I’ve always liked a quality in songwriting that I call “stoic regret”. Sometime, long ago, I read an article talking about a song as being filled with “manly regret”, but really it is a quality that can be sung by someone of either sex. These are songs of heartbreak and devastation, but also the will to go on, even if one realizes life will never quite be the same. It is an adult emotion, that ability to shrug off life’s suffering, even if that suffering leaves a mark that will never quite go away. Often these songs are romantic in nature, but they don’t have to be. This is also more of a lyrical quality than a sound. Singers in all genres have these kinds of songs and sometimes, in the case of Johnny Cash’s I Guess Things Happen That Way or Willie Nelson’s Nothing I Can Do About it Now, the music can be quite upbeat.
Sinatra had a lot of songs like these. His albums like No One Cares and Only the Lonely have songs in this world. It’s a place where tragedy and comedy meet up, albeit a dark, close to the breast, gallows humor kind of comedy. The heart breaks, but the will to live goes on. It’s the sound of total defeat, but once you’ve gone as low as you can, what is there to do but immortalize it and song, where it becomes some kind of maudlin tragicomedy? I’m not saying that all of these songs were written with a slight nod to comedy in mind, but they are so tragic and dramatic sometimes that the mask of comedy can’t help but be there at the fringes. I’m also not saying that I am laughing at these songs. I don’t mean it as any kind of irony filled appreciation. The emotions to these songs are always complex, like real life, and therefore often leave you feeling different things at the same time. The mood that the listener is in can often make one lean to one side of the other in the comedy and tragedy spectrum. These kinds of songs can have different meanings in different mental states.
A really great album is Sinatra’s Watertown. It’s the only album that’s arrangements reflect the 60’s pop market. It’s also the only album that he overdubbed his vocals on. It’s a masterpiece, like a novella in song. It’s a concept record about a man whose wife has left him, leaving him to raise his kids in small town America. Since he still has the kids, he must go on. He can’t simply give up. The album is full of reflection. How did this happen? There are also reflections on the everyday life of the album’s narrator. He notices who the kids look like and how they’ve grown. There are lots of little details and the album is definitely more towards the tragic side of stoic regret.
When we’re young we often think that a relationship ending, or some other thing that seems tragic, is going to destroy us. But really these kinds of things are just mere bumps on the road of life. These kinds of songs come from the adult perspective, because however low the narrator is, they realize this. The gift of life keeps giving, better get ready for it!
i don’t know why I am often drawn to these kinds of songs. I think it is the fact that there is truth in them, and the truth is often complicated. This complexity is great for drama, which any good song needs to have a dose of. I think also, because one can view these songs from different ends of the tragedy/comedy spectrum, the material never ceases to be relevant.