This summer has been quite the bummer, right? We here at Tell Me Something got to thinking: What is the biggest bummer song? You know, that song that you put on and to make yourself feel sad and super Zach Braff-y. Well, there's really only one way to find out and that's an incredibly sad, deeply depressing and somewhat biased look at the songs that bring us down the most presented in a confusing and, again, biased form. Here we go...
The Beach Boys - "God Only Knows" (Barbershop Version)
I remember… I was playing this video game, one of those ones where you pretty much shoot people left and right, right? Nothing too out of the box there. But what made this game different is that it had this wonderful story, one I could not get enough of. I was sucked in like this was a 1980's movie or something; even when I wasn't playing, I was mulling over bits and pieces of the story, trying to figure out all the mysteries of it. And when the end finally came, this devastating heart breaker of an ending, the screen goes black and you hear " … I may not always love you …"
There's a reason for it, mind you. It was in the game earlier snuck into an early scene, and it made no sense at the time since this game takes place long before the song was written. (There later comes an explanation in the game for its existence.) But with the context of the ending, each line seems like it was written for the game, sung via a barbershop quartet doing this haunting harmony that just caused my heart to crack in half and die.
And then you read about the song? I mean, the Beach Boys lyrics are often bummers because there is/was no one sadder than Brian Wilson, but you read the lyrics and get these notions of seeing someone you love dead and not knowing what you will do with them not in your life anymore… good lord, if it weren't for the Beach Boys penchant for major keys, I imagine this song would break down anybody. It just took some well-performed a-capella to really destroy me.
God only knows what I'd be without you. -Matthew Meylikhov
Whiskeytown - "Houses on the Hill"
Unlike a lot of songs in this bracket, “Houses on the Hill” is a deceptively sad song. Vocalist Ryan Adams doesn’t emote in an overly dramatic way, but simply strums his acoustic guitar and sings the song in as straightforward matter as he possibly can. Because of that, the song may not appear as absolutely devastating as it truly is on its first few listens. Sure, there are lots of elements of “sad songs” at play - - male/female vocal harmonies, a little violin, the word “casket” - but nothing, initially, gets your tear ducts working overtime. This is despite the presence of the most mournful of the stringed instruments, the pedal steel guitar, doing its best to depress you from the outset. But even then, the pedal steel is never out in front, or particularly aggressive in its play - it is simply an element of the song that adds color, instead of defining the tone.
But one look at the lyrics outs this as a truly heartbreaking piece of music. It begins innocently enough - a man is going through the attic of his girlfriend’s house, where he finds a box labeled “tinsel and lights.” Instead of the Christmas decorations promised, the narrator finds a box of letters addressed to the girlfriend’s mother - but they aren’t from her father. Instead, they’re from an old boyfriend, written during a war; a war from which he never made it home.
From there, the song just gets bleaker and bleaker - the girlfriend descends into addiction and, presumably, depression, the boyfriend makes it home for his military funeral, with his coffin draped in a flag, and then all of this is boxed away in a corner of the attic, an apt metaphor for the compartmentalizing that this woman did to move on with her life.
The saddest part, to me, is the description of the box containing tinsel and lights. They’re Christmas decorations, meant to elicit joy and, theologically, remind us of the fact that Jesus is the light of the world. These symbols of hope are, instead, a container for broken hearts, unfulfilled dreams, and a secret hidden from the rest of her life.
Merry Christmas. -Brian Salvatore