It’s admittedly a bit of a corny movie, but to this day, Elizabethtown remains one of my favorites. Partly because of my Kentucky roots. Partly because of my man-crush on Orlando Bloom. Partly because its main character is a Drew and it has an Elizabeth (sort of ) in the title. But when it really comes down to it, the main reason I love Elizabethtown is the music.
From Elton John to Ryan Adams to My Morning Jacket, the songs on Elizabethtown come together to form a powerhouse of a soundtrack. Each song helps us enter the storyline at a personal level. And in the end, it’s the music that ultimately allows us to respond to the invitation issued by Claire to the down-and-out Drew: “I want you to get into the deep beautiful melancholy of everything that’s happened.” The songs are a gateway into that melancholy.
Music always has a special way of doing that. Of drawing us into an emotional space that is often confusing, contradictory, and cathartic. This week, I’m especially aware of that as I reflect on the biblical character of Naomi, a woman whose life fell apart before her very eyes, driving her to cry out in pain, “The Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.” In preparing to lead my church family in the study of Naomi’s life this Sunday, I’m trying to really understand her suffering. And although I can’t walk in her shoes, one way I’m trying to prepare is by making use of music. I may not ever know this woman’s sorrow first-hand, but the wonder of music is that it can draw me into a place where I start to really feel the deep existential sting of loss, longing, and unanswered questions.
So as I surround myself with the sounds of “deep beautiful melancholy,” I thought it would be a good excuse to put together a little playlist of ten of my favorite tracks. I’ve been a fan of sad songs for a long time, so it’s hard to pick such a small batch. But in a way that is admittedly highly subjective and often very difficult to explain, each of the ten songs below has wrecked me in one way or another. And as I listen to them once again, they continue to do so.
“Holocene” by Bon Iver
There’s really no other place this list could begin. And there’s really nothing I can say about this song (or the video) that would come close to doing it justice. You just have to watch, listen, and cry. Like I have. Many times.
“Medicine” by Daughter
When I listen to this song, the word “sparse” comes to mind. Both musically and lyrically, it’s about as stripped down and delicate as can be. But it’s that simple, searching quality that gives it such a sense of subversive and somber beauty. (You can check out the track by itself below, or listen with some riveting choreography accompanying it here.)
“Summons” by Field Report
With echoes of the prodigal son, this song describes a journey back home that’s full of guilt, brokenness, and shame. But there’s a gritty sense of determination here, even if it’s seemingly meager: “I’ve been whispering the Lord’s prayer / Over every bridge I go across / Try to summon up the strength / Not to swerve into the cars.”
“If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell
I’ll forever hate Jason Isbell for this song, and yet I’ll forever love him, too. There just aren’t many love songs that reach this level of depth. To love in light of inevitable death seems like an utterly futile endeavor. But somehow we mortals find a way to make the love just that much more precious.
“Carry You” by Novo Amor
Most pain is forced upon us. But some pain is voluntary. It’s the pain we choose to take into our souls by virtue of walking with someone else who is suffering. This kind of pain is a good pain. A redemptive pain. A pain that transforms us while transforming the one we love. It’s the kind of pain that says, “In all your blame, in all your pain / I will carry you always.”
“Blood” by The Middle East
How do you face heartache and loss with brutal honesty, while still holding on to a thread of hope? I don’t know, but this song seems like a good start. That last bit about the old man being ready to die after losing his wife is heart-wrenching, but it’s not without some melodic hints of a much greater joy.
“Appointments” by Julien Baker
Just about any Julien Baker song is worthy of a spot on this playlist, but if I have to settle for one, this is it. I mean, yikes, there’s some serious torment channeled into these lines. “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright / And I know that it’s not / But I have to believe that it is.”
“What Sarah Said” by Death Cab For Cutie
It’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I happen to think that this is one of Death Cab’s best songs. The lyrics are simply stunning. And the frankness with which it addresses the reality of death is uncomfortably necessary. It forces us to confront what actually happens in those hospital rooms that we’d otherwise not like to think about.
“I Woke Up in New Orleans” by Lucero
No band is better at churning out whiskey-drenched ballads of suffering and woe than Lucero. What gets me about this one, however, is the helplessness that underlies it. There’s a sobriety here (ironically enough) about what happens when you get in just a little too deep. Nevertheless, you’re never too far gone to want to come back home.
“Bag of Glass” by Noah Gundersen
Here’s a fun challenge: Put this song on while scrolling through your Instagram pictures over the years, and see how far you make it before you start crying. “I’ve got no good sense for time / Every year passes quickly by / I only hope its worth it when I’m gone.” Noah has all sorts of sad songs, but this one hits the “nostalgic” nerve about as good as any I’ve heard.
Those are ten of my favorites. What songs would be on your list?