Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A dystopian nightmare that speaks to our deepest fears

"I'm just gonna go home, lie down, and listen to country music. The music of pain."

So said a wounded Xander Harris.

Country music has always tended towards the sorrowful and downright depressing. The legendary Hank Williams, (the "granddaddy of 'em all" as it might, somewhat unfortunately, be put) is, after all, in the Guinness Book of Records for releasing the single greatest number of songs with the word "lonesome" in the title.

He is also in at least the top five for releasing songs with a title including the term "blues" — not uncommonly paired with "lonesome".

Sometimes the phrase "lovesick" is even thrown in for good effect.

Take, for example, this more or less standard Hank Williams number, entitled "Long Gone Lonesome Blues"

This is a song in which things are going so badly for the protagonist that he cannot even succeed in ending his agony via suicide.

While you need to hear Hank's trademark "yodel of pain" to fully appreciate the suffering implied by the song, the lyrics themselves give a taste.

It all starts innocently enough.

"I went down to the river to watch the fish swim by"

Perfectly natural, and sounds quite pleasant. What could possibly go wrong?

"But I got to the river so lonesome I wanted to die..., oh lord!"

Oh Jesus Christ indeed! How did that happen?

Talk about suffering a depressive episode. What is he, scared of fish? Then why did he go and watch them?

He must have known that would place him in a high-risk situation, in which the chances of suffering an attack of extreme anxiety would be quite heightened.

But it gets worse for our fishophobic depressive narrator.

"And then I jumped in the river, but the doggone river was dry."

When nothing goes right, nothing goes right. Not even suicide attempts to end the pain.

And the cause of all this?

"A man needs a woman that he can lean on"

Indeed, who could disagree? Assuming by woman you mean Johnny Depp.

"But my leanin' post is done left and gone"


"Shes long gone, and now I'm lonesome blue"

No doubt.

Not one to be disheartened by a single failed attempt, Hank insists:

"I'm gonna find me a river, one thats cold as ice."

In case you have somehow missed the significance of the search, he adds:

"I'm goin down in it three times, but lord I'm only comin' up twice."

And people say the likes of Morrissey and Leonard Cohen are depressive.

Seriously, Hank Williams makes Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain look like members of the Wiggles.

Since Hank's premature departure from the world of the living after he passed away in the backseat of a car after a difficult battle with alcohol and drug addiction (if only he gave some hint of that he was in trouble!), he has more or less provide a standardised template for the best of country music.

Pain, pain and more pain.

Mixed with a heavy lashing of heartache.

Nonetheless, no one has ever quite matched the utter despair put to three chords of Hank Williams with about the sole exception of the young and ridiculously angst-ridden Conor Oberst (best known for fronting Bright Eyes).

I give but two examples. "If Winter Ends", which contains the line "And I give myself three days to feel better, or else I swear I am driving off the fucking cliff".

Then there is this little number, entitled "It's Cool That We Can Still Be Friends". (Note, he is employing irony.)

The song does start quite innocently, as he pretends to be okay with the friendship status of the relationship he has with a former lover, only to build into a particularly extreme and disturbing expression of emotional pain.

At the height of this agonising, he sings/screams: "I'm pouring some whiskey, yeah I'm going to get so fucking drunk!"

Whatever the reason, I, of course, can not but approve.

Some fools grimace and label him absurdly self-pitying. I say Hank would be so fucking proud.

Young Conor himself notes the influence, singing in one song about a comment by his muse of sorts: "She said the best country singers die in the back of classic cars."

As to whether Oberst, already building a solid reputation as one fond of often extreme levels of alcohol abuse, intends to follow Williams through to that conclusion remains, at this point, unclear.

Now all of this is well and good, but I did actually have a point to this post. And now, somewhat belatedly, I seek to make it.

And it is simply this.

Country music is renowned for being depressing. However, at times it can be much, much more.

Sometimes, it can be down right frightening.

The song below depicts nothing less than a dystopian nightmare. One that speaks to the very heart of our deepest held fears.

It is one of the very few songs that sends a genuine chill right up my spine.

I am speaking of that truly terrifying horror-story-put-to music by ol' Merle Haggard, entitled "Tonight, The Bottle Let Me Down". (the best version, which for some reason has embedding disabled, can be found here)

"The one true friend I thought I had found ... tonight, the bottle, it let me down."

What a tale of treachery and betrayal. I tell you, if I ever find that bottle...

The song is just so, so goddamn sad.