Writers' Playlist: Un/happiness
1. "Cassiopeia," Joanna Newsom
I had just left my husband for another man when I discovered Joanna
Newsom. Her voice is like a child's or an old woman's—actually,
it's both—so it encompasses
everything between, which means it encompasses everything you can ever
do or think and all the emotions those things and thoughts are wrapped
in. We saw her perform at Café du Nord and I sobbed with a
really heartbreaking joy. She opened her mouth so wide it looked like
she would swallow her harp and her impossible mouth represented a kind
of freedom I knew I would never have, but hadn't until then even
thought could exist. Before I moved in with this man, I didn't know he
lived with his father. I discovered this gradually. The situation was
complicated by the fact that his father, mentally unwound since his
Vietnam bride had died two decades before, hated me aggressively. I
would drive away from the house almost every night, realize I had
nowhere to go, park in the empty lot behind the discount grocery store
and chain smoke, sobbing, while I listened to Joanna. The sad
heartbreak felt almost the same as the joy heartbreak. I don't know
2. "Life Is Good Blues," Laura Veirs
My favorite album of last winter, Laura Veirs' July Flame, was
recommended to my wife and me by some of the few good friends we've
made since moving from Northampton to Nashville, a city where music
stomps all other art forms. Where a dude's bar song can start off
feeling so good, the comfort of closely nuzzling tradition with
finger-picking that's better than capable—neat, too the way
he shakes the guitar in front of the mic like that—and then
2/3 of the way through you realize the same song is capably nuzzling
you into a coma with its stock self-satisfied country shtick.
Not so with Veirs. Her palette is broad but never
overstuffed—drums won't kick in until they have to, and on
this track they never do. What could've been a schmaltz litany ("Life
is good when you dance all night…") takes on weight and
power with each gorgeously articulated reiteration until the "life is
good" thread is dropped altogether for a haunting bridge that moves the
lyrics from declaratives to something more personal, more
impressionistic, and harder to pin down. Veirs clicks with where I'm
at: in love and alone too much, happy and often melancholy, books
written and waiting, progeny planned in a couple years but not yet
growing, family nearby and most friends distant, and lately it's been
beautiful out. I had a tasty jerk chicken taco last night. Life is good
when. Life is good but.
3. "Sally," Gogol Bordello
This is good for happiness whenever I'm on a tear. Every accordion
oompah and crash of cymbals jerks me higher—and yet it's sad
stuff, nobody's really happy, they are celebrating the crumminess of
life and by doing that, it's great great great, it's real, it's the
beat of my heart just before a heart attack, it's leap out of the chair
and kick it to the floor so I can really whirl around. Besides, it
starts with the gypsies coming to a little Nebraskan town for a fifteen
year old girl. I like to think I am truly one of their super-powered
immigrant Ukrainian vampires.
4. "All I Want," LCD Soundsystem
I had just finished training to be a U.S. Census worker when my mom
found out she had cancer. She didn't want me to quit the job and come
home. I'm an obedient daughter, so I knocked on hundreds of doors in
western Connecticut for six weeks, 350 miles away.
Most people were polite and friendly. One woman told me that her
husband had just died a week before—which was after April 1, 2010,
so I still had to count him. She told me that while he was at the
hospital, a pregnant fox made a nest in their bedroom and gave birth
to pups. When she came home one night and realized what had happened,
she just closed the door and waited until they left through the
window. I don't know if she was telling the truth, but I thought it
was a good story. My mom died a week after my assignment ended, and I
think it's an even better story now.
I drove around Kent and New Milford, then I drove around Salisbury and
Falls Village. I had maps provided by the government, with mapspots
identified by Census workers before me. I learned about winding,
wooded roads I'd thought I already knew. I listened to music while I
finished paperwork in my car. When this song came up—by choice or
by chance—I checked boxes, signed lines, and thought about how much
I wanted the narrator to be in the passenger's seat next to me. He
wouldn't have to say anything else.
5. "Rill Rill," Sleigh Bells
There are bells ringing & chiming somewhere waking sleepy
sleepers up. I'm driving driving back to my new boyfriend who's waiting
by the sea. He's smoking a square; he's got sunglasses on but still
squints. I know this cos I'm almost there. It's warm for March
& wet & I'm wearing a clingy skirt & no panties
cos we're gonna fuck on the pier. We'll kiss & kiss &
kiss at first. Then we'll pull apart briefly & he'll say
something sexy, something like, I should've left her a long time ago,
or, Do you need more bruises?
6. "Starfish and Coffee," Prince
I'm admittedly not well acquainted with many happy songs. My musically
formative years were spent rooting around in metal, grunge and then
emo, so my taste has always run to the violent, mopey, sad and
depressing—ranging from the epic to the navel gazing variety.
That said, when I want to feel all dance-y and happy, I listen to some
Prince. My go-to album is Sign 'O' the Times. And my go-to song is
Starfish and Coffee, which has to be one of the sweetest, happiest,
most goddamn life-affirming songs ever written about the sheer joy of
being yourself. Plus, it's musically fabulous, Prince at his peak. Plus
plus, it reminds me of home, of Minneapolis. Plus plus plus, Prince
performed it on The Muppets Show.
Seriously, I will guarantee you a few minutes of happiness right now.
Just listen to this. (I did want you to watch the Muppet Show performance,
but of course he had it pulled from YouTube. UN-happiness.)
7. "Thursday," Asobi Seksu
Asobi seksu translates to casual sex, in Japanese. All the reviews
mention this. I am not sure how that relates to this song. I wanted to
seem serious. The song is poppy. I can imagine people starting to have
sex to this song, but not having sex to this song. There is something
about beginnings. To be honest, I never listen to the lyrics. I forget
the lyrics as soon as the music hits me. There is something about
casual sex. I can't do that anymore. I'm married.
8. "Standing in the Doorway," Bob
Ten years ago, a girlfriend broke up with me. A particular girlfriend
in particular. This was in the last weeks of high school, the first
weeks of college. I remember the light in that place was so bad, and I
saw little to be gained by explanation. Instead, I just listened.
Miraculously, I found a singer who was sadder than I was. And I didn't
so much realize this as feel it: both of us were lying to
ourselves. The facades of strength we thought we were rebuilding only
worked to make us weaker underneath.
Now, as I listen to the song with new ears, I still see little to be
gained by explanation. For Dylan, the lyrics are so direct, the
melancholy so manufactured, the symbolism so painfully obvious. I do
not dance with any strangers. I do not ride trains under midnight
moons. Ten years later, I'm not sure I believe the song anymore. But it
still reminds me of sadness like no other song can remind me of
sadness. The ghost of that old love did go away, but the pain of its
ending continues to surface. Now, this is just the saddest song I can
think of. A song I used to listen to when I used to be sad.
9. "I'll Take You There,"The Staple Singers; then
"Shangri-La," The Kinks
Utopia, yes please, that childish belief we might never fully shake.
Because what, I mean, if? Ain't nobody crying? Imagine! And what more
perfect an embodiment, these sparse words here only to punctuate the
oohs and ahs and of course thank god the mercy. It might just could be,
this place she knows, little lady, easy now, help me
out…though if indeed this place is, how ever to resist our
tendency to overextend, inflating our faith—which we tend
to—until it turn zealous and engorged? Grotesque? Hear
these words, Ray Davies, you dog, this scathing fall from childish
grace. Put those terms in quotes, "kingdom" and "paradise," and see the
little men get the train who yet can't go anywhere. Hear that familiar
cackle of the poor bird who's come to love the cage. Alternatively,
swap the song order for a happier ending.
10. "Perfect Fit," Clues
Sometimes the fog needs to be broken, speaking both of weather and
mental conditions. It takes a certain kind of song for that. It takes
something special to break through the demons of a day. It takes the
piano opener, the buildup of the vocals joining, the pace quickening.
