Music is sometimes at its best when it helps us make a connection to our own feelings about things, whatever those feelings happen to be.
Maybe it has an impact on us because of the bottomless sorrow or indescribable joy as described by narrators in the song. It makes it easy to put ourselves in their place. Music can affect us through individual lines in a song that hit us where we live when our ear catches it at just the right time.
The right pop song, soundtrack, opera, sonata, or showtune can get to our emotional inner sanctums through a melody or even combination of chords that create a visceral response. Sometimes, it’s not just the music that has so much impact on us, but rather the memories we hold to which the music is attached.
Very often, it has so much impact that our tear ducts get directly involved.
What music moves the Deeper Cuts Trio, even to tears? Here’s what we said!
My favorite kind of art is the kind that makes me cry. So needless to say, I could go any number of ways here. Since I’m pretty sure it’s against the rules to respond with The Collected Works of Jason Robert Brown (and it’s been a lot of theatre from me lately anyhow) I’m going with a song that makes me feel deeply sad and deeply seen in ways I don’t even really understand: “Angel from Montgomery.”
Written by John Prine and most famously performed by Bonnie Raitt, “Angel from Montgomery” is a character study. There’s no real plot within the song and I don’t even have a plot from my own life relating to it. I don’t have a sense memory of hearing the song for the first time, and there is no single moment to look back on when it’s brought me to overwhelming tears. Because for me, this song has always been there, and it’s ALWAYS made me cry.
“Angel from Montgomery” is a moment in time. An older woman – or perhaps a woman who feels the weight of an old soul – looks around her house, takes stock of her life, and wants out. That’s it. She sees her whole existence as the summation of a disconnected marriage (“How the hell can a person go to work in the morning/ and come home in the evening and have nothing to say?”). She’s overwhelmed with boredom and the crushing weight of evaporated dreams and has no idea how she got here (“no matter how I try / the years just flow by like a broken down dam”).
The most unsettling thing about “Angel from Montgomery” is how relatable the whole thing feels. After all, who among us hasn’t spent a morning in a kitchen, looking around feeling overwhelmed, misunderstood, lost and lonely? All the narrator wants is for someone – anyone – to “just give me one thing that I can hold on to.” It’s a portrait of loss and confinement and the desperate hope of escape.
It’s all brought to another level by Bonnie Raitt’s voice, which to me, is one of the most expressive voices on the planet. The harmonies on the chorus feel like a prayer, wailing all the way up to the heavens to that unnamed angel. It’s deep and true and real and SAD. Which is how life can seem on those days when we need a song to make us cry. This living truly is a hard way to go; but these kinds of tracks are here to make us all feel a little less alone.
December 1994. I just turned 25 years old. I was deeply in love with someone we’ll call Judy. Looking back, I can see all the reasons why Judy and me were never going to work as a couple: she was recently bereaved, she had a lot of emotional tumult she hadn’t worked out. She was living in a religious community working with people with disabilities with lots of Catholic hangups. All these things basically meant that Judy and I were doomed. Probably the only person who didn’t see that was me.
So when the breakup happened, and even though, nearly a quarter century later, I can see all the signposts for it very easily (avoiding calls, not really engaging, oh and one of my best friends basically warning me something was coming) I thought the power of really caring for someone really hard would make a difference. Like bringing Tinker Bell back to life.
So when the phone call finally happened that ended things– probably the biggest breakup I ever experienced up until that time– I did what any respectable 25 year-old would do. I dumped the contents of a bottle of sherry into a tumbler, downed it, and then walked to the liquor store and bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and started downing it until drinking to numb the pain became being sick and in pain.
In the end, that little stunt just made me feel in physical pain what I was feeling emotionally. And as a result I couldn’t sleep because I was so sick and in physical pain from alcohol poisoning… and my brain just kept on going back to Judy and myself being over.
But this is the answer to a question about music, and that is the punchline to this story.
Because at 7AM, my alarm clock went off as it always did. And my clock radio was set to CBC Radio 1, which on a Sunday morning was playing Fresh Air, a CBC series with Tom Allen with lots of light interviews and spoken word storytelling and off-the-beaten-track music. And around 7:25 or so (I remember it was just before the local news), the show played Alison Krauss’ cover of the Beatles’ “I Will”.
It is without a doubt the best cover of a Beatles song ever. Krauss re-engineers the tune slightly to fit her bluegrass styling. Every line is stretched out, every clause punctuated at the end. “Who knows how long I’ve loved you / You know I love you still.” Every line is sung like she’s savouring it. It’s beautiful.
And as soon as she finished singing, “Will you wait a lonely lifetime / if you want me to I will” I was crying harder than I’ve ever cried before, or quite possibly since.
That song, thankfully, doesn’t make me cry the same way now. But I do get moments of feeling like someone walked over my grave when I hear it today.
Since I’m a (major!) softie, I could go in a number of directions with this one. I’m going to choose “It’s Only Time” by Magnetic Fields. This one appeared on the record I which features the novelty of every song on it starting with the titular letter.
“It’s Only Time” is the closer, a magnificent love song that really packs a punch. The narrative centers around commitment and how, when a beating heart makes a vow, there’s nothing that can stand in its way, even the passage of a lifetime. That sounds kind of hackneyed when I spell it out like that. But when embodied by Stephin Merritt’s Eeyore-like lead vocal, and awash as it is in warm cello and tinkly piano, some powerful musical alchemy occurs. It’s very, very affecting. It can catch you off-guard.
I was listening to this song on headphones once while at work around the time I bought the record, and was unsuspecting of how it would affect me. There are a lot of great lines in this song, because it was written and sung by Stephin Merritt. But when Merritt sings the simple and unassuming line toward the end, “marry me …”, something broke loose inside me, and I began to get all verclempt right in my little cubicle. So, I had to take a walk and pull myself together. Raw emotions have no place in the modern workplace!
Apart from reminding me that I am not dead inside, it reinforced the power of a great love song, and how very much alive that tradition is. There are plenty of examples of saccharine and emotionally manipulative songwriting out there as we know. But this one is just real. It still wrecks me if I’m not careful.
You know what I’m going to say?
What song or piece of music gets you right there?
We want to hear about it!
Tell us your picks in the comments!