Monday, October 18, 2004

Songs For a Bleak Mood

What are good songs to listen to when you're in a bad mood and want to be confirmed in your conviction that life sucks (as opposed to the kind of semi-bad mood where you just need a song to cheer you up)? The traditional choice is the torch song, but even the bleakest torch songs are primarily about one problem: lack of love. "Angel Eyes" may be a magnificently depressing song, but still, it implies that if the singer's Angel Eyes were here, he wouldn't be depressed. That's not enough for the full-fledged misery junkie.

I think my nomination for most depressing song of all time -- at least, the most depressing great song -- is Rodgers and Hart's "A Ship Without a Sail." While technically a torch song, Hart's lyrics go beyond the usual images of unrequited love, to the point that the singer seems to be wishing not necessarily for love, but just for anybody, anything to make his/her life matter again:


I don't know what day it is
Or if it's dark or fair.
Somehow that's just the way it is
And I don't really care.
I go to this or that place,
I seem alive and well.
My head is just a hat place,
My breast an empty shell,
And I've a faded dream to sell.


All alone, all at sea!
Why does nobody care for me?
When there's no hand to hold my hand,
Why is my heart so frail,
Like a ship without a sail?
Out on the ocean
Sailors can use a chart.
I'm on the ocean
Guided by just a lonely heart.
Still alone, still at sea!
Still there's no one to care for me!
When there's no love to hold your love,
Life is a loveless tale
For a ship without a sail.

If you need a self-pity fix, that is the song to go for. Frederica Von Stade's recording has the original orchestrations and the right spirit for this kind of song (e.g. sung "legit," rather than as a breathy torch song).

Another option when you're in a self-pitying mood is to go for a song that states that our personal problems don't matter because we're all doomed anyway. Surprisingly there are few songs that have become upbeat uptempo hits with a theme like that. But there's always the first refrain of "We Don't Matter at All" from It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams:

What are we? A pair of puny primates
On a very tiny planet
In a minor galaxy!
We don't matter at all.
One big boom! and it'll all be over,
Or perhaps the smog will finish
Our short, dull history.
We don't matter at all.
Oh sure, every hundred years or so
We come up with a Gandhi or a Michelangelo.
Hooray! Ain't that dandy, we say,
Then we muck things up in the same destructive way.
So, here you are, an earnest girl reporter
And you think you're something special
In this vast eternity.
Baby, you and I,
We're just about as special as a walnut or a fly!
We don't matter at all.
We don't matter at all.
We don't really matter at all.

However, this refrain (sung by a research scientist character who has nothing to do with the Superman comics) is followed by an upbeat refrain for Lois Lane ("Wrong approach!/To me I'm much more special than a walnut or a roach!"), which kind of kills the mood. So for full-fledged bleak despair, Noel Coward provided the answer in "There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner," written for a revue in the '50s and soon adopted by Coward as a staple of his cabaret act, the great anthem for the depressed post-WWII, bomb-dreading, psychiatrist-seeing world. Incidentally, "pecker" doesn't mean what it means now; it's derived from the expression "keep your pecker up," and "pecker" means nose. That's why productions of Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial By Jury keep trying to find substitutes for the line "Be firm, be firm, my pecker." Anyway:

Refrain 1
There are bad times just around the corner,
There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky
And it's no good whining
About a silver lining
For we know from experience that they won't roll by.
With a scowl and a frown
We'll keep our peckers down
And prepare for depression and doom and dread,
We're going to unpack our troubles from our old kit bag
And wait until we drop down dead.

Refrain 4
There are bad times just around the corner,
We can all look forward to despair,
It's as clear as crystal
From Bridlington to Bristol
That we can't save democracy and we don't much care
If the Reds and the Pinks
Believe that England stinks
And that world revolution is bound to spread,
We'd better all learn the lyrics of the old 'Red Flag'
And wait until we drop down dead.
A likely story
Land of Hope and Glory,
Wait until we drop down dead.

And since you asked, actually, I'm in a pretty good mood today.

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