A comprehensive, sharply written journey through the music of sadness, of every stripe and from every genre.
In his first book, Houghtaling takes what could have been a routine collection of lists and turns it into a highly useful roadmap through musical melancholy. Helpfully arranged by topics that cover everything from heartbreak to death to apocalyptic doom and all the many subcategories in between (divorce, depression, suicidal despair, murder, etc.), the book provides both highly specific playlists (e.g., songs to cover every one of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief) and the context to go with them. Houghtaling delves into the physiology of sadness, such as the way the body responds to sad music and how the aging process enriches a singer’s voice. Mini essays shed light on world-class mopes (Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Nico, The Cure, Townes Van Zandt), fascinating obscurities (16th-century weeper John Dowland, Black Tape for a Blue Girl, East River Pipe, The Field Mice) and key tracks in every genre (Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”). The author also includes a well-annotated list of the “100 Saddest Songs.” Houghtaling can get hyperbolic (anything involving The Smiths), and there are some slight omissions (No P.J. Harvey or Lefty Frizzell?), but the book is buoyed throughout by the author’s thoughtful approach and enthusiasm.
Whether read straight through or dipped into at random, in times of despair or not, this is a most helpful musical sourcebook through every kind of blue.