Inspired by one of the songs that appears here (and no, it’s not that god awful Papa Roach song), this week’s list is admittedly rather depressing. But there really is something to be said for songs that not only can pull you into environments where you really don’t want to be, but can convince you to let them as well – especially if you’ve ever experienced any of the material expressed here. As usual, feel free to add anything I may have left out. Now, on with the sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows…
The National – Conversation 16
Easily the most recent song on the list, Conversation 16 details a man’s disenchantment with the married family life, and how it slowly descends into apathy. Probably the saddest part is where he starts bargaining, with lines like “I’ll try to be more romantic, I want to believe in everything you believe” and their less-than-believable delivery. That haunting, echo-slathered harmonization makes the song feel even more harrowing and hopeless… so much so, in fact, that the “I was afraid I’d eat your brains” sounds startlingly genuine!
Depeche Mode – Precious
It’s so impressive to see a band this old still churning out great singles like Precious. Dave Gahan’s soothing voice really drives home the sad haplessness of Martin Gore’s typically poetic lyrics, with that catchy and strangely danceable melancholy as only Depeche Mode can do it. The notion of children being caught in the middle of a taxing divorce is nothing new of course, but the take here is just so heartfelt and honest, accepting the blame and acknowledging that no, everything is not going to be alright.
Bad Religion – 21st Century (Digital Boy)
Now we go from torn, caring parents to the ones who throw gifts at their children rather than attention. A subject that could easily have rendered the song an exercise in empty self-pity, Greg Graffin handles guitarist Brett Gurewitz’s lyrics very well. There’s a real edge to his voice with the delivery, and the chorus is of such a fun, anthemic sing-a-long quality that it avoids any real heavy handedness.
Placebo – Black-Eyed
A bit of a different approach here, Black-Eyed comes across more as a mocking of people who quickly use bad childhoods as an excuse for bad behavior. It’s quite clever too, what with how tragic and urgent the music feels, and it really makes the song all the more indicting. Placebo has always been one of those bands to get flak for receiving more attention from their image than their music, but as Black-Eyed shows, they’ve had more than their fair share of good ideas.
Billy Bragg – Valentine’s Day Is Over
The sadly forgotten 80s indie figure paints a rather bleak picture of a wonderful courting period culminating in spousal abuse here, with just a bluesy guitar and his passionate vocal. The way Bragg captures the female perspective in this song is unexpectedly insightful, particularly how it moves back and forth from listless musing over the failed relationship to the harsh reality of the situation. Very dark, but with a slight glimmer of hope.
Company Flow – Last Good Sleep
Speaking of dark, Last Good Sleep could well be one of the most disturbingly realistic depictions of spousal abuse ever committed to tape. El-P grabs you right away with the chorus, “At night I cover my ears in tears, the man downstairs must’ve drank too many beers,” and along with that incredibly sinister beat, he makes it clear that this story won’t have much of a happy ending. The perspective is from a young boy who witnesses as some truly vicious beatings transpire, simultaneously terrified and guilt-ridden by the fact that he is as helpless as his battered mother.
Eminem – Kim
Even though this is essentially an anger purging fantasy, this is probably the only song of its kind that can stand up to Last Good Sleep in how fucking scary it is. Those sharp, stabbing piano notes are so extreme that the song is unnerving even before Em shouts “Sit down you bitch, you move again and I’ll beat the shit out of you!” Kim is one of the most fearlessly personal I have ever heard, and it gets very uncomfortable listening to him portray himself as this wounded monster who’s snapped into a homicidal rage – which makes it all the more remarkable just how spellbinding it is.
Stabbing Westward – Sleep
And now we get into the child abuse. One of the better bands to come out of the post-Nine Inch Nails industrial boom of the mid 90s, Stabbing Westward was never a stranger to darkly intimate subject matter, but it probably peaked with Sleep. Backed by a very tense blend of samples, keyboards, and guitars, vocalist Christopher Hall tells a story of a young girl suffering abuse at the hands of her father, with a level of vagueness that only serves to heighten its upsetting nature.
Korn – Daddy
I couldn’t have been older than eleven or twelve when I heard this for the first time, and it freaked me the fuck out…. to tell you the truth, it still kind of does. It’s not even the brutally graphic depiction of the act that gets me so much as the equally detailed parental apathy, and then when the song falls apart along with Jonathan Davis toward its end, there’s just no not feeling for him.
De La Soul – Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa
Hip hop’s answer to Janie’s Got a Gun, by some of the genre’s earliest (and best) storytellers. There’s a very light foreboding to the song, cleverly splicing the in-the-moment obliviousness and after-the-fact hindsight that often accompanies a child’s sexual abuse. Despite the fact that the song culminates with the daughter snapping and killing the father, with an ending so abrupt that it almost startles, the beat is so gentle that the song never feels as grim as it should, and it works wonderfully.