Wanna be depressed, part 2

Yesterday I posted about the female emo love ballad. There is definitely a male counterpart to the female emo love ballad, and it's the male rock/alternative existential ballad. This genre has a lot in common with the female counterpart. The tinkly downward scales on the piano are there, but whereas for females they are usually a delicate background accompaniment, for the male rocker, the piano is usually louder and the scales are POUNDED OUT to emphasize total sadness and ennui. Whereas the female ballad has usually a specific storyline or reference about a "man that got away", the male counterparts tend to sing about total general gloom. "Life sucks," in other words. All of this is accompanied by a swoony melody that the critics auto-hate but everyone else adores. I love the male existential ballad as much as I love the female emo ballad, and here are some of my favorite examples:

David Gray's "Disappearing World": this is the prototypical existential ballad. The piano is tinkling, the melody is sad and swoony, and goddamit, life sucks.

Lyrics like this prove how the world is really just an awful, awful place for sensitve male rockers:
Slowly the truth is loading
I'm weighted down with love
Snow lying deep and even
Strung out and dreaming of

Night falling on the city
Quite something to behold
Don't it just look so pretty
This disappearing world

David Gray is an existential ballad king. "The Other Side" is another classic. Besides the refrain to meet him on the "other side" (life sucks, maybe heaven is better?), I love the final admission that "Honey now if I'm honest/I still don't know what love is."

Radiohead's "Let Down": Sometime around KidA, Radiohead decided that they wanted to be really, really cool, and so they dropped their sensitive ballad stuff, for the most part. But let's celebrate a time in the mid-1990's when they composed some of the best existential ballads ever made. Of all of them, "Let Down" is by far my favorite. I love how towards the end, the chromatic piano scales turn into major key, and the song takes on a more hopeful swing, as if there might be a glimmer of sunshine in this great big world of misery.

Existential anthem:
Transport, motorways and tram lines
Starting and then stopping, taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings, disappointed people clinging onto bottles
And when it comes, it's so, so disappointing

Let down and hanging around
Crushed like a bug in the ground
Let down and hanging around

Coldplay's "Clocks": not a surprise that this became Coldplay's biggest hit single. From the opening downward piano scales, you know that this is a quality existential ballad. Finally, a rock band that embraced its sensitivity! Unfortunately, lyrics have never been Coldplay's strong suit. "Shoot an apple off my head?" Lacks the moroseness of Radiohead's "Let Down" or the nursery-rhyme eloquence of "Disappearing World," but goddamit, the song is still pretty damned good.

Existential lyrics:
Lights go out and I can't be saved
Tides that I tried to swim against
Have brought me down upon my knees
Oh, I beg, I'm begging please
Singing: come out, all things unsaid
Shoot an apple off my head
And a trouble that can't be named
The tiger's waiting to be tamed
Moby's "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?": The title says it all. The follow up line is even bleaker: "Why does my soul feel so bad?" Moby usually goes for an electronic synthesizer sound, but for this one big ballad of misery, he trots out the tinkly sad piano. Only five lines in this song, but Moby stretches it into four minutes of pain. Listen and weep. And give yourself a hug.

Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water": One of the oldest, and maybe the greatest. This song is such a rock classic that I didn't even realize how much it had in common with the standard existential rock ballad. But all the hallmarks are there: the piano, the sad melody, the "life sucks" lyrics. This was the 1970s, so there is a bit of hopefulness with the "Like a bridge over troubled water/I will ease your mind" refrain. This ballad definitely stood the test of time.

Existential refrain:
When you're weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all;
I'm on your side. When times get rough
And friends just can't be found,
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.

John Lennon's "Imagine":  And finally, this needs no explanation. It is simply the original, and the best. If John were around today he could probably pen a huge existential rock ballad in 5 minutes and think nothing of it. Genius. 'Nuff said. If you don't get what it means to be an existential rock ballad after listening to this, then you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will live as one.


  1. Interesting you chose S&G's Bridge, in which there is consolation and support promised, rather than Sounds of Silence, which I really hear as being bleak and hopeless.

  2. Sounds of Silence is a real bleak song, as is Eleanor Rigby, but they don't IMO really qualify as a "ballad" in terms of the melodic set-up of the song, whereas Bridge does. Good point though.


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