The Dark Song Blog


The desire to fly is an inescapable part of our experience, and so is the desire to be grounded. Some of my favourite songs explore the pain of this ambivalence. Sometimes it is a sweet pain, as in Joni Mitchell’s Amelia from her Hejira album. The song is addressed to the famous aviator Amelia Earhart, who vanished on a solo cross-Atlantic flight. Mitchell said later that she wrote it “from one solo pilot to another”, and in fact at the time she wrote it Mitchell was traveling alone across America back to her home in Los Angeles.

The song moves dreamily between two key centres, and this turns out to be appropriate given the mixed feelings it expresses: on the one hand Amelia offers up a fantasy of flying: “The drone of flying engines / Is a song so wild and new / It scrambles time and seasons when it gets through to you …” But commitment to such a dream is risky and solitary, and so the desire to fall is almost as strong: “I guess I never really loved / I guess that is the truth / I spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes / And looking down on everything / I crashed into his arms / I tell Amelia, it’s just a false alarm …”

Mitchell identifies with Earhart: “The ghost of aviation / She was swallowed by the sky / Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly …”, she senses dangers the aviator apparently does not see, but instead of warning her, the singer reassures her (and herself) repeatedly: “So this is how I hide the hurt / As the road leads cursed and charmed / I tell Amelia, it’s just a false alarm …”

Mitchell’s persona seems to choose the freedom of solitude, but she immediately qualifies this as well: “People will tell you where they’ve gone / They’ll tell you where to go / But till you get there yourself you’ll never really know / How some have found their paradise / Others just come to harm / I tell Amelia, it’s just a false alarm …”

Townes van Zandt’s Flyin’ Shoes, from his 1978 album of the same name is another ambivalent song about gravity. Its message seems clear enough: death is the only way out of the repetition gravity implies: “Days full of rain / Skies comin’ down again / I get so tired of these same old blues / Same old song / O baby, it won’t be long / Till I be tyin’ on my flyin’ shoes / Flyin’ shoes / Till I be tyin’ on my flyin’ shoes …”

Unlike Amelia, this song stays rooted in the same key, repeating the same words and notes as if the song itself is pulled down by gravity. In the second verse it catalogues the inescapable succession of the seasons, and concedes: “Maybe stay / To watch a winter day / Turn the green water white and blue” …Then, with a stroke of genius, it moves away from him and on to other goodbyes: “The mountain moon / Forever sets too soon / Bein’ alone is all the hills can do / Alone, and then / Her silver sails again / And they will follow in their flyin’ shoes …”

It doesn’t much matter what you choose, the song seems to say. There will be joy and sorrow regardless – particularly sorrow. Paradoxically, the accompaniment lifts it at least twice, far above the voice, and you would swear that flight was possible. And something in the way the lyric lingers over seasons and elements makes you think van Zandt wanted the goodbye to go on forever.

The Dark Song Blog


I have loved the almighty racket of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for as long as I can remember, but it’s the songs from 1982’s understated Nebraska that I go back to most often. Springsteen recorded these songs on a four-track cassette player, carrying the cassette with him for days at a time. He meant to record them later with a full band, but in the end decided that the stark, acoustic versions were stronger.

It is a bleak, brave work, offering up a host of desperate characters (mostly men) on the verge of self-discovery and crisis.

It would be hard to imagine repeating the shock Nebraska must have been to millions of fun-loving Springsteen fans, and 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, on which he revisits this territory, might initially sound like more of the same. It’s only gradually that the biting lyrics and craftsmanship emerge from behind Springsteen’s easy drawl. If anything this album’s characters are more desperate, and at their best the songs are oblique and understated in a way that emphasizes the pain they contain.

One of the most haunting examples of this is Highway 29, a song whose power comes largely from what is left unsaid. It starts like a straightforward love story, telling of a meeting between a man (the narrator) and a woman. After she slips him her number, “my hand slipped up her skirt, and everything slipped my mind …” From here the song jumps to a botched bank robbery, and the two lovers fleeing south across the Mexican border: “I had a gun, you know the rest …” In fact, we know nothing substantial about these people, and the man too feels as if he is traveling through a dream landscape. He would like to believe that it’s the woman’s fault, but he knows this isn’t true: “I told myself it was all something in her / But as we drove I knew it was something in me / Something that had been coming for a long time / Something that was here with me now / On highway 29 …”

Ultimately the song hinges on this “something”, which remains unnamed, but whose presence we feel from time to time when we cannot understand our own actions.

The song ends on a note of resignation to this power so complete that it leaves nothing to say: “The wind was coming silent through the wind shield / All I could see was snow, sky and pines / I closed my eyes and I was runnin’ / I was runnin’ then I was flying …”

The Dark Song Blog


The songs I seek out and return to tend to have more than a little darkness in them. It’s not that I’m particularly melancholic; it’s just that the airwaves seem to be dominated by songs that don’t tell the whole story about who we are. I can tap my feet to them, but my mind is elsewhere.

And yet rock ‘n’ roll started out as an expression of visceral energy that had no intellectual pretensions to speak of. Dylan might have incorporated elements from Rimbaud and Dostoevsky into his voice, but his original inspiration came from Little Richard. Perhaps my favourite song about rock ‘n’ roll is the Velvet Underground song more or less named after it, in which a woman named Jenny remembers her first exposure to the music at the age of five, when she turned on a New York station one day and discovered that “in spite of the computations / You could just dance to the rock ‘n’ roll station / And it was allright.”

Sometimes I find songs that are infectious with a kind of undiluted joy, an innocent fun. Teenage Kicks, a 1978 song by the northern Irish punk band the Undertones, is such a song. The words are unremarkable in themselves, but they come across with exuberant conviction, and the music is irresistible. BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who devoted a lifetime to listening to and promoting adventurous music of all kinds, liked it so much that he named it his all-time favourite song, and requested that nothing should be written on his tombstone except his name and the first line from its lyric: “Teenage dreams, so hard to beat.” If this surprises you, go and listen to it on YouTube: I often do, and I’m never disappointed.

Then there is the haunting After Hours from the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album. Elsewhere on this record Lou Reed, the band’s main songwriter, sings in an uncharacteristically gentle, vibrato-less voice, but After Hours takes this one step further. It is a song of seduction that comes as a complete surprise from such a worldly outfit. Sung slightly off key by the band’s drummer, Maureen Tucker, it starts with her saying “one, two, three” in a childlike, untutored voice, as if she wants us to sing along, or maybe establish a tempo. The singer promises fidelity to someone on condition he/she closes the door so she won’t have to go out into the grey world any more: “All the people are dancing / And they’re having such fun / I wish it could happen to me / But if you close the door / I’d never have to see the day again.”

This is a very different kind of innocence from that expressed in Teenage Kicks. There are indications that the longed-for escape from the grey world is unlikely: “Oh, one day I know / Someone will look into my eyes / And say hello / You’re my very special one”, Tucker sings, and the forlorn echo on “hello” suggests that at least for the moment rescue is not at hand. The beauty of the song lies in this contradiction: this is an innocence with a lot of experience already behind it, yet willing to make promises, to close its eyes again.

The Dark Song Blog


When I was recently asked about Red Earth & Rust’s musical influences, I automatically thought of Leonard Cohen. Then I stopped short: I couldn’t think of a song on our recent double album that sounded a bit like any of his tunes.

In fact Cohen’s influence is all over our music, especially in the lyrics. Tonight I hear it particularly in a song called Broken Ground, a tender, understated piece in the middle of Wrestling the Angel: “We spread our love sheet on broken ground / Dark night unwinding above us / You and me and the night / Naked starlight to cover us.”

For at least four decades Cohen has given us metaphors for beauty that embraces and absorbs imperfection. Suzanne shows us to look “among the garbage and the flowers”; Anthem acknowledges: “Every heart, every heart to love will come / But like a refugee.” One of my own favourites is a song called Heart With No Companion, a post-apocalyptic number from 1984’s Various Positions: “I greet you from the other side / Of sorrow and despair / With a love so vast and shattered / It will reach you everywhere.”

The song is dedicated to everything that is unfinished in all of us: “And I sing this for the captain / Whose ship has not been built / For the mother in confusion / Her cradle still unfilled / For the heart with no companion / For the soul without a king / For the prima ballerina / Who cannot dance to anything.” Cohen’s language here transforms failure and loss into triumphs of the imagination. We recognize the captain, the mother and the ballerina in the absence of ships, children and movement. It is only because the speaker’s love has been shattered – exposed to the disappointments of life - that it can reach the listener.

There are other Red Earth & Rust songs I could mention here: in Jonny Blundell we are told: “Something’s got to die to break death’s spell”, and in Broken Voice, from our Look For Me album, I ask someone who is never identified to call me in a “beautiful, broken voice.”

But tonight it is Broken Ground that conjures Cohen’s austere compassion most clearly for me. It ends on an image of love compared to “a simple white sail / Haunted by wind …” And yet, in spite of this suggestion of being adrift in the night, the song is grounded both by the double bass and descending piano and viola chords and by the lyric: the ground on which the love sheet has been spread may be broken, with all the discomfort that entails, but it is also out in the open, close to the spinning earth and the night unwinding in the sky.

The song ends quietly on an unresolved chord, and it feels appropriate. All the contradictions remain, but for this moment there is strength to contain them.



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