The Most Depressing Songs of All Time

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s perceptive novel on men & music, the protagonist asks himself “Was I depressed because I listened to music, or did I listen to music because I was depressed?” A question I’ve pondered on many occasions. I spent  a few years grappling with the Black Dog and on those nights when sleep was out of the question as it would mean having to get up the next morning, music was a regular companion – when you’re down, it’s good to know someone, somwhere has felt the same, or worse.

 On the other hand, I have to say that spending my formative musical years listening to the likes of The Smiths, Joy Division, The Cure, Nick Cave and other such cheery souls, can’t have helped my mental state much, particularly as they left me with the dangerous notion that being suicidal was not only cool, it also made you more attractive to women. Ha ha. Little did I realise that it was the rock star bit that was attractive to women, and I wasn’t a rock star, just a miserable, black-clad drunk.

 Anyway, for those of you who want some terpsichorean therapy, or those who want to get depressed so you can click with the chicks, I present my Top 10 Most Depressing Songs of All Time. Wallow away…

(NB where available, I’ve added a YouTube clip for each song)

1. Jacques Brel – Ne Me Quitte Pas

Brussels-born Belgian balladeer Brel is the master of the chanson, renowned for the poetry of his lyrics and the astonishing intensity of his performances, and Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me) is his finest hour. Four minutes of desperate self-abasement, the song is a plea to a departing lover, Brel making ever-more hysterical, unfeasible promises before finally collapsing into exhausted despair (“Let me be the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog…but don’t leave me“), Brel so racked with sobs he can hardly choke out the last few words. Click below to see an absolutely extraordinary performance of the song on YouTube.

2. Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers – Hospital

When you get out of the hospital, let me back into your life” – was there ever a bleaker opening line? And it doesn’t get any better, as Richman, fully aware that his obsession with her is a bad thing (“I can’t stand what you do, sometimes I can’t stand you…but I’m in love with your eyes“) begs for her to take him back. “I go to bakeries all day long – there’s a lack of sweetness in my life“. Awww Jesus, pass the razorblades…

3. Scott Walker – Clara

Walker has plenty of previous in this area but he surpasses himself on this knees-up from his stunning 2006 album The Drift. A 13-minute musing on the lynching of Mussolini’s lover Clara Petacci, it features savage slashes of strings, a slab of pork used as percussion to simulate the sound of a body being kicked by an angry mob, and disturbing lyrical images (“A man came up towards the body and poked it with a stick/It rocked swiftly and twisted around at the end of the rope“). It’s gruelling, harrowing stuff, rather like being forced to watch the fire extinguisher scene from Irreversible over & over again, yet it’s also exhilarating and inspiring that some of the most exciting and original music of our time is being made by a reclusive bloke in his early 60s.

 4. Tom Waits – Martha

 A heartbreaking ballad of regret, in which an old man tries to contact a lost love from his youth, Martha is particularly remarkable in that Waits was in his early 20s when he recorded it. Impossibly moving, just the opening lines (“Operator, number please, it’s been so many years/Will she remember my old voice, while I fight the tears?” are enough to get this listener’s tear ducts working, and by the time Waits reaches the final “I remember quiet evenings, trembling close to you” only the stoniest of hearts remains unmoved. A stunning work of characterisation and a song that deserves true classic status.

5. The Replacements – Here Comes a Regular

If any band can sing about drinking, it’s The Replacements, whose early albums are chock full of boozing anthems. Here Comes a Regular, however, documents the other side of being a barfly – the sadness, the shame, the tedium of drinking in the same bar with the same deadbeats day after day after day. The bar is full of drinkers, all with their own plans that they’ll never even begin to put into action. “Am I the only one who feels ashamed?” sings Westerberg, backed by poignant mandolin and piano, on one of the first songs to suggest that they weren’t just a dumb, raucous bar band. Terrific stuff from someone who knows.

6.Tindersticks – A Night In 

Such is the ‘Sticks repertoire of wrist-slashers they could fill up this whole list themselves, but A Night In is bleak even by their standards. “I had shoes full of holes when you first took me in” mumbles singer Stuart Staples, over tomblike strings, as a tale of romance destroyed by poverty unfolds. “Well I know you’re hurting, but I can’t be there for you.” The definitive version can be found on the Live at the Bloomsbury album.

7. The Smiths – Meat is Murder

The song that converted more people to vegetarianism than even Bernard Matthews. “Heifer whines could be human cries, closer comes the screaming knife, this beautiful creature must die…it’s sizzling blood and the unholy stench of MURDER!”, wails Morrissey, ramming home the point with mooing cows, bleating sheep and slaughterhouse sounds. Hartson’s Dog once had a girlfriend who became vegetarian after hearing this track. Yeah, thanks Mozza for condemning me to two years of Quorn & tofu. Why couldn’t you record an album called Lose Weight & Give More Blowjobs intead? She LISTENED to you man!

8. The Cure – Disintegration

This, the title track from, in my opinion, the greatest album ever made, is musically jaunty by the Cure’s standards, but lyrically it positively wallows in bitterness and contempt. It appears to be a confession of infidelity (“The stench of a love for a younger meat“) and marital desertal (“I never said I would stay ’til the end, I knew I would leave you with babies and everything“), and packs the direct emotional punch that makes this album their most affecting. Tears the roof off when they play it live as well.

9. Nick Drake – Magic

Read an interview with anyone who knew Drake and they’ll always say “He was too fragile & sensitive for this world”, and Magic is ample proof of that. Drake sets himself up as a visionary, a dreamer, and idealist, only to realise he’s alone in his dreams and his ideals. “I was made to love magic, all its wonders to know” he sings on an initially joyful chorus, only for major to switch suddenly to minor and those joyous chords to become ominous and threatening as he howls accusingly “But you all lost that magic, many years ago!” Given the singer’s tragic end, this is terrifying stuff indeed.

10. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – People Ain’t No Good

No list of depressing songs would be complete without the mighty Cave, and this piece of misanthropic brilliance from his stark, soul-bearing 1997 album The Boatman’s Call is one of his best. People are shit, says Cave, and don’t let them try to convince you otherwise. “‘It ain’t in their hearts they’re bad! They’d stand by you if they could!’/Ah, that’s just bullshit baby – people just ain’t no good.” One day people will realise what a truly great songwriter Cave is, and this song will become one of the standards. But don’t hold your breath.

 OK OK, so I’ve left out 100s of songs here and I could’ve gone on for hours, but I’ve got a crying baby and a disgruntled wife upstairs. If I’ve missed out your own favourite masterpieces of misery, leave me a message.

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2 Comments on “The Most Depressing Songs of All Time”

  1. safeye Says:

    My personal choices: Jeff Buckley – So Real ; Tom Waits – All the World is Green ; Nick Cave – Are you the one that I’ve been waiting for? / Sad Waters ; Radiohead – Motion Picture Soundtrack.

    Gorgeous choice you have here though.

  2. hartsonsdog Says:

    Christ, how did I forget to put any Radiohead on the list…thanks!


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