Last night was the night. I played Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night album. A brand new, sealed vinyl. Ripped it open. Sat next to the turntable as it played; watching the slight wiggle as the platter rotated. That wobble beneath the surety of the needle.
Neil told his stories, eulogising Bruce Berry, the working man, sounding like he was making songs up on the spot, even if that means a little thievery. Drunken country songs and folk-song epitaphs, Tonight’s The Night was recorded in 1973, released in 1975.
It’s a grim album. It contains my favourite Neil Young song.
I hear it as a grim album every time I listen to it; knowing that the deaths of roadie Bruce Berry and guitarist Danny Whitten inform it, knowing that Young and his cronies lost themselves in a haze of marijuana and a lot of late-night beer-drinking. You can feel Young’s pain in so many of the lyrics – and the performances – on Tonight’s The Night.
But I love listening to it.
There’s something in our chemical make-up that attracts us to sad songs. Not only that, we can feel happy (uplifted) from listening to sad songs. They, erm, say so much…
Tonight’s The Night is one of those albums for me – there are one or two upbeat numbers but there’s a weariness and forlornness about the album. It overcomes inertia only just. It is a mess in so many ways – but a beautiful mess to my ears.
Of course I could have had the same (or similar) feeling from playing Nick Drake’s Pink Moon or Richard And Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights. There’s Leonard Cohen’s Songs Of Love And Hate and there’s at least one Bob Dylan album that also fits the bill. None of those albums sound like each other – but they give off a similar mood, or moods, for me when I listen to them. I tied them together; group them in a sense.
Neil Young’s own On The Beach could be another example – pushed out into the market, even if reluctantly, in place of Tonight’s The Night – a special blend of ennui and anger.
Way back before these records were there was Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours. More recently there was Lou Reed’s Magic And Loss and Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump. Even more recently it’s hard (for me) not to hear Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest as, in part, a version (their version) of Tonight’s The Night.
These albums – and others – seem to, if anything, become stronger with time (in the case of Deerhunter we’ll have to see of course). But it’s an age now where it’s too easy to click through files, to flick through YouTube, to get bored too easily. To decide that a mix is better/easier/more realistic than the sustained mood of one album. And yet these albums, these sorts of albums still command my attention; get me to sit back and not only listen but watch as they unfold.
Sitting listening to Tonight’s The Night – just listening to it, sitting back, letting Neil’s laconic drawl wash over me – I could have been listening to many other records in its place. John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band would have done the trick. So too would have Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs or In Rainbows or their latest. Maybe.
Dystopias, songs of regret, songs that intrigue, songs that sit, thematically, alongside others; that tell a set of sad stories, of moods grim and grey…I get a lot of joy out of these sorts of records. Yep, joy.
I’ve named a few here – but left out so many others (Faith by The Cure springs to mind now, also).
Do you find that sad/grim/introspective albums are, if anything, uplifting – or at the least always enjoyable – when you play them? What are your favourite “sad” albums?
Sometimes it’s nothing to do with the music as such, events in your life surrounding when you heard the music or how you processed it can make the album seem like it means so much more. They can also make it unlistenable.
What sad albums say so much to you? And what ones can you never listen to again?