#55: Ben Lee – ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’ (1998)

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Toxic relationships are often apparent to everyone but the two people inside of them. Like cigarettes, they will eventually kill you. Like cigarettes, sometimes it’s easier to just delay the inevitable hard slog of breaking the habit and all the restless, anxious nights this entails. People who quit cigarettes act like total dicks. People who were just dumped exhibit similar dickish behaviour. Both are chemical upheavals. The fact that it will take many, many decades for these things to kill you means it’s rather easy to put off the decision to quit them; you rarely wake up in a crack den with dry blood in your hair after a hardcore tobacco bender, so it takes far too long to realise that you are – in fact – doing severe damage to yourself. Plus it does look cool.

But this isn’t about the dangers of cigarettes, in fact this song isn’t even about that. The title was pinched (kinda) from the Verve song ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, and the only link seems to be that both cigarettes and sunshine-stealers (phrase borrowed [again] by Jenni Konner) are bad for your health.

In ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’, Ben was blind to his girlfriend’s conniving, ladder-climbing ways, but his friends weren’t. Props to them for warning him about her, too; often it isn’t until after a relationship is dead that the true-feelings-autopsy is performed on a friend’s partner. “They swore you’d steal my steam to feed your dream and then be gone”, he sings in the chorus, before delivering the knock out blow. “I wish I could say that everyone was wrong.” Ben was used, plain and simple, and somewhere deep inside he must have known this. Maybe not though; it’s pretty damn easy to block out any unwelcome dissonance when you are in those early stages of love. Red flags look like regular flags when you are wearing rose-coloured glasses.

Ben Lee had just turned 20 when he released the ‘Breathing Tornadoes’ album, and was dating actress Claire Danes at the time. Considering she was coming off the back of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ fame, it’s doubtful she was the aforementioned steam stealer/dream-feeder in question. The pair met in April 1997, at her 18th birthday party (meet cute? more like meet-awesome) but it is conceivable that while in the flushes of new love, he was also casting his mind back to another failed romance for inspiration. Or maybe he just made the whole thing up. It doesn’t matter.

(A side note: If Ben Lee ever wished to form a cult, we should all be extremely concerned. Watching the excellent documentary ‘Catch My Disease’ about his life, it is astounding how many brilliant, gorgeous actresses fell completely under his spell,  platonic or romantic: Claire Danes, Winona Ryder, Michelle Williams, Jason Schwartzman [not technically an actress, but hey] – they all seem enthralled by him, and in each case they seemed to do the chasing, too.)

The song’s nursery rhyme melody and jaunty piano hook meant it was a fast success, helping push ‘Breathing Tornadoes’ into the mainstream charts – his first entry – and eventually being voted #2 in the 1998 Triple J Hottest 100, beaten to pole position by the charming novelty hit ‘Pretty Fly For A White Guy’, which received a flood of votes despite the fact that almost no Triple J listener admitted to liking the song at the time. Lee did himself some minor credibility damage when he claimed ‘Breathing Tornadoes’ was the greatest Australian album ever (it’s actually the 76th best, FYI) during the press cycle, after which Powderfinger vocalist Bernard Fanning memorably called him a “precocious little cunt.”

But this was just a blip in what has flourished into an interesting, artistic life, which includes a concept album about Ayahuasca, a Hindu marriage ceremony, being crowned PETA’s World’s Sexiest Vegetarian, breathing workshops which I am annoyed aren’t named ‘Breathing Tornadoes’, a stint on The Voice, and even a reunion record with his scrappy, charming teenage rock band Noise Addict. Come to think of it, that cult idea is sounding great.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#54: Carole King – ‘So Far Away’ (1971)

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“Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?”

It’s the silent catch cry of those who hit a certain age where they have finally locked down their circle of friends, lovers, and lounge-rooms, only to look up one day to find the family they built has fled in single file, each in search of different cities, sleepier suburbs, families, and wagons, and adventures, and everything else that simply doesn’t exist anymore in the place they once called home. It’s timeless. It’s inevitable.