It takes that breakdown to feed into the release. It takes the kind of
song that you wish you could play louder than your stereo is able to.
Then, at the 2:19 mark the fog will be gone, your day will break open
and all you'll be thinking about is hitting the repeat button.
[Ryan W. Bradley]
11. "St. Louis Blues
(1925 version)," Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong
Some will recall this one for the fact that its opening verse gets used
by Faulkner six years later in the title of a great story, "That
Evening Sun." I like the song because listening to it, I get how blues
music found its name.
12. "Holy Diver," Dio
When I was a freshman in high school I was going through a lot of shit
because my parents were divorcing. My best friend was a sophomore and
much prettier than me and always had boyfriends where I had none. Her
parents never cared where she went or with who and the chaos that my
home was provided the same. I quickly became the third wheel to her and
her boyfriend Mike who drove a souped up '66 Camaro something or other
and who liked to party.
I started to party.
I would always be in the back seat when I went out with them;
frequently stuck alongside whatever drunken dredge of male humanity
Mike had brought along for the evening. Sometimes that back seat got
too real. Mike would always play Dio's album, "Holy Diver" on his car
stereo. Drunk, high and racing down freeways and back roads, this song
pounding through the speakers, I'd feel free. Happy. All of my worries
gone in a drugged haze, temporarily lost in the power of RJD's voice,
the strength of the music and the night going by so fast outside the
It's still one of the saddest songs I know.
13. "Brand New Key," Melanie
"Brand New Key," AKA "The Roller Skate Song," is a bright yellow burst
of happiness. Probably the first time I heard it was while watching
Boogie Nights, which is a great movie about the porn industry. The song
has a simple, lighthearted, joyful melody, but desperation and
heartbreak lurk beneath its warm bouncy surface. Besides the obvious
sexual subtext of the lock and the key, what I love about the lyrics is
the narrator's gleefully stalkerish tendencies. She bikes past her
crush's window at night, then rollerskates to his door at daylight.
She's persistent, perhaps to a compulsive degree. "It almost seems like
you're avoiding me," she sings, but that doesn't deter her from
pursuing him. After all, he's got something she needs. La la la la la
la la la, la la la la la la.
14. "Failure," Swans
In Michael Gira's eyes, life is a brutal, feckless little thing.
Pettiness and cruelty are humanity's great unifying qualities. Violence
is eruptive and imminent. Aging is graceless and painful.
Philosophers and thinkers have long tried to articulate feelings of
helplessness: Heidegger had the concept of "thrownness," Nietzsche
wrote about "the last man." Gira's lyrics in "Failure" are
pure—pure in the way a convicted murderer can feel no
remorse, pure as learned truths stated as universal truths.
From the song:
They tempt me with violence
They punish me with ideals
And they crush me with an image of my
Life that's nothing but unreal
Except on the goddamned slaveship
There is comfort to be found in misery—it's why so many
people make their way through life by resorting to unbridled hatred. It
is the difference between breathing fire and mending a broken,
hollow-boned wing. And yet it all leads to the quicksand. Or, as Gira
Some people live in hell
Many bastards succeed
But I, I've learned nothing
Let that sink in for a few heartbeats. Few songs, if any, allow me to
fully embrace unhappiness the way this one does.
15. "Tom Traubert's Blues
(Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)," Tom Waits
I am Tom's soaked Stacys. A man wraps his feet in me and a hundred
pounds of water sluice to drown when I live for Matilda.
Her name isn't Matilda, but it has three syllables and ends with a
vowel, so that's close enough. Our happy is the piano tune past, our
unhappy, the lyrical memory. Boxes of books were my battered suitcase,
Boston, my hotel someplace. Yet, most days, the wound is barely
A third other feeling exists in the rests, when the song doesn't play,
when we mainly forget each other. It's a happy beyond the piano, better
somehow because it exists in the present. But even in the present, the
words persist. I recall that neither of us ever wore perfume, but we'd
poured enough blood and seen enough whiskey to stain our eyes sullied.
Read other stuff from these writers on the main page or in the archive.
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