As we finally sweep out of a long winter, with the days getting longer at last, and the shoots of new growth visible, a cautious optimism returns. Part of that is down to the anticipation of things to come – there’s lots of fun stuff happening this summer and into the autumn, a few changes at work look set to improve my lot there too.
/Only Happy When It Rains
But generally, the winter has a habit of dragging me down. I’ve dealt with mental health issues for my entire adult life, and probably longer. Before I – finally – got a diagnosis, had counselling and medication, and found ways to deal with it, I was likely a living hell to deal with. Unreliable and forgetful, prone to poor decision making and a tendency to shut down if things went bad (panic attacks don’t help), I’m hopefully rather better than I was, nowadays.
So yes, this is songs about depression and mental health. Many are directly about this, a couple of them are down to my interpretation of them, and they have been songs I’ve listened to and wrapped myself in for many years. In other words, this may include personal recollections that may be uncomfortable or triggering. If they are for you, I’m sorry.
Needless to say, too, this probably isn’t the happiest playlist I’ve ever collated.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me, or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
/White Light From The Mouth of Infinity
The majestic, burned-out centrepiece of what is probably Swans’ greatest album – and certainly long one of my most cherished albums – I’ve lost count of how many black holes of despair this song has dragged me out of over the years. Little more than washes of synths and a delicate, barely-there guitar backing Gira’s vocals, it is six-minutes of him recounting the ways and means of, well, failure, and despite the gravitas of the song, to me it almost feels like a lullaby, particularly as pretty much every line rings true. In short, though, we fail, we screw up. We’re human, it’s what we do. It’s taken me many years to realise that doing so doesn’t mean the end of it. Amends can be made, we move forward. Every step is progress.
/Worst Case Scenario
It’s weird. dEUS have been constant in my life for longer than almost every single one of my friends. I’ve been avidly following the band – never missing a single release, I have all of it – since 1994, and so like Swans on this list, in particular, they have been a particular go-to when things get tough. Think of it as much-loved music being some form of a metaphorical comfort blanket. Back in their early days, when they were the raucous, lounge-jazz-alt-rock band that sounded like both no-one else and twenty different influences all at the same time, a look beyond singles like Suds and Soda (the song that ensnared me in the first place) revealed a less confrontational band.
Nowhere was this more obvious than on the ballad Secret Hell, that aside from a throwaway closer, effectively ends the album. Tom Barman sounds…drained on the song, as if having to explain himself is so, so hard, and this song reveals his – or the song’s protagonist’s – struggles with letting people know just how difficult he is finding life. Depression is a bitch, frankly – it clouds judgement, decisions, the lot. The way this song just gently fades away is, for me, a metaphor for the good things just slipping out of reach, leaving me back in that dark place once again.
One of the inspirations for this post was listening to the exceptional The First Time with Shirley Manson on 6Music (04-March), where she explained some of the issues she’d had with mental health over the years, and referred in particular to this song as one that helped her. And she’s right. Everything about this song is gleefully over the top. Intensely cheery, trying to be excited and enamoured about everything, but it’s all really a show. Putting on a good face, a positive external demeanour, trying desperately not to have to talk about feelings or what’s really going on. I’m better at talking now, but when I was younger? Not whatsoever.
The title track from an extraordinary, stark album that was rapturously received upon release, and for reasons best known to myself was an album I didn’t properly listen to until well beyond a decade later. What a fool I was.
The whole album is dark folk-infused music, that as I recall was not explained particularly by Oldham – his difficult interview tone, when he deigns to do them, that is, is infamous – at the time and so remains an enigmatic, mysterious whole. But the title track is something else. To me, it is a show of quiet desperation, of not admitting, but wondering if others can see the mental turmoil beneath the surface, and just how bad things are. It has been different things to others, particularly when covered, and it is a song of such quiet power that it survived being covered by Cash and having the spectre of death looming over it.
Of course, depression hits different people in different ways, and we all have different ways of dealing with it. Getting below the surface, as we’ve found with some of our friends that haven’t made it, is simply not possible.
/Dancing In The Dark
/Born In The U.S.A.
Perhaps one of the most high-profile songs about dealing with mental health issues ever released – the song sold a few million as a single, never mind the album it comes from, which at last count had sold over 30 million copies. Unlike many of his earlier songs, where he is singing about characters, this song is indisputably about him – almost trying to shed his skin to make himself a better person, as he sings about hating himself, the way he looks, the way he dresses, the way he sounds, even the places he lives and visits. That’s the thing, I guess, is once you get into a hole like this, nothing is good enough, nothing is better. That attempt to change is part of the self-care that is sometimes needed. That said, not all of us can say it in such an anthemic song as this.
