast essay between his mother’s unwavering support and the complicated relationship both he and her have with Drake’s largely-absent father. “You’re your father’s child, man, thank God you got some me in you” his mother reasons, when faced with Drake’s lack of communication and uneasy relationships with women. Verse two is where this is more explicitly tackled, the tone suggesting an eye-rolling acceptance of his father’s flaws, built over years of disappointment and acceptance.

(In 2012, Drake told GQ: “I’ll never be disappointed again, because I don’t expect anything anymore from him. I just let him exist, and that’s how we get along. We laugh. We have drinks together. But I spent too many nights looking by the window, seeing if the car was going to pull up. And the car never came.” The following year, talking to the same magazine, he added: “His actions served as that reverse role model for me. There are a lot of things that I don’t ever want to do. I don’t want to miss years of my child’s life. I don’t want to put a woman on a roller-coaster ride.”)

Drake jokes about his dad releasing a single off the back of his son’s fame, frequenting clubs despite being in his 60s, and still wearing linen. In the midst of all the jokes is a boy who still wants his parents to reconcile, urging his mother to call his dad “after we get off the phone, and show him some love”.

“He made mistakes throughout his life that he still doesn’t accept.
But he just want our forgiveness, and fuck it, look how we living.
I’m content with this story, who are we not to forgive him?”

He is done with the conflict. He recalls time spent rapping over the phone to his incarcerated father’s cell-mate when he was a teenager, and even posits this early training may be the reason he has a Grammy now. He is over the anger, over the pain of waiting for his father to show up, and just wants his fortune to plaster over those deep cracks.  “Let’s just call this shit even, we got some things to believe in”, he begs his mother, before listing off his father’s few positives, recalling how he kept him from getting into trouble in the rough areas of Toronto. “He never let me do drugs, he let me shoot a gun one summer, but out there everyone does”, he reasons, and it’s funny, and both mature and naive – an adult son still making excuses for his father’s actions.

He knows his mother – and the city in which she raised him – undoubtedly saved his life, but he also acknowledges the deep debt he owes his father for introducing him to music with emotion: “old music, soul music, shit that can only be created if you go through it.” This was the biggest gift Drake received from his father: the knowledge that pain can be wielded as a weapon if you find the right means of expression; “Working with the negatives to make for better pictures” as he once put it. When trauma is filtered through music and used as a shield and a bridge – well, that shit can save your life.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#41: Little Birdy – ‘Relapse’ (2003)

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“Never have I met someone as insensitive as you.” Despite the almost quaint formality of the wording – you cannot imagine anyone in a passion-fuelled rage yelling “never have I met” – the second line of ‘Relapse’ sets up the pain that vocalist and songwriter Katy Steele would spend the next three-and-a-half minutes cycling through. The preceding line suggests this relationship started in a complicated space – “I’ll help you through your pain if you help me through yours” is hardly the stuff great romances are built from – while the title suggests an unhealthy dependence. All in all, this song is an open wound, despite how gorgeous the melody is.

Katy Steele was just 19 when she recorded ‘Relapse’, and younger still when she wrote it – I’ve heard she was 17 – and despite the musical sophistication, lyrically this makes sense. Please note, this is not intended as an insult in any way, this just sounds like a teenage diary entry in the best, most messy fashion. You know when you can tell dialogue intended for young people is written by a middle-aged man; when it sounds too logical and too emotionally removed to ring true? (see: ‘The Social Network’) This song is the opposite, oscillating freely from one extreme to another without being in service of a neat narrative or a through-line. That’s how angry heartbreak feels, and it’s often devoid of quick quips or dry observations. It’s shock at having the rug pulled, denial of your own feelings, self-hatred for fantasising about a love that has hurt you before, and will again. It’s the line she repeats the most in ‘Relpase’: “I can’t help this pain that I’m feeling.”

“I want to escape what you’ve done to my life” is immediately countered with “I love the way that you’re always on my mind”, which is often the rub when attracted to someone who is bad news. “Explain what my touch means to you if it does”, she begs later. She is captivated, but unsure if he is.

