"When music cries, humanity and the whole of nature cries with it. To tell the truth, it does not introduce these feelings in us; rather, it introduces us into them, like passers-by being pushed in a dance." This reflection by the philosopher Henri Bergson explains why we feel the need to listen to sad music. The immaterial beauty of sound transforms our feelings and lends them a universality. We become liberated and beautified in our sorrow. Our loneliness is no longer merely psychological; it becomes depersonalised and enlarged, taking on metaphysical overtones. So there is neither sadism nor masochism involved in the making of a playlist that focuses on the saddest compositions in the modern repertoire. On the contrary, it is a healthy and valuable way of experiencing melancholy in order to better exorcise it. And what could be worse than listening to a happy song when your heart isn’t in the right place for it?
Such journeys into the dark night of the soul can only begin with the blues, the roots of sorrow expressed with a guitar and vocals. From Appalachian singer Roscoe Holcomb’s bare bones lament, to the disarming sweetness of Mississippi John Hurt who wants to disappear into the surrounding countryside, as well as Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson, both blind guitarists. Their legacy, much like the branches of a tree, has blossomed in many different directions. You can hear it in Bonnie "Prince" Billy’s Will Oldham’s wavering voice as he covers Johnny Cash, as well as in the ethereal and plaintive tones of Mark Hollis (Talk Talk), and the sigh of Liz Harris (Grouper). At times, singing is no longer possible. A few guitar notes and the silence they create are enough (c.f. Nick Drake). Grief is obviously a central theme – the suicide of a lover (Leonard Cohen), the loss of a mother (Big Star), a cousin (Sun Kil Moon) or a child (Mount Eerie). Anthony and the Johnsons help us come to terms with the fact that to leave life is to be free; we are transformed into angels. Let your soul be lulled to sleep by the mellow sweetness of groups like Low and Songs: Ohia.
But suffering still exists here on earth: poverty (Current 93), the separation of a child from its mother (Lou Reed), and the ravages of drugs (Bert Jansch). How can one remain unmoved when Bob Dylan sings of the emptiness of existence and the disillusions it brings? When Neil Young and Peter Hammil turn an entire seascape into an expression of their inner pain? Or when The Cure, The Chameleons and Joy Division sing of perfect sadness?
"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…" So said John Milton in Paradise Lost, inspiring John Cale to write an orchestral suite that shifts between rare bursts of hope and immeasurable suffering that crushes everything. Light and darkness are inseparable; we move constantly from one to the other. Of course, hell is never far away, and music can give us a glimpse of it. Nico’s voice hints at icy flames as do Scott Walker’s cries, a kind of reincarnated monk lost in a maze of suffering. Gavin Bryars, singing of homelessness, whose voice sings over and over again of his own redemption, leads us to a different meditation of our fate. Listening to sad music is a way of giving our courage a new boost. And which of us can heal ourselves anyway?