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 why.

[Andrea Kneeland]

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.

[Gabe Durham]

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.

[Terese Svoboda]

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.

[Erin Fitzgerald]

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? 

[Ryder Collins]

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.)

[Amber Sparks]

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.

[Matt Salesses]

8. "Standing in the Doorway," Bob Dylan

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.

[Lucas Southworth]

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.

[Kyle Beachy]

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.

[Scott Garson]

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 car window.

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.

[Lacey Martinez]

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
Of failure

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 sings:

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.

[David Peak]

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 noticeable.

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.

[Carissa Halston]

Read other stuff from these writers on the main page or in the archive.

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