Posted by: Kelsey | September 2, 2013

Music and Misery

10184“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

Such poignant lines from one of my favorite books. It’s a great chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, and I turn it over in my head a lot. Did I feel this ever-present isolation before I heard the Beatles sing, “Ah, look at all the lonely people…”? Was I such a sad bastard before I saw one lonely tear stream down Sinead’s cheek in the “Nothing Compares 2 U” video? Or did I insist on wearing out the grooves on my Simon & Garfunkel record by age 10 because darkness was already my old friend?

Whichever it is, there is no doubt that pop and pity go hand-in-hand; and they’re my favorite combo since ice cold milk and an Oreo cookie. I know a lot of people want music to cheer them up, to give them feelings of youth and vitality and eternality, of mattering–but I’m just the opposite. I can’t resist a song that sympathizes with my broken heart, that questions the purpose of such a painful life, that curses selfish lovers and apathetic friends and manipulative governments and gruesome wars and neighbors who throw rocks in your trick-or-treat sack.

These themes are all over pop music–from the Smiths to the Stooges, Springsteen to Sparklehorse–but one of my favorite artists with his ear on the cold, dead ground is Rivulets. Nathan Amundson is a master of capturing loss, disappointment, and sorrow in such a beautiful way that even without his lyrics (sometimes painfully hopeful, sometimes painfully hopeless), his sparse guitar would break your heart. I still find myself crying along to what must be the saddest breakup song ever penned, his gorgeous, decade-old “The Sunsets Can Be Beautiful (Even in Chicago)” (crushing from that first line: “You have lost the part of you that cared.” Ouch.). His latest album is entitled “We’re Fucked,” and Jamie and I hope to review it soon here on this blog. In the meantime, check out his back catalog, and comment here with your favorite artist/song to listen to when you’re checking into Heartbreak Hotel.



  1. No Expectations (the original and Jim Campilongo’s excellent cover)

  2. I LOVE this post. The fact that you mentioned the S&G tune Sound of Silence brought me straight back to a moment when when I first remember hearing that song on their album (yes, on an actual RECORD player). It nearly leveled me. I was only 7 but I remember thinking “how did they know?” I don’t know really which came first but I know that for me music is part of my journey. Sad songs counsel me when I am flattened and give me permission to cry and the shit kicker songs pick me back up. Inspirational songs keep me moving forward and happy songs help me enjoy the upswing.

  3. Stephanie, totally! It’s amazing how music can kinda propel you through or provide the soundtrack to your different moods and seasons of life. I guess lately I’ve really needed those songs that speak to my depressive state… and that’ll probably last till Spring, when I break out the twee-pop. 🙂

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