#58: Don Henley – ‘The Heart Of The Matter’ (1989)

It starts with a phone call. An “old, true friend” was enlisted to break the news, news he knew deep down anyway, but news which hadn’t yet been broadcast to him. So he hears about it on his chunky, late-’80s Zack Morris phone (probably), which nevertheless doesn’t undercut the fact that his stomach is eating itself, and breathing just became so much harder. Don Henley’s ex-lover has found another.

I’m always a sucker for songs where someone knows they are to blame for the dissolution of their relationship. Someone feeling wronged or cheated by another is too clean cut for any real murkiness; there is the white heat of anger to melt any sadness, thoughts of revenge to fill the empty spaces. “You did this to me” is an effective beta-blocker, but blame makes for a boring song. Being the architect of your own demise, and then seeing with crystal hindsight all the ways you did someone wrong is a much juicier tale. Sadly, it’s way more relatable, too; it’s much easier to forgive someone else than yourself.

The chorus is so stark, a portrait of a man slowly working his way through heartache. It’s all so elementary; a broken man rebuilding himself without a reliable guide. It’s small and simple, and never angry. “But I miss you sometimes” hits all the harder for not being obscured in metaphor. “The things I thought I knew, I’m learning again.” There’s a lot of trying, and learning, but also a complete surrender to things outside his control. He misses her, his will gets weak, his thoughts scatter – she doesn’t love him anymore. He can’t steer any of it. All he can do is try, and learn. It’s beautiful.

The second verse finds Henley doing what so many have done before upon finding themselves boxed out by a younger generation: he laments the way society is going. The ’80s with its crass packaging of music, homogenised production techniques, and the rise of MTV, must have seemed like the antithesis of the warm previous decade, which Henley spent in the leafy hills of Los Angeles when he wasn’t performing for adoring crowds. Even for an Eagle, a band constantly lambasted for their commercial ambitions, the ’80s must have seemed like a cold, confusing time. He equates his own work ethic with the discomfort he sees bubbling around him – aware that it all leads to muddled priorities. “How can love survive in such a graceless age?” he asks. “These times are so uncertain, there’s a yearning undefined, and people filled with rage.” Henley, like so many, realises too late that his own competitive drive and work ethic killed something much more vital, landing on some hard truths. “The work I put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm.”

‘The Heart Of The Matter’ was released in 1989 on Henley’s album ‘The End Of The Innocence’ (which also features ‘New York Minute’, another Henley heart-stopper). The song was revisited by Eagles in 1994 on their spectacular ‘Hell Freezes Over’ live album, which is by far the superior version, stripped of any lingering ‘Boys Of Summer’ production, and infused with those soaring Eagles harmonies. Henley’s vocal is more raw too; the heartache still seems new, which is a testament to how emotive a vocalist he can be. Or maybe five years still wasn’t enough time.

Henley lived in the fast lane, sure, but he didn’t realise he was speeding in the wrong direction. By the time he bothered to look in the rear-view mirror, she was gone.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#57: Rilo Kiley – ‘Does He Love You?’ (2004)

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Being the other woman is rarely a sympathetic position to be in, so it’s a testament to Jenny Lewis’s outstanding songwriting ability that she comes across as somewhat vulnerable while doing so.

Self-deception is sad to watch, and regardless of her agency in this situation, it’s still the unnamed man balancing a mistress and a family that deserves the most scorn. Lewis isn’t morally pure, sure, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for her as she tells herself: “And when he leaves her, he’s coming out to California.”

He probably isn’t.

[A side note: Jenny Lewis had an incredible run in 2003/2004, providing vocals to Postal Service’s landmark ‘Give Up’ album; releasing ‘More Adventurous’, Rilo Kiley’s breakthrough record, which contains ‘Does He Love You?’ as well as ‘It’s A Hit’ and ‘Portions For Foxes’ (three of the finest songs of the last decade); and writing and recording the still-unreleased ‘Blood On The 4-Tracks’, with Conor Oberst. Impressive!]

California acts as the final frontier for this married man; the promise of something freer and closer to paradise. To quote Don Walker, who certainly wasn’t talking about California, it’s where “the grass is greener, the girls are sweeter.” The crux of this seems to hang on a line in the first verse: “All the immediate unknowns are better than knowing this tired and lonely fate.” Back in the real world, Lewis slowly realises that both women are being played against each other, and the husband is also being used: as comfort, as security, and as a life raft. Two late night phone calls towards the end of the song offer up interesting glimpses into this messy triangle: the wife calls the mistress to confess she only married him as she felt her time was running out, while in the next verse she overhears his pleas over the phone to another: “Baby I love you, and I’ll leave her, and I’m coming out to California.”

Again, he probably isn’t. Affairs feel romantic because of the inherent danger. Secrets can be fun. Opposing forces can galvanise a couple. The sneaking around and clandestine phone calls exist in a heightened reality, each stolen second seeming worlds’ away from joint accounts and toddlers and bills and all the day to day that becomes interlocked with serious relationships. Novelty is a powerful aphrodisiac. Ultimately, it’s usually just a fantasy, a symptom of something larger that is missing from life. ‘Does He Love You?’ ends with the same sad realisation so many ‘other women’ reach: “And your husband will never leave you. He will never leave you for me.”

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#56: 2Pac – ‘Dear Mama’ (1995)

Rather amusingly, the greatest ode to parental love opens with a mother kicking a son out of her home at 17.

While it’s often the parents with the limitless threshold, here it’s Tupac Shakur that holds a deep understanding of how people’s flaws aren’t the features you should focus on. Within reason, of course. He takes his share of the blame, looking back with adult eyes at the sacrifices his mother made for him. He understands. The hook/crux/point of the song is a simple, “you are appreciated.”

Shakur recorded this song just days after his 23rd birthday; equal parts gratitude, love, and acknowledgement of past wrongs. It’s always tempered by an understanding that the dramas that surrounded are further evidence of his mother’s strength. He realises the murky grey areas in life are often driven by decay and desperation, and notes these seeming contradictions throughout: the mother who was both a “crack fiend” and “made miracles every Thanksgiving” with food scraps; the drug dealers who were also loving parental surrogates to him; being able to finally provide for his mother bring counter-balanced by the darker truth of where that money came from. 

It’s easy to have clear-cut morals when they aren’t actually tested. As Chris Rock says – albeit about infidelity – a man is only as faithful as his options.

Shakur trusted his audience could handle this soft touch; despite his reputation, the majority of his catalogue is absent of the gun-toting, thug-life, you-claim-to-be-a-player-but-I-fucked-your-wife bravado that permeated some of his later music. Speaking to the L.A Times in 1995, he brought up Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’ as a surprising source of inspiration for the track, stating: “The lyric on that song is so touching. That’s how I want to make my songs feel. Take ‘Dear Mama’ — I aimed that one straight for my homies’ heartstrings.”

In 2010, the song was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for its “cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance”. Even his own mother, arguably the only one who can take this song personally, prefers to focus on the universality, saying upon its induction: “It is a song that spoke not just to me, but every mother that has been in that situation, and there have been millions of us. Tupac recognised our struggle, and he is still our hero.”

It’s only one shard from his towering legacy, but it’s the sharpest one.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly