1. Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight— Whiskeytown
You will never see me turn to the country radio station or CMT. Really, most of what is on there makes me nauseous, what with all the “Jesus Take the Wheel,” “I don’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq” (An actual line from a song! I wish I were making that up!) and the idea that “empowered” country women should just smash a guy’s truck if they have a problem with him. Most of it is absolutely horrible.
How did we go from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to crap like Toby Keith and Kelly Pickler? When did the songs that resemble old country music turn into the label “alt-country?” Where along the way was it acceptable to wander away from the folk roots and turn into a bizarre, homogenized and very insular cash machine? Why is that popular with so many people? I may never understand it.
Ryan Adams is still alt-country adjacent, but this one from his old band has all the twang of an Emmylou Harris song, and I mean that in a good way. A good country song should stir the soul in the tradition of a great spiritual but be as far away from a megachurch as possible. It should speak to the heart but still be light on the cliché. The best sad songs should feel as though your own heart is both breaking and filling at once.
Whereas some country songs about a bad break-up have one big sob story about what the other person did to them, this song does not want to let the other person take credit for their state of mind. If “this situation don’t seem so goddamn smart,” and even if that other person is at fault, it’s hard to not feel like a jerk for even letting it happen in the first place. I find it a little delusional to think that relationships end with only one person to blame, but realizing that can be just as heartbreaking as the end of the relationship itself.
The very first time I heard this song, it cemented itself in my list of all-time favorites. I find it impossible not to sing along, and the ache behind the song makes me want to write. Unfortunately, the sort of writing I end up wanting to do after hearing a song like this is the kind that makes me forever dissatisfied that I have not accurately conveyed the heart-crunching complicated love I often try to tackle. The song gets it so right that anything I do feels sub-par. I try to use my favorites as inspiration to do better, but it’s hard not to feel like a hack. While sometimes that leads to endless tinkering, even a sad great song fills me with such possibility and hope that I know I can do better.
2. Eleanor Rigby — The Beatles
In a Portland community college music room, the conductor handed my sixteen year old self the sheet music with the cello solo. “You’re the first chair. Try it,” he said. I probably only landed every third note, but damn if it wasn’t a lot of fun. The college’s first chair obviously had a great deal more practice than I, and she sounded great. That afternoon in 2000 was the first time I’d ever heard “Eleanor Rigby.” I loved it, and yet I had no idea what the words were. The first time I ever heard the song “for real” was just a few years ago on public radio.
It’s true, up until recently I had only a casual relationship with the Beatles’ music. I knew a lot about the Beatles, I could tell you the titles of a good chunk of their songs, but as to what songs came from what albums and when? Forget it. I admit I became familiar with “I Am the Walrus” mostly because Oasis covered it. My mother only has only a handful of Beatles albums (She claims that she has Meet the Beatles, which she received when she had the chicken pox as a kid, but I’ve never seen it, so who knows what happened to it) and my dad’s general attitude toward the band was “Enh — they’re fine, I guess.” Because my mom would never venture into the cold basement only to put on a record, The Beatles did not get regular rotation in my house. Even now, I’m definitely no expert, but I own Revolver now and I am acquainting myself with the music I neglected to notice.
Since I heard “Eleanor Rigby” only in an instrumental form at first, I still respond to the music first. I know that the song is supposed to tell a story, and we’re all supposed to know Paul McCartney for the memorable lyrics, but I find myself pantomiming bow movements. Although I spent only one afternoon with the sheet music, it’s the sort of song that fills me with the urge to take up the cello again, track down that solo piece, and this time, play the hell out of it.
3. Extraordinary Machine — Fiona Apple
I love the word extraordinary, and I wish it got more play. Containing two words not said as two words (i.e. ‘ringside’ or ‘pancake,’) Extraordinary just rolls off the tongue in a satisfying way.
Linguistic nerdery aside, Fiona Apple’s voice is just as much of an instrument as the orchestra backing her. I love a big Jon Brion production — He has a way of making a song with a lot of instruments still sound light and airy, and there’s always a lot going on without seeming overwhelming. Although Fiona’s voice is supposed to be the focus, the song would not be the same were it not for the whole package. Pizzicato strings! An oboe! When does an oboe get play outside of the classical concert hall? If the viola is the most unloved of the string instruments, then the oboe has to be among the most unloved of the woodwinds, maybe save for the bassoon.
Hearing this song once will have it stuck in my head for days, but it’s a great song to have taking up room in your brain when you’re just trying to persevere.
If there was a better way to go,
then it would find me.
I can’t help that road just rolls out behind me.
Be kind to me
or treat me mean,
I’ll make the most of it, I am
An Extraordinary Machine
It reminds me of a symphony-backed, more elaborate version of Oasis’ “Roll With It.” While that song says “You wanna be who you be if you comin’ with me” Fiona says, “I’ve been getting along for long before you came into the fray.” I suppose the difference between the two is that “Roll With It” tries to make room for another person, whereas “Extraordinary Machine” seems indifferent to whether or not it will work. I tend to agree with the “Roll With It” sentiment more than the willfully self-sufficient Fiona Apple, but it’s still a great song. I did not have room for “Roll With It” in the letter R, but much of reasons why I like the song are the same as this, so I’m sneaking it in under the letter E. Of course, it’s the drums that get me on that one, not an oboe.
4. Evaporated — Ben Folds Five
Though Nick Hornby is my all-time favorite author (maybe a Glorified Love Letter for another day), I haven’t read his take on this song in Songbook in well over a year. I don’t think we’ll talk about the song in the same way, but I do appreciate it when interests developed independently from one another converge.
Woke up way too late
feeling hungover and cold.
The sun was shining bright
and I walked barefoot down the road.
Started thinking ‘bout my old man
and it seems that all men want to get into a car and go
I’d be hard pressed to think of a better set of lines that sum up numb dissatisfaction, a side of depression, and the urge to just chuck everything. “Evaporated” rides the line between heartbreaking and beautiful, something Ben Folds manages to do in a lot of his songs. The crescendo of “And I poured my heart out” comes out as both a sob and a defiant declaration before sighing to a close. Ben Folds songs (with or without the Five) always have a story to tell, and the literary side of me enjoys that. I can relate to certain aspects of the songs, but the songs are not my stories, and it becomes less about the specifics and more about the mood.
The song also features a cello, and I think by now we all know how I feel about that.
5. Elsewhere — Sarah McLachlan
“You had it so long, I just bought another copy,” my dad said to me one afternoon about six years ago. The funny thing is, I did not even realize that I still had the actual album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. The burned copy sitting my collection had led me to believe I had returned the CD. I suppose the plain spine on the case made it easy for it to get lost in its row. My dad bought the album when it was new in 1993, so the CD case still has the black plastic where the disc sits and it weighs about a ton compared to cases today. Our musical tastes would overlap just enough that “Hey, I want my CD back” came out of our mouths probably a lot more than other Father-Daughter relationships. We were never particularly close or particularly distant with each other, but we always had music to discuss.
Like a lot of people in the mid-90s, I noticed Sarah McLachlan more when “Building a Mystery” never stopped playing on the radio. I remembered the name as one I’d seen while dusting the stereo cabinet in the living room, so while my dad did not have that latest album, I wanted to check out the earlier work. If I’d been a little older, I’m sure I would have known her from MTV, but when I put on the album, I registered it as something semi-familiar, maybe heard in the car.
I could have picked about any song from this album for the list, but I needed one for The Letter E, a letter that was a little harder to fill than I expected. However, “Elsewhere” does happen to be one of my favorite songs on the album. When I listened on my own terms, I was struck by how well her music could convey the mood behind complicated love — “I’ve got to live my life the way I feel is right for me/ It may not be right for you/ but it is right for me.” What I especially appreciate is how she does not state her feelings in an angry, rebellious and teenage way. She sings in a very matter of fact way how happy and in love she is, and that “I believe this is heaven to no one else but me.” Approval from others does not matter so much because if she really has made the right choices, then eventually, everyone else will come around. As someone who was fresh from a break-up and announced an engagement one month into my relationship with my now-husband, I can get behind a “Just trust me” sentiment. We’re going on six years — longer than all three of Jennifer Lopez’s marriages combined, right? — and of course, there will be many more.
I also find Sarah McLachlan very conducive to writing, writing that pours out without meandering over the right words, which probably explains why I finished writing about this song for the week first.