The song also contains what I refer to as a “tattoo line” – the zen-zing “existence is purpose” – which is the most succinct three-word explanation for the meaning of life I’ve heard. I’m almost certain at least one person had this phrase inked onto their body sometime during that crazy post Y2K-scare period (email me). It would make a great tattoo, and a decent bumper sticker.

None of this would mean anything much though without the song’s one ace in the hole – Katy Steele’s pure, soaring vocal. This was the first song from the band’s first EP, and the best thing they ever recorded. It’s classy, it doesn’t rush to build to an easy hook, it sits outside of trends or production styles, and it understands that when it comes to pain, love or anything floating in-between, we have no real say. That’s okay though; especially when you know the meaning of life.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#40: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – ‘Nobody’s Baby Now’ (1994)

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When Nick Cave searches for meaning, he really searches.

Consider this song, one of the darkest in a catalogue which contains an entire album called ‘Murder Ballads’. He cannot fathom how a woman he lost is yet to be found by another, such is her everlasting beauty and grace. Not simply content with the idea she may be enjoying her independence, he delves into the great tomes of history to gather a clearer understanding. Or maybe he killed her, and this is why she is nobody’s baby now. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time; I’m surprised more of his murderous claims haven’t been formally investigated, especially the well-publicised Elisa Day case.

Despite claiming in ‘Into My Arms’ to not believe in an interventionist God (and being the only writer to successfully cram ‘interventionist’ into a song), he nevertheless studies the scriptures to “unravel the mystery of Jesus Christ, the saviour.” He pores over anthropological texts, reads poetry, travels the world, but is bereft of anything approaching an answer.

This is a song about dark, driven obsession. He seems to conflate his all-assuming desire for her and the passion that drove this love off the cliff into one and the same. Verse two opens with the confessional, “I loved her then and I guess I love her still. Hers is the face I see when a certain mood moves in.” Hints at violence or infidelity soon enter, with the striking “But there are some things love won’t allow. I held her hand, but I don’t hold it now.”

She tore his many letters to shreds (if you date Nick Cave, one thing you can be assured of is being the recipient of many letters – certainly handwritten, probably in sweeping cursive, and possibly penned with a calligraphy set) and he understands the reasons for this, at least: “I was a cruel-hearted man.”

It is clear, as stated earlier, that he is still obsessed with her. If she isn’t dead, but merely no longer his – or anyone else’s – baby, then the anguish takes on an interesting new form. It’s one thing for someone to choose another over you – at least this can be rationalised by our silly survivial-of-the-fittest monkey brain. But for her to leave him in order to be alone – that’s a direct result of the type of person he was and the way in which he acted towards her. She’d rather be by herself than with him. It’s a harsh, simple truth, and the questions he asks himself have no convenient answers – no wonder he couldn’t find anything in the Bible!

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#39: Willie Nelson – ‘Always On My Mind’ (1982)

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“Maybe I didn’t love you quite as often as I could have”, Willie Nelson tenderly sings, his voice cracking due to emotion, and helped along by thousands of joints. Maybes aside, this is a simple tale of a man realising far too late that he was the sole architect in the downfall of his relationship. He was distant for far too long, and now she is.

The true tragedy of this song is captured towards the tail end of the second verse:

“I guess I never told you
I am so happy that you’re mine
Little things I should have said and done
I just never took the time
You were always on my mind”

The “maybes” that punctuate verse one are now lost as he takes full ownership of letting this love slip through his fingers. As is often the case, it was a slow, constant neglect that dissolved this relationship, not one big explosion. The little things he mentions aren’t little things at all, which he is realising. In the bridge he asks for “one more chance” but you can tell he knows it’s just not going to happen. It’s too late.

Of course, Willie Nelson’s version is the second-most famous, after Elvis Presley’s 1972 take – routinely held up as his finest vocal performance. I disagree. Although he recorded his version only weeks after Priscilla left him, this is nowhere to be heard in his voice – his stately croon keeps any emotion at bay. Willie, as is fitting for a country singer, lets all his years of regret out in one huge valve release. It’s heartbreaking, but somehow stoic, like he has accepted his lot and – aside from one plea in the bridge – is moving on slowly. Of course, this was the problem in the first place, Willie!

