Friday, May 08, 2009

Saddest Songs Ever

Go to for the complete article. Do it now. Look both ways before crossing the street.

In the meantime, here's my entry. Enjoy.

Nothing quite cuts through the sunny disposition of an eternal optimist like a depressing song. Forget all the joy, happiness, peace, harmony and the rest of that shit that music inspires in listeners; those emotions are easy. When a song can make listeners sob softly or catatonically stare at their shoes and ponder life's utter bleakness, that's when a song is truly special. Whether it's Richard Thompson telling a small child that there's nothing at the end of the rainbow or Tom Waits asking us to hang down our heads for sorrow, we all have songs that affect us in a certain way. So grab the tissues and open up those tear ducts as Spectrum Culture's staff presents their choices for most depressing song ever.

Okkervil River- "Savannah Smiles"
from The Stage Names (2007)
"Savannah Smiles" takes as its subject Shannon Wilsey, a porno actress who traded under the stage name Savannah. By 1994, after appearing in hundreds of skin flicks, she was dead at the age of 23, shooting herself in the head hours after an automobile accident left her with a broken noise and facial lacerations. Wilsey's was a short and tragic life - her parents divorced when she was two years old, she had a miscarriage before turning 18, and large amounts of her porno dollars went to support her drug habit - and, all cynicism aside, consisted of the type of stuff ripe for lyrical interpretation.
In Okkervil River's The Stage Names, an album whose inherent despair and sadness are largely offset by up-tempo and precise instrumentation, "Savannah Smiles" is its bleakest and most heartbreaking track, sung from the point of view of Wilsey's father struggling to come to terms with the contrast of the daughter he thought he knew and the adult she's becoming. In an album where somehow even a song about the suicide of poet John Berryman carries a tone of liberation, maybe even optimism, there's none of that here. Singer Will Sheff assumes the father's persona and sings in a world-weary and utterly defeated voice as he tries to reconcile the "baby doll" he knew with her far-different adult version. The father accidentally discovers his daughter's diary - why he's rooting around in her room at midnight and how he "didn't know what it might be until it was open" are never explained - only to immediately regret his decision after reading only one page. We never find out what the father read, but it's clearly nothing good: "Talk about your big mistakes/ Hey Shan, nice going" is all he can muster as he's left staring at photos of his daughter when she was eight years old. There are, of course, "no tears in her eyes" in those pictures.
Sheff's vocal approach and lyrics are enough to turn anyone into a sobbing wreck; even the fall sky is gray and the song on the radio offers no comfort, for chrissakes. What's equally devastating is the song's arrangement. Occasional guitar strums, strings, xylophone and what sounds like a ticking clock are subtly blended together to haunting effect. Unlike many of Okkervil River's other songs, "Savannah Smiles" has no major musical highs or crushing lows; it just counts the days away slowly as the distance between the girl a father knew and the adult she is becomes greater and greater. Where portions of Black Sheep Boy could be faulted for being melodramatic, here the song's restraint actually heightens its impact.
Certainly Okkervil River has recorded its fair share of ultra-depressing songs; "A Stone" and "Song Of Our So-Called Friend" immediately come to mind. Hell, Black Sheep Boy should have been packaged with a case of tissues so listeners could dry their tears as they listened to it. Still, with its pitiable narrator, tired vocals and mournful arrangement, it's one of the darkest and most hopeless songs from this, or any, decade. -

No comments: