The Dark Song Blog


Probably my most important musical revelation in recent years has been the voice of Mary Gauthier. She claims Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan as influences, but her songs offer a unique vision of the world, with a voice to match that carries an immediate stamp of truth.

In the title track of her 2005 album Mercy Now she describes the human race as hanging “in the balance between Hell and hallowed ground”, or, as her next album title puts it, between daylight and dark. Only the hand of grace, the song tells us, can save us. The desire for that grace runs through all of Gauthier’s work, but in her songs this grace is extended for the most part to a host of beautiful misfits and malcontents. The title track of an earlier album, Drag Queens in Limousines, sings the praises of outcasts who took her in when no-one else would, and they reappear in Wheel inside the Wheel, her astonishing send-off for a dead musician friend. The song describes a Mardi Gras parade of souls across the sky, and the chorus evokes Ezekiel as well as Blake: “Souls ain’t born, souls don’t die / Soul ain’t made of earth, ain’t made of water, ain’t made of sky / So, ride that flaming circle, wind that golden reel / And roll on, brother, in the wheel inside the wheel …”, but the invitation list pairs the voodoo priestess Marie Laveau with Oscar Wilde, and the song builds up to the unforgettable couplet: “… The French Quarter queens in their high-heeled disguise / Sing “Over the Rainbow” till Judy Garland quivers and sighs …”

Most often Gauthier’s songs seek out dark places and characters that are in some way bereft, and then imbue them with dignity and courage. So, for instance, Between Daylight and Dark ends with a song entitled Thanksgiving, in which the main character and her grandmother visit one of the inmates of Tallula State Prison. The grandmother’s hands tremble as she is frisked by the guards, but afterwards “she wipes their touch off her dress, stands tall and heads in.” It is the way Gauthier sings these lines as much as the power inherent in the words that makes the song so moving.

At other times the songs contain the possibility of redemption, but at an immense cost. So, for instance, in Before You Leave, a lover addresses a beloved who is leaving, clearly for good: “The darkness that shadowed you was mine, it was never yours at all / And the light behind your eyes that used to shine gets brighter as you walk away …” Again, it is the voice that breaks your heart as much as the words it phrases, though as I write this the words themselves are enough.

And so I could go on. The other night a good friend of mine brought me a rare EP Gauthier recorded at about the same time as Mercy Now. It contains yet another heartbreaking song called Christmas in Paradise about a woman living under the Cow Key Bridge with her friend Davey. It is Christmas time, and Davey has obligingly stolen a Christmas tree and tied it to the bridge. The song ends with the radio playing Christmas music as the two of them get high together, while Davey shouts “Merry Christmas, y’all” to the cars passing by. The character in the song is sentimental, but Gauthier is not. Christmas in paradise indeed.

Again and again Gauthier shines the light of her acute understanding and considerable compassion into dark, forgotten places and makes us feel at home there. She has that rare, dangerous curiosity about how other people live, about what goes on behind bars, under bridges. It is this combination that earns her a place alongside the greatest songwriters, and gives me hope for the future of songwriting.

The Dark Song Blog


I might never have started writing this blog if it hadn’t been for Nick Cave. About twelve years ago Cave delivered a lecture which he knowingly called The Secret Life of the Love Song. In it he describes his own songwriting career as “an attempt to articulate an almost palpable sense of loss”, and he argues that popular music today tends to neglect the sense of loss and emptiness at the heart of every love song worth its salt. “Excitement, often; anger, sometimes: but true sadness, rarely …”

Cave’s argument is all the more formidable because he includes five of his own songs in it, all of them rendered with an intensity even he has seldom surpassed. The Sorrow and loss that permeates them is palpable, but that is not the whole story. The power of Cave’s songs comes from their ability to show characters at a turning-point in their lives that releases immense energy, or else they show a universe at the point of dramatic, even apocalyptic change. Tupelo, from 1985’s The First Born is Dead, is such a song. It shows a world literally in flood, but also in need of spiritual redemption. This redemption is offered not by the God of either the Old or the New Testament, but by the birth of Elvis Presley. There is an irrepressible energy in the song that teeters between apocalyptic fear and apocalyptic ecstasy.

Tom Waits’ Walk Away, originally released on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack and now included on the mammoth Orphans compilation, is another such song of crossroads: the song’s protagonist wants to “walk away and start all over again”, and although the listener knows that this is impossible, hearing it repeated endlessly by Waits’ gravelly voice calls into being a desperate energy that feels like redemption.

When we were recording songs for our double album last year, there was one lyric in particular that I wanted to infuse with this energy of crisis. Dare I Come Into Touch? started as a simple melody that circled around a single droning note. I wanted it to build with the possibility of something happening – an old life dying in order that something more vital could come into being.

But it wasn’t Cave or Waits that presided over the final proceedings, but the Pakistani singer of Sufi devotional music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose voice I heard for the first time on that same Dead Man Walking soundtrack.

Cave is right in saying that sorrow and sadness are under-represented in popular music, but the same can be said of all extreme states of mind where language struggles to go, including states of joy, even ecstasy. Khan’s voice is the closest thing I know to a pure expression of these.

When we finally recorded Dare I Come Into Touch? I introduced vocal improvisations into one of its sections that were meant to suggest Eastern sonorities. In the end we combined two different takes of that section, so that now they sound unearthly, like two disembodied spirits meeting above ground. But it was Nusrat’s voice I had in mind.

That voice is almost impossible to describe. It is capable of soft, plaintive tenderness, only to soar to a piercing intensity a moment later, seeming to circle an imaginary centre, scattering into short staccato phrases that leave you gasping. On Musst Musst, his 1990 collaboration with Canadian producer Michael Brooks, he sings for the most part without lyrics, improvising over a seemingly infinite vocal and emotional range. Anything further removed from the dark, brooding universe inhabited by Cave and Waits’ desperadoes would be hard to imagine, yet these, too, are love songs, and they share a fierce energy that can open up the world and give it back to us transformed.



Subscribe to our Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog and be kept in the loop