Ricky Gervais picked this version on BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ back in 2007, and summarised the appeal of the song magnificently:

“The Elvis version’s beautiful, but I never considered Elvis vulnerable enough to pull this song off”, he begins, as way of an introduction. “It’s that regret; it’s that guy who’s maybe made some mistakes and now he’s in the twilight years and he’s trying to put it right. This one, out of all the songs, nearly makes me cry every time.”

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#38: The Zombies – ‘A Rose For Emily’ (1968)

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So few people cared about the release of the 1968 Zombies record ‘Odessey and Oracle’ that it was allowed to go to retail with a spelling mistake in the album title, and not even a groovy, on purpose mistake, either. While these days revisionist theory and good PR would have seen an origin tale spun for the “alternative” and definitely deliberate misspelling, in 1968 the Zombies simply shrugged it off as an “oh well, the artist screwed up”, split up the band shortly afterwards, and kept on keeping on.

The album sold around 800 copies upon initial release. It came and it went, the group died and nobody noticed. If that was how the story ended, it would have been befitting of an album which houses ‘A Rose For Emily’, a similarly poignant story. As it happened, ‘Time Of The Season’ scored surprise radio play in America almost a year later, sold a million copies, and saw the now-defunct British band in such high demand that several fake versions of the group toured the U.S., with fans none the wiser.

Over the years, ‘Odessey and Oracle’ has picked up fans steadily, who – perhaps initially drawn to the tripped-out artwork – soon quietly discover one of the most rewarding and richest records released during that creative apex of ’66-’68. It’s a hard record to keep quiet about though, gaining fans through word-of-mouth over the years; the very best way to gain fans.

The album opens with the relentlessly sunny female prison jam ‘Care Of Cell 44’ (one of the best pure pop songs from the era, and still criminally unknown to most) but unless you catch the verse one reveal in that song, you could easily harmonise your way past any of the darkness there. Not so with the following track. A dainty, chipped-China cup of a tune, ‘A Rose For Emily was loosely based off the Faulkner short story of the same name, but despite both centering on the lonely life and death of a spinster named Emily, the two tales share little else: the rose in Faulkner’s title was allegorical, The Zombies’ was literal; their Emily passes without notice while Faulkner’s Emily had a huge public funeral.

The song works as a companion piece of sorts to The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ with both being late-60s odes to the elderly, forgotten members of society who slip through the cracks – unobserved and uncared for. Sadly, this is still happening; despite most of us not being able to move without our coordinates being beamed from our pockets into space and back again, people can still live and die without being noticed. In 2011, Natalie Jean Wood’s decomposed body was discovered in the front room of her townhouse in a built-up area in central Sydney. She had been dead for eight years. Her personal items were the inconsequential accoutrements one might except to be dumped on any dresser: make-up, a watch, scissors, two rings, a bracelet, dentures and – as if torn from a poorly-scripted procedural – a 2003 diary.

The coroner’s report pulled no punches, stating grimly, “That the death of a life long resident of a high density housing area should remain undiscovered until after all the flesh had rotted from her frail bones caused public disquiet.” And it did. Shortly after her body was found, bunches of flowers begun stacking up on her front stoop (unlike Emily) while journalists scrambled to put her lonely life together, dubbing her “the woman Sydney forgot” or “Sydney’s forgotten woman”. All reports of her used a pretty photo taken on her 21st birthday in 1946, as if to compound the tragedy, while countless locals shuddered at the thought that they had passed that house numerous times, unaware of the grisly contents. Most distressing though, was the thought – inside everyone’s head no matter how vehemently they refuse to explore it – that Natalie Jean Wood’s fate could one day be their own. The fear of dying alone and unaccounted for runs deep – and we really don’t like being reminded that it’s a possibility.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly