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5 Essential Songs About Depression From the Past 26 Years

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

I’ve always been of the opinion that depressing art, both on film and in music — no matter how dark — isn’t really depressing at all as long as it is truly great. Director Darren Aronofsky’s addiction-fueled “Requiem for a Dream” starring Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly isn’t depressing because it’s a masterpiece of filmmaking. Neither is — not for the faint of heart — Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” which finds Kirsten Dunst playing depressed better than anyone else ever could onscreen.

While summer is a happy season for many, as I trudge through 2020 — and the summer of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — there isn’t so much to celebrate. But there is catharsis to be had in sad music. As I reflect on my own journey, here are five essential songs about depression from the past 25 years that intensely resonate with me.

1. “Something Vague” by Bright Eyes (2000)

Conor Oberst, from Bright Eyes, is perhaps one of the greatest songwriters of my generation. While we wait for Bright Eyes’ new album “Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was” — due August 21, 2020 — I’m harkening back to the year 2000 and the band’s breakthrough. 

Oberst has been called the “new Bob Dylan” and for good reason: His vivid storytelling captures the zeitgeist of these hellacious times. Oberst was only 19 when he wrote this song. This is heavy stuff, and he was definitely emotionally mature for his age. He is 40 now. The lyrics of “Something Vague” speak for themselves:

Now and again
It seems worse than it is
But mostly the view is accurate
You see your breath in the air
As you climb up the stairs
To that coffin you call your apartment
And you slink in the chair
Brush the snow from your hair
And dream the cold away.”

With dreary minor chords aplenty, Conor’s trusty acoustic guitar emanates gloom. And his quivering voice bleeds despair.  The album “Fevers and Mirrors” is a collection of funereal dirges that are emotionally masochistic and aesthetically sublime. Perfect for your “pity party.”

2. “Pennyroyal Tea” by Nirvana (1994)

Fits of rage, depression, mania, addiction, angst, and low self-esteem. These are the essential ingredients of “In Utero,” an album that foreshadows Kurt Cobain’s suicide.

The verses of “Pennyroyal Tea” feature clean guitar while the choruses are distorted. Bassist Krist Novoselic once joked that this loud-quiet-loud motif was a rip-off of underground indie rockers The Pixies.

“I’m so tired I can’t sleep. I’m a liar and a thief.”

This is a lyric that I believe those of us with mood disorders can identify with: the desperate desire to sleep when you can’t because, ironically, you’re too tired. It touches upon depression manifesting as physical illness as well.

“I’m on warm milk and laxatives
Cherry-flavored antacids
Sit and drink pennyroyal tea
Distill the life that’s inside of me.”

As we all know, Kurt Cobain died by suicide in 1994, the same year as this song’s release, at the age of 27. 

3. “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails (1994)

Industrial mastermind Trent Reznor has struggled with depression, social anxiety, suicidal ideation, alcoholism and addiction, sober since 2001. His music is consistently dark. Reznor wrote the most beautiful, awful song of the ’90s.

“Hurt” is packed with doom and despair with a self-injuring, heroin-junkie narrator. This is the band at its darkest. This song oozes with depression. It is the sound of pitiful existence. The strung-out junkie trapped in isolation.

Famously covered by the Man in Black — country icon Johnny Cash — “Hurt” contains lyrics that are gloomy yet beautiful.

“I hurt myself today To see
if I still feel I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything.”

The quiet, near-whisper of a song crescendos in a fury of distortion and feedback.

4. “Whenever You Breathe Out, I Breathe In (Positive / Negative)” by Modest Mouse (2000)  

This song comes from a band who has released one of the happiest, most optimistic songs of the past decade — the radio hit “Float On.” On the other hand, frontman Isaac Brock’s lyrics in “Whenever You Breathe Out, I Breathe In” are like a bipolar mixed statemania and depression at the same time. Twisted but true, it is simultaneous joy and 100%-pure melancholy.

“I didn’t go to work for a month
I didn’t leave my bed for eight days straight
I haven’t hung out with anyone
‘Cause if I did, I’d have nothing to say
I didn’t feel angry or depressed
I didn’t feel anything at all
I didn’t want to go to bed
And I didn’t want to stay up late
When you’re living your life, well, that’s the price you pay.”

This was a college radio mainstay in the early 00s, and a favorite to play on my own radio show in college.

5. “A Better Son/Daughter” by Rilo Kiley (1998)

L.A. Indie rockers Rilo Kiley have written some of the most poignant lyrics about bipolar disorder. This is from their 2002 underground hit “A Better Son/Daughter.” Singer Jenny Lewis, who has pipes of gold, delivers the depressive lyrics at a near whisper, and the manic lyrics with unabashed gusto. Here’s the depressive part:

“Sometimes in the morning I am petrified and can’t move.
Awake, but cannot open my eyes.
And the weight is crushing down on my lungs, I know I can’t breathe.
And hope someone will save me this time.”

And then comes the mania 

“And sometimes when you’re on, you’re really fucking on
And your friends they sing along and they love you.
But the lows are so extreme that the good seems fucking cheap
And it teases you for weeks in its absence.
But you’ll fight and you’ll make it through
You’ll fake it if you have to and
You’ll show up for work with a smile.
You’ll be better and you’ll be smarter and more grown-up
And a better daughter or son and a real good friend,
And you’ll be awake,
You’ll be alert, you’ll be positive though it hurts.”

To feel good about feeling sad. To feel in general. That is the experience of listening to these songs I have described. I hope you will explore them for yourself, as, like I said earlier, there is catharsis to be had in sad music.

What would you add? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo by Abi Lewis on Unsplash

Originally published: August 19, 2020
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