While this is often a result of outgrowing one’s younger self, the feeling was also compounded for King by generational changes around her. In the ’50s the path was clear to most: you finish or drop out of school, you either do more study or find a job in the town your grew up in, you marry someone from that same town, you become a nuclear family unit, you wash the sporting jerseys when it’s your turn, you join P&Cs, and share fences, and mow lawns, and argue about finances, and repeat ’til fade. By the late ’60s, the younger generation had seen through this charade, and began flocking to the wild wild west: California, pioneer country, where the skies were brighter and the highs were higher. Convinced there was more to life then moorings and marriage and mortgage, kids tuned out and turned on, wandering from experience to experience, travelling circuses in shitty vans searching for something vague and tantalising they couldn’t yet name – something just over the horizon.

King had made this journey herself, moving from Manhattan to Laurel Canyon in 1968, shedding a husband and a Brill Building songwriter job in the process. She met James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, and started a new chapter as a singer/songwriter.

‘So Far Away’ is from King’s second album ‘Tapestry’, which was released in 1971, and didn’t leave the charts until the twin powers of punk and disco pushed it out of vogue in 1977. Of course, this relegation was merely temporary; ‘Tapestry’ is one of those ubiquitous records that – as Wayne Campbell (of Wayne’s World) said of ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ – “If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide”. It sold 25 million copies, and sounds like both a greatest hits album, and a deeply personal collection of tunes about displacement, heartbreak, female empowerment, giddy lust, and everything between. Built from a bar-room piano up, it still sounds so lively 45 years after the fact, you can still feel the breeze in the room, hear the wood creaking, the band playing off each other, her warm, unaffected voice forcing the microphone to crackle. It is a thing of beauty.

King wrote the song while on the road with James Taylor in 1970, homesick and missing her kids and husband – which makes her the one in the song with the dreaded wanderlust. “One more song about moving along the highway”, she sings, noting the well worn theme. She chose this life, but she still feels she hasn’t yet worked it out her way. “I sure hope the road don’t come to own me/ There’s so many dreams I’ve yet to find.” 

“I always wanted a real home, with flowers on the windowsill”, she sings elsewhere on ‘Tapestry’ (on ‘Where You Lead’ aka the ‘Gilmore Girls’ theme), before reasoning “but if you want to live in New York City, honey you know I will”. In this case, it’s a statement of commitment to another, but it applies internally, too. It’s the push and pull that tears at so many of us – the comfort of home versus the thrill of new adventures. Movement or anchorage. It’s a choice we all have to make, so I guess the only way to retain some sense of agency is to ensure you make the decision consciously, rather than looking up one day to find that it has already been made for you.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#53: Jason Isbell – ‘Elephant’ (2013)

Unlike taxes, Texas or taxi-cabs, death doesn’t discriminate. Sure, there are certain steps you can take to decrease – or increase – your chances of it happening sooner rather than later, but in the end, it’s all a big genetic lottery. It turns out that the fruit and white bread that built us strong when we were kids might have been killing us all along, while in the last few years both alcohol and coffee have been the cause of and solution to most of the ailments we’ve bothered to give names to, and probably a few we haven’t yet. Calories don’t matter anymore, sugar causes everything, some fats have graduated to being good fats, and all carbs are off limits now. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, yet skipping it can give you a blast of energy that soaking yourself in bacon and butter doesn’t seem to achieve. Regular drinking is good for stress levels, which is good for blood pressure, which is good for your literal and metaphorical heart. Caffeine was instrumental to the Age of Enlightenment but Coca Cola rots your teeth, shreds your stomach lining and can strip the rust off those coins nobody bothers to collect anymore. George Burns chain-smoked cigars until he was 100, while some babies are born allergic to the earth. Maybe we are eating the wrong animals? Maybe it’s all this fluoride in the water? Hell, maybe it’s all this water. Who said we need water?

Which is all to say: nobody knows anything, really. We are all just working it out: what to avoid, what to absorb more of, and how to balance it all so we don’t die too soon. But we all die too soon. ‘Elephant’ is a song about someone who knows she is dying too soon, spending time with someone who also knows she is dying too soon. They both pretend she isn’t.

By all rights, using the well-worn elephant in the room metaphor as a song’s main hook and conceit should make this a terrible pile of obvious trash, but it’s not – it’s stunning, and underplayed and surrounded by so much special, stark poetry that you don’t mind it. You don’t even feel the need to discuss it, should you be listening with company. It becomes the elephant in the room. It’s genius.

As stated, sickness, death, life etc. isn’t special nor is it particular graceful. Fittingly, there is a lack of sentimentality that pervades this song. It’s a weeper primarily because it really isn’t tearful about its tale. There is no cloying, cheesy drama, and the song is punctuated pointedly by swearing and weed references which helpfully steers it away from sitting alongside such easy sentimentality on country radio daytime playlists. The elephant in the room metaphor might be the song’s hook, but it’s true motto is “no-one dies with dignity.”

But is that line true? The closest thing to a dignified exit seems to be the one chronicled here: in which they ignore the presence of death all together, burning joints, flirting, laughing, and continuing to live their messy lives until that otherwise unremarkable day comes when one of them stops living – and the other continues to do so for a while.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#52: Radiohead – ‘Fitter Happier’ (1997)


Fittingly, for an album which offers up such a relentlessly bleak and dystopian view of life in a busy, digital age – the beating heart of 1997’s ‘OK Computer’ album is a song voiced in a monotone drone by a Macintosh SimpleText program.

Basically a laundry list of self-help slogans, ‘Fitter Happier’ bleats out catch-calls for a better, more comfortable life; “the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written”, as Thom Yorke cheerily calls it. The song was briefly intended as the album’s opening track, but this was deemed too off-putting at the time – seemingly the last time Radiohead ever considered public sentiment or commercial viability when making decisions.

Talking to Caitlin Moran in Select magazine, Yorke recalls that he created the song in ten minutes after a long spell of writer’s block, while the rest of the band were “rockin” downstairs. “I was feeling incredible hysteria and panic, and it was so liberating to give the lyrics to this neutral-sounding computer.”

This neutrality makes for an extremely hostile-sounding song, a stream of advice bleated by a machine that knows not what it suggests. In 2016 – as we are bombarded by advertisements specifically targeted at us based on our online reading and shopping habits, Google search terms, age, marital status and sexual preferences; hell, even by ‘keywords’ in our supposedly private email missives – there is something oddly comforting about ‘Fitter Happier’s scattershot approach and lack of consistent messaging. The clunky wording of resolutions such as “Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries” and “will frequently check credit at moral bank, hole in wall” are as intrusive as Viagra pop-up ads on the Facebook walls of teenage girls, while “no killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants” is charming in its lack of real ambition. Even the computer voice is charmingly retro – a frightening and possibly ironic side effect of the march of technology inbuilt into this album’s messaging10110010100</endtheory>

This song acts as both a sarcastic, and a very real guide to better living, and – like most similar guides – it is inflexible, unconcerned with inherent human foibles, and completely untenable. Like the line “concerned, but powerless”, any attempt to use this as a checklist will no doubt result in an intense overwhelming panic.

This is the point of the song, and the album: the perfect life you are being sold is merely an illusion, and one that will keep you anxious, unhappy, and empty. You will have no inner purpose, no free will, and no real gauge of yourself or your progress. “A pig in a cage, on antibiotics.”

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#51: The Mountain Goats – ‘Dance Music’ (2005)

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John Darnielle had a rocky home-life growing up, due to a violent stepfather. As is so sadly common with abuse victims, he turned to hard drugs to numb his own fear and rage, shooting heroin and crystal meth in his teenage years, a period he covers unflinchingly on the 2004 album ‘We Shall Be Healed’, and again briefly here in ‘Dance Music’, from the following year’s ‘The Sunset Tree’.

Darnielle  – the core member of The Mountain Goats – started writing ‘The Sunset Tree’ a few months after his stepfather died, and it became an autobiographical record of an unhappy childhood. ‘Dance Music’ was one of the earliest songs he wrote, the lyrics coming while parked in a van in Paris, with the misleadingly jaunty music completed quickly five days later on the floor of John Peel’s studio before a session.

During an interview with Darnielle in 2013, Marc Maron referred to this song as “the doorway to it all”, and fittingly it opens with Darnielle in his childhood home in San Luis Obispo, “five years old or six, maybe.” He vividly paints the domestic unrest: the Watergate hearings buzzing from the television, a yelling match which sharply turns violent, and the scared dash upstairs to bury himself in music. It’s a hard story to listen to.

Verse two finds Darnielle now 17, in love and on hard drugs, watching his girlfriend spiral as “the special secret sickness starts to eat through you.” He follows her down the same alleyways before reason helps him pull out of this cycle. “There’s only one place this road ever ends up, and I don’t want to die alone”, he wails. The comfort of dance music remains his only constant throughout the horrible times, even soundtracking his arrest. The song ends as “the police come and get me”, the music skipping off into the sunset, Darnielle in handcuffs, his stepfather no doubt feeling safe somewhere.

“I wasn’t even ready for it, it wasn’t something I tried to do”, Darnielle told Maron of this flood of deeply personal songs, a cathartic reaction to his stepfather’s death. “It’s wonderful when your abuser dies”, he says at one point, by way of explanation, and Maron being the fiercely personal interviewer he is, asks one final question before changing the subject.

“So, do you forgive him?”

The answer is darkly comforting. “No. Which I hate about myself, but I don’t.”

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#50: Nico – ‘These Days’ (1967)

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In 1967, Nico had one of the most impressive calendar years in recorded music history. In March she made up the “and Nico” portion of the seminal-yet-nobody-bought-it album ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’, which went on to influence a large bulk of recorded music since. A mere six months later saw the release of her solo record ‘Chelsea Girl’. Both are crucial cultural artifacts, but more than that, they are both fantastic records.

They are also sister albums, sharing the same producer, and personnel: aside from writing five of the ten tunes on ‘Chelsea Girl’, the Velvets (well, Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed and John Cale) performed the bulk of the instrumentation. Being both an influential Warhol superstar, and a drop-dead beautiful German babe, Nico was able to attract the era’s finest counter cultural songwriters to contribute material to her debut album, such as Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and Jackson Browne – who wrote the beautiful, fragile ‘These Days’.

Now, you’d be forgiven if Nico’s blunt German tones didn’t immediately signal ‘fragility’ to you, yet her glassy coolness – which rubs awkwardly even in stone cold Velvets classics such as ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ – is recast here as numb acceptance. She sounds removed, and she sounds tired. Her voice is the aural equivalent to a thousand-yard gaze; she’s seen some shit, and it wore her down.

The whole song is drenched with regret: “These days I seem to think a lot, about the things that I forgot to do”; I had a lover. I don’t think I’d risk another these days.” Astoundingly, Jackson Browne wrote this song when he was only sixteen. C’mon, now! The depth of remorse he manages is amazing, and only unwittingly funny when you let it be.

“Please don’t confront me with my failures – I had not forgotten them” is so devastating, even when you know Browne’s defeats at this age would have mostly been tennis-related. Still, you don’t have to live through pain to be able to access it. (I’m sure neither Bryan Cranston nor Vince Gilligan have killed anyone.) “It’s just that I’ve been losing so long” is the type of line that a teenage Jackson Browne could have written, sure, but it is doubtful that he would have been able to do justice to it vocally – it required a more world-weary touch, and Nico delivered. Jackson Browne has since recorded his own various versions of the song, but none of them touch Nico’s original take.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#49: Roy Orbison – ‘Crying’ (1961)

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If anyone deserved to cry, it was Roy Orbison. His early success bought him a house, and then his wife Claudette cheated on him with the contractor who was building it, leading to their divorce. His success also allowed him to indulge his passion for motorcycles, until he crashed and broke his foot at a race track. Claudette visited him while he was recuperating and the pair reconciled – until she was killed in a motorcycle accident the following year. Two years later, while on tour, Orbison received news his house had burned down, killing his two sons. Decades of lucklustre output followed until his popularity peaked unexpectedly in the late ’80s – close to thirty years after his initial success. In 1988, Orbison died suddenly, mid-album promotion. He was only 52.

So it’s no wonder Orbison’s music has always carried with it that heavy air of heartache, even the songs recorded before the aforementioned string of tragedies hit. ‘Crying’ is one such tune, recorded in 1961 just as Roy was beginning to write and arrange songs that took advantage of his immensely powerful voice. With such an outstanding, octave-leaping instrument at his disposal, The Big O (a nickname given to him by an unknown Australian radio DJ, due to his penchant for big notes) begun anchoring songs around an eventual vocal pay off. ‘Crying’ begins small, with Orbison’s voice rumbling and measured. “I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while”, he tries to convince us, before admitting all it takes for his veneer to crack is the touch of her hand. Before long he is crying, then soaring, and then all is quiet again. It was a formula that he repeated over and over again, but it never seemed formulaic – just inevitable.

Orbison came across as a mysterious, stoic figure on stage, too: dressed in funeral black, hiding most of his face behind dark shades, and remaining rooted to one spot throughout his performance – it was as if he was aware his voice was all the spectacle he needed. And it was. However, it was a mixture of dumb luck (he left his specs on a plane once and was forced to wear prescription sunnies on stage one evening so he could see) and stage fright so crippling that throughout the ’60s it was all he could do to control his shaky vibrato; plus it was hardly the style of music that lends itself to flailing around a stage, or (gasp) dance moves. It all made for an overriding sense of sadness that is still palpable in his music today, that dark drama that has influenced everything from the films of David Lynch to the hazy dream-pop of groups like Cocteau Twins.

Let’s leave things with a Bob Dylan quote. Dylan teamed up with Orbison in the late ’80s for the Traveling Wilburys project, two albums of mixed quality where Orbison’s pure tones are especially pronounced amongst the slurring gravel of Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Tom Petty. Anyway, Bobby said – and you have to imagine this in his voice: “With him, it was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop. He sang like a professional criminal. His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it.'”

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#48: The Brian Jonestown Massacre – ‘The Devil May Care (Mom & Dad Don’t)’ (1997)


“It’s sad, isn’t it?” Anton Newcombe asks, or rather tells (Anton doesn’t ask) an onlooker as this song echoes out of the studio speakers. This moment is captured in ‘Dig’ – one of the greatest music documentaries ever. The film is many things, but it’s mostly an unflinching portrait of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s troubled frontman Anton Newcombe, who often conflated being an arsehole with protecting his artistic purity. His laser focus and lack of governance results in a sprawling discography, but also sees the band’s lineup constantly in flux, Anton’s personal relationships crumble, and record deals sabotaged before they are signed. For those unaware of the band and their legacy, the film is amazing, but you can just avoid it and start with the first album, and continue chronologically. The BJM catalogue is like a bizarro history of popular music since the ’60s, but with all the shit parts taken out.

This particular song is – as Anton pointed out – one of the most moving in the catalogue, lurching into view slowly before settling into a solemn death march, anchored by an acoustic guitar,  and an ominous vocal drone. BJM are known for hammering out complete albums in the time it takes most bands to get a decent snare sound, however nothing about this song seems hurried; two verses stretching lazily over six minutes.

The title may be ‘The Devil May Care (Mom and Dad Don’t)’ however the fault for the relationship breakdown seems to be squarely Anton’s, as he tells it. Spending his youth with two sisters and a middle-class Mom on Newport Beach, Anton was hardly raised on the mean streets, however he still managed to be somewhat of a juvenile delinquent. His mother eventually got tired of picking him up from jail, and one day refused – thinking it would straighten him out. As she notes in the film, it didn’t. “Say goodbye to mom and dad, the two best friends I never had”, the song opens, but there is no blame, only affection. “Give them all my love so much, I promise that I’ll stay in touch”, he says, but there are caveats. “If I know where I am going, so will you.” He needs to disappear for a while in order to find his path. He is also aware there will be times where he isn’t searching, but merely existing, his current location unimportant. But, ya know, he’ll call if he can. 

Verse two seems to be less about his uneasy relationship with his parents, and more about the general restlessness that comes with being a wanderer. Overthinking complicates his dreams, “It’s keeping me from knowing what to do.” 

If the final lines are indeed about his parents, it suggests that his hang ups from the past stop him from both recognising similar traits in himself, and knowing his parents in a fuller context, where they are no longer parents, but mere humans. “Got to go, I’m losing touch”, he sings. “I think about you way too much, it’s keeping me from knowing me or you.”

A tragic footnote. Anton Newcombe’s dad wasn’t the parental ideal  – he was an alcoholic absentee who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Less than a year after this song about their fractured relationship was released, Newcombe’s father jumped off a cliff and killed himself – on Anton’s 31st birthday.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly