Even the strongest among us get the blues: You can't get out of bed, you don't want to talk to a single other humanoid, and you just want to close the curtains and turn on the music. The songs you choose for those miseries have to be just right.
Adam Brent Houghtaling is something of a connoisseur of the melancholy moment. Perhaps to cheer himself up, he's put that expertise to use by producing a kind of encyclopedia of the best soundtracks for lonely days and nights. It's called This Will End in Tears: The Miserablist Guide to Music.
The book highlights the many components of a sad song — harmony, melody, tempo, lyrics and more. But Houghtaling says what's most important is how those elements interact.
"I think it's a number of factors, but none of those things necessarily by themselves create a sad song. There's certainly lots of happy songs with lots of minor chords in them," he says. "Certainly, lyrics play a big part. I think in narrative song, just like reading a novel, there's an opportunity to plug your own experiences into the song. I think that really helps create a connection with sad music."
Houghtaling says that's a special connection that should be celebrated and cherished. At the time he started writing, he says, that opinion wasn't popular.
"A lot of books were being released about happiness, and people were talking about a happiness industry, and about how happiness was our national obsession," he says. "I spend just as much if not more time in a kind of melancholy, ruminative state, and I wanted to kind of celebrate that that's good. We don't always need to be searching for happiness."
As part of a conversation with NPR's Susan Stamberg, Houghtaling selected three sad songs discussed in This Will End in Tears, and provided a little context for each one.
"She has a very fragile, wispy voice that's very similar to Rickie Lee Jones or Blossom Dearie or Bjork. And she's pretty reclusive — she doesn't perform very often or give too many interviews. But her music melds a lot of jazz and folk and ambient pop all together."
"He was the first person to record 'The Dark End of the Street,' and he's one of the best Southern soul singers ever. There's a lot of stuff I love about his work. His first hit was 'You Got My Mind Messed Up,' which is a personal favorite."
"Very contemporary — he was a co-founder of a contemporary classical ensemble called Piano Circus, and he's worked with some avant-garde electronica groups like Future Sound of London and a drum-and-bass act, Roni Size. A lot of people know him from his 2004 album, The Blue Notebooks, which was based on Kafka's Blue Octavo notebooks — the eight notebooks that he did that kind of took the place of his diaries for a number of years. And that's also the album that has his most popular piece of music on it, 'On the Nature of Daylight.' "
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The times when even the strongest among us get the blues. You can't get out of bed, you don't want to talk to anybody, you just want to close the curtains and turn on the music. The tunes you choose for those miseries have to be just right. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg tell us there's a new book designed to help with such sad choices. "This Will End in Tears: The Miserablist Guide to Music" is Adam Houghtaling's encyclopedia of soundtracks for lonely days and lonely nights. Here's Susan's report.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Adam Houghtaling says there's a good chance he was mildly miserable when he put the book together. It includes some fairly obvious choices: "Lush Life" - the lyric life is lonely again and only last year everything seemed so bright, and I get along without you very well, except perhaps in spring, but I should never think of spring for that would surely break my heart in two - you know, songs like that. But Adam Houghtaling's book, "This Will End in Tears," has some pretty esoteric stuff too.
ADAM HOUGHTALING: One that I would recommend would be a Swedish singer, Stina Nordenstam. She has a very fragile, wispy voice that's very similar to Rickie Lee Jones or Blossom Dearie or Bjork. And she's pretty reclusive. She doesn't perform very often or give too many interviews. But her music kind of melds a lot of jazz and folk and ambient pop all together. My favorite is "Everyone Else in this World."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYONE ELSE IN THIS WORLD")
STAMBERG: Oh, bless her. You know, I want to hug her or do something to cheer her up. Say her name again.
HOUGHTALING: Stina Nordenstam.
STAMBERG: And she is Scandinavian.
HOUGHTALING: Yeah, she's Swedish.
STAMBERG: This would not cheer up that part of the world.
HOUGHTALING: Probably not, no.
STAMBERG: Yeah, yeah. Something a little bit peppier but nonetheless esoteric.
HOUGHTALING: There is an R and B singer that a lot of people probably know his most famous song but may not know him very well, which is James Carr. He was the first person to record "Dark End of the Street." And he's one of the best Southern soul singers ever. There's a lot of stuff that I love about his work. His first hit was "You Got My Mind Messed Up," which is a personal favorite. But I also really love "These Ain't Raindrops in My Eyes."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THESE AIN'T RAINDROPS IN MY EYES")
STAMBERG: Raw emotion indeed. James Carr. But, you know, there's something. That's sad but it's aggressive too. I mean, in a good way.
HOUGHTALING: Yeah. He's got a big voice.
STAMBERG: Adam Houghtaling, you've clearly studied what makes a good miserable song. So, what can you tell us? Is it a matter of language, a juxtaposition of notes, or the key in which something's written?
HOUGHTALING: None of those things necessarily by themselves create a sad song. There's certainly lots of happy songs with lots of minor chords in them. And certainly lyrics play a big part. I mean, I think a narrative song, just like reading a novel, there's an opportunity to kind of plug your own experiences into the song. I think that really helps create a connection with sad music.
STAMBERG: Um-hum. It's not enough just to sing I'm so lonely I could die, although that has certainly been done.
STAMBERG: I get the feeling that you think being unhappy may be a part of life, which we need to celebrate in some strange way.
HOUGHTALING: Yeah. That was really one of the reasons I wanted to write the book. A lot of books were being released about happiness and people were talking about a happiness industry and about how happiness was our national obsession. And, you know, I spend just as much, if not more, time in a kind of melancholic ruminative state and I wanted to kind of celebrate that that's good. We don't always need to be searching for happiness. It's good that we're melancholic sometimes. And the music helps us.
STAMBERG: Do you think that if we get it right being sad that that can actually make us happier, be cathartic in some way?
HOUGHTALING: Absolutely. You know, there's a lot of thought that maybe listening to sad music maybe helps drive us deeper into our sadness and therefore helps us find a focus to help us recover from it, so.
STAMBERG: Yeah, yeah. OK. Obvious question but got to ask it: what is your go-to miserable song?
HOUGHTALING: You know, one that I really, really love is called "The One" by Lambchop. It's on their 1996 album "How I Quit Smoking." And I was in Boston in college and it was just snow and rain and walking around the city with my headphones on. And this song specifically makes me very sentimental - for the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ONE")
STAMBERG: Oh, my. Really, Lambchop, "The One." I'm in near tears over that one, but what is it about it that gets to you?
HOUGHTALING: I love Kurt Wagner's kind of gravelly voice, and he's just barely above a whisper. I just love it.
STAMBERG: Great. Well, thank you so much for helping share all this melancholy with us. Adam Houghtaling. His book is called "This Will End in Tears: The Miserablist Guide to Music." Thank you, Adam.
HOUGHTALING: Thank you so much.
STAMBERG: I hate leaving on such a sad note. I am going to lift our spirits. Here's a little something from "Bye, Bye Birdie."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT ON A HAPPY FACE")
STAMBERG: What do you think, Adam?
HOUGHTALING: I love it. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT ON A HAPPY FACE")
STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT ON A HAPPY FACE")
SIMON: Buck up. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.