/Someday I Will Treat You Good
It was, in hindsight, perhaps obvious that Mark Linkous was not a well man. His earlier bands evaded any mainstream success, and Sparklehorse was one of those slow-burns that had a devoted set of fans – including some very high-profile fans like Thom Yorke, PJ Harvey and Tom Waits – but somehow they never quite made it, and Linkous’ songs were often full of despair and deep, deep sadness. His drug-usage didn’t help, of course – indirectly resulting in the serious medical issues that nearly lost him his legs in 1996 – but listening to any of the albums Sparklehorse released confirms that Linkous was a man in the midst of deep depression for much of his life.
As a result, how could I pick one song? The scratchy irony of Chaos of the Galaxy / Happy Man, which switches in and out of clarity like ranging up and down a radio dial, could easily have been picked. But, I’m instead going for my favourite song of his, one that lays bare the effect that someone in the throes of mental health issues can have on others. At least, here, Linkous is showing some self-awareness, that his shitty treatment of a partner (“she just couldn’t see things my way“) is his own fault, and he should and will improve.
Sadly, his own condition didn’t improve greatly, and he took his own life in 2010. Pitchfork posted a lovely tribute to him five years later, that’s well worth a read.
/Die In The Summertime
/The Holy Bible
Sadly alternative music is littered with terrible, sad stories of shredded mental health and addiction, and so obviously, the Manics and Richey Edwards feature here too. The story is well told, as is the legend around the last album he recorded with the band, the white-heat of fury and disgust that is The Holy Bible (and without question the best album the band will ever release). Richey’s condition was clearly not good at all by way of just a cursory look at the lyrics that littered the album, and needless to say, I was perhaps not short of songs to feature here. But one particular song stuck out.
Die In The Summertime appears to be fragments of happier memories, juxtaposed with minor, everyday frustrations that trigger something else much greater and more terrifying, and how James Dean Bradfield was able to deliver these lyrics at the time, never mind many years since at live shows Edwards’ disappearance, is beyond me. This furious song, one of the many highlights on the album, was in retrospect perhaps the clearest cry for help and portent of what was to come. Sadly no-one could find a way to stop it.
No, not the Gary Jules version that became such a hit thanks to Donnie Darko, but the bleak, bruised original whose lyrics seem so familiar. That sense of loneliness amid crowds, watching everyone else with some kind of detachment and wondering exactly where you fit in. I’ve long had a nasty habit of shutting down when things get bad, which extends response times to even the simplest, easiest to reply to messages, and this song exactly describes it. I am doing better right now, I promise, and trying to improve the ways I communicate. But it’s been a long journey.
Some artists have just one chance at a mainstream breakthrough, and while he sold a surprising amount of records in the immediate aftermath, Colin Vearncombe under his stage name Black is best known for the five minutes of just one exquisite song, a song I knew well for many years as being the closing song at The Phono in Leeds (if I made it to the end of the night).
Rarely has a song had such an inappropriate title – it was written in the face of almost unimaginable adversity (his life had literally fallen apart in every possible way when he wrote it), and even when it was first released it was almost ignored, before finally becoming a worldwide hit on another label the following year. A slightly curious mix of summery, almost calypso-esque electronics, but slowed down somewhat, contrasts with Black’s rich vocal that immediately makes it clear that all is not well at all. The sense of desperation on show here is palpable, and the emotional heft of this song means that it’s almost impossible to hear this song – as much as I love it – without bawling my eyes out by the end of it.
Sadly Black himself met a sad end, dying from injuries in a car accident just two years ago. His memory, though, will live on through this extraordinary song, one of the most elegant songs of the eighties.
/Song for Josh
/Positive Songs for Negative People
Talking of sad ends, I can’t actually listen to this song any more. An extraordinary, heartfelt tribute to Josh Burdette, the manager at Washington punk venue 9:30 Club, who committed suicide in 2013. It was recorded live at the venue when Turner toured there the following year, and it is obvious from his cracking voice just how difficult it was – but like many Turner songs, brings home universal truths.
Not everyone will reveal their issues, want to talk about them, or do something as simple to some of us as ask for help. There may be many reasons for doing so, not all right or wrong. I will always do my best to help, as I know most of my friends will too, in whatever way we can. But sadly, there are times when we cannot help, and I speak from personal experience. I’ve lost a few friends now in this way, and in every case, I wish I could have done more, even though I know it’s unlikely that I could have.
I speak out now for that reason. I’m not perfect, I sometimes need help. But I fight on, and I have good patches and bad patches. I take that as a fact of life, and I live my life accordingly. But live I will.