Who’s ready to get sad?!?? The National released a new album yesterday, I Am Easy to Find, reaffirming their status as one of modern rock’s greatest bummer bands. And I mean that as a compliment. Besides, it’s not like the New York quintet don’t know that their music is a symphony of elegant, slowed-down melancholy: One of their earliest albums was cheekily called Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. In fact, the band’s penchant for sad songs is so well-known that there’s whole Reddit pages dedicated to debating which National song is the most depressing. (My favorite answer: “Really, write down every National song on pieces of paper, put them in a hat, draw 5 out. Voila, you have the 5 saddest National songs.”)
It seems counterintuitive: Why would we spend our free time listening to music that makes us sad? Why would you choose to be unhappy? But great sad songs do more than that: They put us in touch with feelings and vulnerabilities that maybe we can’t face in other ways. They open up a part of us that’s tender and helps us realize we’re not alone in feeling down. Like that Elton John hit told us, sad songs say so much.
So, here’s a question: What music do you listen to when you want to get bummed out? This one is tough for me, because I’ve found that if I go down the sad rabbit hole too long, I get in such a funk that it’s hard to pull out. I can only listen to sad music in moderation. And when I’m feeling sad, I consciously don’t play sad music, lest I get too depressed. I have to fight my natural inclination to ride that wave as low as it will go.
The reason why I know so much about my tendencies is because, in the past, I listened to a lot of sad music. And there was no artist who could perfectly crush me the way that Eels could. The band’s frontman, Mark Oliver Everett, has faced plenty of death in his life. His father died when Everett was a teen. (It was Everett who found his body.) Everett’s older sister committed suicide. Around the same time, his mother died of cancer. If all that wasn’t enough, Everett’s cousin and her husband, who were both flight attendants, died on the same plane during 9/11. Add to that the usual amounts of romantic heartbreak that most people experience, and Everett definitely has depths to plumb.
Eels have been recording for more than 20 years now, so rather than suggest a particular album, like Electro-Shock Blues or Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist of excellent bummed-out tracks. Death and disillusionment are all over these tunes, and while Everett often finds a hopeful note, there’s no denying the despair that he chronicles.
Years ago, I wrote a book about Eels, which required me listening to their music on a daily basis for months. Man, I sure was sad.
Below, other members of the MEL team offer their picks for the best bummed-out music. Everybody hurts sometimes, folks.
Saves the Day
Growing up, I listened to a bunch of screamo/emo, so I probably have a song for whatever kind of bumminess I’m feeling. In fact, when I was in middle school and high school, screamo/emo was just reaching its peak with bands like Taking Back Sunday, the Used and Brand New.
And while I have a Spotify playlist from back then that I still love listening to, these days when I’m feeling bummed out, I usually go to my inner scene kid and play something like Saves the Day. I’m talking about old Saves the Day stuff, too. Like before 2003. This band got me through some times as a teenager — and even today. Songs like “Freakish” and “This Is Not an Exit” are slower and have that sad, melodic feel to them, yet others have that “I’m going to yell this sadness out” vibe. Both kinds, though, suitably bum me out. :’( — Bryan Jones, Designer
Like Bryan, my own music history is littered with sad, bitter, bummer-city tunes that often reach toward histrionics (looking at you, My Chemical Romance). But bombast and cathartic yells never really satisfied my darkest desires to mope and feel the full force of melancholy. So the nod goes to Sufjan Stevens, whose airy tenor and unmistakable prose have soundtracked my emotional lows for close to a decade now. Familiarity has bred a warm nostalgia for the moments that I choose to put him on.
The third girl I ever loved introduced me to Sufjan in college, which is fitting because I listened to a lot of him after we split. The song was the ballad “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” off of 2005’s Illinois, which wonders how an innocent young boy could grow up to become one of America’s most notorious serial killers. That kind of darkness, rendered with precise and poetic imagery, can be found throughout his discography and especially in 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, an album dedicated to his late mother and his stepfather. Carrie left Sufjan and his father when he was just one, and suffered from mental health disorders and substance abuse for much of her life before dying in 2012. Stevens says he grieved while writing and recording the record, and I hear it most of all on the track “Fourth of July,” written as a conversation with Carrie in her hospital bed. “Did you get enough love, my little dove? Why do you cry?” he sings, as Carrie. “And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, though it never felt right… my little Versailles.”
There is something so tragic and moving about this type of messy human bond, and the swirl of slow synths, strings and piano never fails to lower me into the deepest depths. Carrie & Lowell is the kind of bittersweetness that’s so real it almost hurts to acknowledge.
I wouldn’t want it any other way. — Eddie Kim, Staff Writer
The National was originally formed in Ohio in 1999, but they all moved to New York together at some point — for what must have been a decade of working day jobs while they performed shows at night, often for free. (It’s kinda crazy how long this band was together before they blew up; they also had a band called Nancy for five years before that.) Anyways, because they put in so much time into playing all across the city, essentially unnoticed, they are a really NYC band, and when I was living there in the late 2000s/early 2010s, they were almost a soundtrack to my emotional landscape.
I joke a lot about how they seem to capture this very specific kind of sadness, which feels reserved for a Brooklyn dad who is going through a divorce and just took up smoking again. But it’s true: When nursing a heartbreak or let down, I’d blast “This Is the Last Time” while strolling down Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights and take comfort in the fact that it helped me become a legitimately different person — a 40-year-old white guy in a flannel who was forced to move to South Brooklyn from Williamsburg because he and his wife finally addressed their five-year “bed death” following the birth of their son Willow. — Alana Hope Levinson, Deputy Editor
The Mountain Goats
The spring I turned 19, I was reeling from a college breakup and back in Ohio for what turned out to be the last time I’d ever live at home. I found a job silkscreening T-shirts at night and selling them from a local shop in the morning. In the evenings I used my fake ID to pick up six-packs of Newcastle at Speedway and print shirts until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I was sad, scared and lonely, and I didn’t know how to deal with any of these feelings — I just knew when I played 2002’s All Hail West Texas really loudly out of the shop’s iPod speaker and put all my might into squeegeeing ink onto fabric through a screen, it felt fucking good. Especially “Jenny,” “Balance,” “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” and breakup anthems “Fault Lines” and “The Mess Inside.” “I cannot run and I can’t hide / From the mess we’ve made of our house,” John Darnielle sang, and I felt that. I wasn’t sure what home was anymore.
There’s a lot of music I listened to that summer that I can’t listen to again, but something about these raw but compact two-and-a-half-minute songs helped me make a kind of neatly molded Silly Putty ball out of those flustered teenage emotions and bounce them somewhere else.
The next spring, I ended up in New York interviewing for an internship, sitting with my future wife in, coincidentally, one of the spots Darnielle sings about in “The Mess Inside”: “Took the train out of Manhattan to the Grand Army stop / Found that bench we’d sat together on a thousand years ago / When I felt such love for you I thought my heart was gonna pop.”
On a bench by a fountain near Grand Army Plaza, we split a good Italian sandwich on ciabatta. The world felt open and new. I looked at her and told her how much this felt like home. Soon enough, it was. — Cooper Fleishman, New York Bureau Chief