I have been listening to music for as long as I can remember. My father was an accordion player of Italian folk songs and American country music since before I was born, and through the early years of my life there was always music and sing-alongs around the kitchen table with friends and family.
My initial listening habits were formed in the late 1960’s and through the mid 1970’s, when I latched on to pop music and progressive rock music that expressed messages of hope and change for a better tomorrow as well as other positive emotions. So, it was not easy for me when I attempted to truly embrace music that was based either on melancholy or anger, especially if the depth of the song was limited or only the song used negative emotion to move the listener to action of some sort. That kind of song is akin to someone whining or yelling at me.
We all listen to sad songs. There are those moments when it feels good to hear someone sing about what we are personally experiencing, especially if it is a gut wrenching experience that makes us feel alone. There is comfort there, but for the comfort to be genuine and lasting hope must also be present.
Understanding the beautiful melancholy in music came into focus for me in the 1990’s, when I was Music Director for a straight ahead jazz station in Orlando Florida. In a telephone conversation with a record representative about vocal jazz standards, the conversation turned to the emotion in song lyrics. The independent promoter was incredulous to find that I was not familiar with the early 1970’s English musician Nick Drake, and convinced me to take a listen. The box set Fruit Tree had just been released, and I was astounded at the beautiful melancholy that this musician was able to transmit through his words and melodies. I had never really listened to intense melancholy in songs, I just had never felt the need to go to the place that that kind of music inevitably sent me. But Nick Drake’s music seemed to combine a deep sense of beauty in a deep well of sadness. Songs like "Northern Sky" and "Time Has Told Me" combine hope and despair in equal amounts as well as having both lyric and melodic beauty. There is an understated elegance in Nick Drake’s music that transcends its morbidity, and his music neither accuses nor does it shout in anger. Sadly, he died at age 26 in the fall of 1974 after a long struggle with depression.
Twenty eight years later, Alexi Murdoch released his debut EP Four Songs. His music engenders the same kind of duality that Drake expressed, combining a haunting melodic beauty with a lyric darkness that seeps into the listener’s mind in a gentle but firm way. Many of his song arrangements have a trance-like quality, taking the listener on an amazing emotional journey without intimidating the listener. Murdoch’s presentation is reminiscent of the soft voice and guitar Nick Drake employed to sculpt nuances of emotion and mood, and even though their music is separated by almost three decades, both work in the same musical genre.
Songs from Alexi Murdoch’s recording Time without Consequence have been included in dozens of television shows and films, making it one of the most licensed albums of recent years. Born in London to a Greek father and a Scottish-French mother, Murdoch grew up in Greece as well as Scotland, then moved to the United States to attend Duke University before settling in Los Angeles where his music became well known. He has shunned major record labels, instead releasing his recordings independently.
Early this year, the band Barnaby Bright released their beautiful recording The Longest Day. The name of the band comes from a medieval term for the summer solstice. In 17th century England, the longest day of the year was celebrated with a large festival to honor St. Barnabus, and a limerick was sung that depicted the duality of the longest day/shortest night of the year. Barnaby Bright’s founding members are Nathan and Rebecca Bliss, and they chose the band’s name in part “because of the many metaphors it represented…light and dark, good and evil, and the idea that though this innate, dualistic struggle is present in all of us, on the longest day of the year, light prevails over dark...goodness wins.”
Their music also engenders this duality, especially the lyrics. Using poetic metaphors to add turns and twists to their songs, Barnaby Bright’s music frequently tugs first on one emotional heartstring, then another. This is backed up with solid melodies encased in an expanded folk setting that includes grand piano and occasional electronics. Rebecca Bliss’s voice floats with grace above the instrumentation, giving the music an almost other-worldly quality.
A similar duality is found in British singer-songwriter Laura Marling’s new recording Once I Was An Eagle. She has commented that the CD “follows a central figure, who angrily shuns naïvety and love, and over the course of the album regains a second naïvety.” Despair and hope are present in this recording, but the lyric tone tends to be much harsher than any of the recordings previously mentioned. It is a very pointed album musically as well, with the instrumentation swinging back and forth from mellow moments of tender singing to intensely rhythmic guitar strumming accompanied by staccato drum bursts. Nonetheless, this recording has a deep melancholic beauty throughout its sixteen tracks.
The first half of Once I Was An Eagle seems like a continuous dark idea with the first four tracks seamlessly moving from one to another. Then the album starts coming back to the light and by the tenth track ("Where Can I Go?") joy starts to become apparent. This new recording by Laura Marling has qualities reminiscent of the work of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, two other masters of balancing the duality of darkness and light.
It is part of the English romantic tradition that songs be sad even in celebration, a quality that Nick Drake, Alexi Murdoch, Barnaby Bright, and Laura Marling seem to share. What makes their music poignant is that even though anger and sadness may at times be deeply embedded in their songs, they are never bitter or sardonic and are seldom self-indulgent or even passive aggressive. Yes, there is a melancholy present that sometimes borders on morbidity, but also present is a beautiful sense of the duality of life.
Over the years, I have learned to accept lyrics with a wide range of emotional content, but in order to do that, it has remained essential to me to find beauty in the melancholy. For as long as there is duality, there is also balance.
Paul Gerardi hosts Open Air and the Folk Show, both heard on JPR’s Rhythm & News service and at www.ijpr.org.