Real men (and real women) cry—especially if the right songs are playing. While anyone reading the news knows there's plenty of sobworthy shit happening every day, the tears inspired by sublime music consist of much more salubrious stuff. These are tears that console and cleanse the soul. Songs that can inspire sloppy emotions are essential at any time, but they're especially useful now, as the economy circles the drain with a scariness not seen since the late '20s. Plus, winter beckons.
Let's talk about the songs that make you feel so bad that you exit from them 180 degrees on the other side of the emotional spectrum into euphoria. Let's talk about the songs that make wallowing in self-pity a most exquisite pleasure. Below are some of the tunes that trigger cathartic waterworks. (Your soggy-hankied mileage may vary, of course.) We're fucked, y'all, so let's open the ducts.
Let's begin with a piece that makes this writer eternally grateful for ears and recorded music: saxophonist Pharoah Sanders's "The Creator Has a Master Plan." Clocking in at nearly 33 minutes, this out-jazz epic from Sanders's 1969 Karma LP runs the gamut of feelings, from meditative gratitude to uncontainable joy to infernal fury. Two minutes in, Richard Davis's bass and James Spaulding's flute sway and trill with utmost lithe lusciousness, alluding to John Coltrane's immortal A Love Supreme (on which Sanders played). But the composition's real tear-jerking power comes from vocalist Leon Thomas. His warm baritone waxes tenderly and forthrightly about the Creator's totally unrealistic master plan—"peace and happiness for every man"—before Thomas launches into one of the most soul-stirring yodels ever. It's like a wounded wildebeest choking up—rhythmically. This song's made many a staunch atheist tearfully shout "hallelujah!"—if only for its duration.
The British band Spiritualized trigger similar sentiments with "Shine a Light," a shivery space-rock ballad off Lazer Guided Melodies that's bathed in a holy glow and that blooms into a psychedelic-gospel freak-out. Seeing this performed live many times while on acid, I felt as if I were in the presence of a supreme being (no, not my dealer). Oh, the misty-eyed memories.... Similarly, Spiritualized leader Jason Pierce's previous group, Spacemen 3, eroded religious skepticism and caused astral weeps with "Walking with Jesus" from 1987's The Perfect Prescription. It's a haunted blues tune suffused in tidal organ tones, with Pierce's pathos-laden voice detailing a momentous saunter with that controversial savior. Even better from the same album, though, is "Call the Doctor," a harrowing twin-guitar meditation on a drug OD.
Another English band, Talk Talk, did their own soul-plumbing, cautionary heroin tale on "I Believe in You," the peak duct-prodding work on 1988's profoundly moving Spirit of Eden. The slowly unfurling beauty of this song matches Van Morrison's highest accomplishments on Astral Weeks.
Aerosmith's "Seasons of Wither" proved that these party animals could get upliftingly downhearted with the best of 'em. This is a chilling power ballad (you can practically feel those frigid nor'easter winds blowing through it), and it s chorus contains one of the grandest descending chord progressions ever.
By contrast, Stevie Wonder's "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" induces tears of joy through the elusive possibility of eternal love. The song boasts one of Wonder's most infectious, gorgeous choruses, forcing you to hope against hope that its sentiments can be fulfilled. Some of us can barely snag ephemeral love, so the lofty ideal outlined here is unbearably poignant. Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" is so beautiful and heartrending, it makes me feel both ashamed and blessed to be alive. It's the Taj Mahal of folk songs. Buckley's supple, trembling voice (superior to his son Jeff's, I don't care what anybody says) conveys an ache that could crack the cold, hard heart of a Taliban member.
The so-called slowcore movement that flourished in the '90s offers a cornucopia of cry-sonics. Low's 1994 album I Could Live in Hope is definitive mope rock, prompting a smooth stroll down Misery Lane during which you stop to smell (mo)roses. That a wedded Mormon couple sing the songs somehow adds a creepier aura to these hushed hymns. Red House Painters' early releases also haunt one into choking up with their spare arrangements, plodding tempos, and Mark Kozelek's dejected narratives from the slough of despond. Outfits such as Idaho, Rex, Damon & Naomi, Tindersticks, Codeine, and Mazzy Star burrow into similar lachrymose lugubriousness.
Triphop has its share of head-hang-low moments too. Massive Attack's "Protection" is a languid, simmering torch song with Tracy Thorn's reverse-chivalric lines delivered in an understated, sincere manner: "I stand in front of you/I'll take the force of the blow/Protection." Those words and the music behind them combine for one of the genre's highest low points—or lowest high points. Tricky's "Makes Me Wanna Die" also conjures feelings of blunted glumness. And Portishead's entire oeuvre has been a boo-hoo boon to the facial-tissue industry.
Another song that's swelled many hearts and minds with life's profound sadness while simultaneously inflating souls is John Barry's theme song to the awesome film Midnight Cowboy. Few pieces of music pierce more fiercely than this brief paragon of melancholy. You don't even need to see Midnight Cowboy to appreciate the special expression of resignation and longing Barry captures in under three minutes. In a similar tenor, British vocalist Robert Wyatt's version of Hugh Hopper's "Memories" distills the regret of reflection through his uniquely soulful, fluty pipes. It's a mellow, waltz-time wallow in refracted ruefulness. From the same country and era, the late Nick Drake's orchestral, funereal "Way to Blue" is terminal depression's (anti)anthem.
For those of us who don't rely on religion to get through the tough times, such music is salvation. Songs that inspire tears serve to bond us in our universal "shit happens/we're all in this sinking ship together" condition. And at their best, the waterworks they provoke manage to keep us afloat. If nothing else, these songs are cheaper than Prozac and better than Muzak.