I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART: 7 SAD INDIE SONGS FOR YOUR NEXT MELANCHOLY MIXTAPE
There are times to put on a brave face, to look on the bright side and for the silver lining in every dark cloud. Then there are times to not. Sometimes you gotta lean into the darkness, to admit that there may be monsters under the bed.
There are times when you just need to put on some melancholic, heartbreaking music and wallow. Considering that life has been disrupted for nearly everybody on Earth due to a literal plague, we may be forgiven for feeling a little bit down, a little bit scared, a lotta bit sad.
Sad music can serve as a vaccine, inoculating us against the greater grief. It can help give voice to the intense emotions we're feeling on the inside. It helps to give order to pain almost too large to comprehend. It offers us comfort, solidarity, and even hope. Sad music tells us everything's going to be okay, no matter how it shakes out. The person writing the song obviously lived to tell the tale. Perhaps we can do the same.
Indie music is particularly well-suited for these emotions. In some respects, the phrase 'sad indie songs' is almost redundant, in a genre well-known for being "whiny," "emo," "self-indulgent" or just plain depressing. Of course, there are so many sad indie songs you could fill an encyclopedia. We've pulled together some of the very best sad indie songs, however, to offer you a taste and give you some ideas for your next melancholy mixtape.
TOP 7 SAD INDIE SONGS
THE ANTLERS - TWO
Anything off of The Antlers' devastating concept album Hospice, about watching a loved one wither away with cancer, could qualify for our list of sad indie songs. It's a masterclass of grief, denial, anger - all of the stages of loss and resignation.
It's almost ironic to pick "Two," which is one of the jauntier, more upbeat-sounding numbers with its ukulele-like guitars and yelping, vulnerable vocals. The tweeness is merely a straw mat over a tiger trap. Tread carefully or you'll be impaled on "Two's” razor sharp despair.
CARISSA'S WIERD - ALL APOLOGIES AND SMILES, YOURS TRULY, UGLY VALENTINE
Seattle's under-appreciated indie folk/proto-slowcore band Carissa's Wierd's brief discography is like a diorama of grief and sadness in miniature. It's not even the adolescent angst of emo, who pin the blame on other people. No, everyone's at fault in Carissa's Wierd's universe. Everyone is awkward, selfish, perhaps fatally flawed.
No one wants to feel like their second fiddle in their own relationship. It's like being picked last for the kickball team for all eternity. "All Apologies and Smiles, Yours Truly, Ugly Valentine" is an examination of an awkward relationship, where it's suggested he picks her as her valentine because there's no one else. Pro Tip: don't put that on your Valentine. If you do, at least make sure to write a gorgeous, delicate orchestral indie folk feeling-lonely-song masterpiece after the fact.
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE - I WILL FOLLOW YOU INTO THE DARK
Love conjures up all of the strongest feelings possible. It makes us feel immortal and invincible while simultaneously reminding us of our mortality. Thinking of children reminds us of a world without us in it. Thinking of losing our loved ones makes us think of a world we'd rather not be in.
All of these conflicting, complicated emotions are gorgeously rendered over some spare, sparse acoustic guitar courtesy of Death Cab For Cutie's Benjamin Gibbard. Most of Death Cab's back catalog has a bit of a gloomy shadow, even when it sounds upbeat, but nowhere is it as crystallized and as potent as "I Will Follow You Into The Dark."
ELLIOTT SMITH - I DIDN'T UNDERSTAND
Elliott Smith is the Patron Saint of misery, angst, and self-loathing. Sadness is deeply woven into the genome of every note of his orchestral indie pop, whether it's adorned in sunshiney Beatles-esque harmonies or laid bare with hushed, intimate acoustic indie folk. You could pick practically any song from Elliott Smith's back catalog to be the campaign anthem for depression.
We Are: The Guard picked "I Didn't Understand" off of Elliott Smith's XO almost arbitrarily. The lyrics "Cause my feelings never change a bit/I always feel like shit/I don't know why, I guess that I just do," are a good, brief synopsis of life under depression's grey haze can be like - ceaseless, unchanging, and unrelenting.
JOY DIVISION - ATMOSPHERE
When it comes to selecting the best sad alternative songs to include on our list, it raises the question of separating the art from the artist. Should we judge songs solely on their lyrics? On the amount of minor keys they use?
No matter what metric you're measuring by, at least something by Joy Division deserves to make We Are: The Guard's list of sad indie songs. Granted we're somewhat splitting hairs here over what is and what isn't "indie music," as Joy Division technically are the very face of post-punk. Factory Records is a great example of an early indie label, however, therefore qualifying Ian Curtis and Co. for inclusion.
There are numerous Joy Division songs that sound bleaker, heavier, and more hopeless. "Atmosphere" manages to capture the alienation and detachment of Joy Division like none other, however, with its imagery of walking away in silence. "Atmosphere" was also the song that famed post-punk DJ John Peel played after announcing that Ian Curtis had taken his own life.
"Your confusion, my illusion
Worn like a mask of self-hate, confronts and then dies
Don't walk away."
SUFJAN STEVENS - DEATH WITH DIGNITY
It's hard to pick just one of Sufjan Stevens’ sad indie songs about death for our list. His orchestral baroque indie pop bristles with grief, confusion, longing, regret, even when it's packaged with a pretty bow.
Anything off of Carrie & Lowell gets extra points for our list as it finds Sufjan Stevens dealing with the passing of his estranged mother.
"I forgive you, mother, I can hear you (I can hear you)
And I long to be near you (And I long to be near you)
But every road leads to an end
Yes, every road leads to an end."
On Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens reminds us we're never too old to stop wanting our Mommy. He also gives an eloquent, angelic voice to the dread finality of death. When there is life, there is hope. Once someone's gone, all you're left with is regret.
WILCO - I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART
Sadness and country music go hand in hand, even if that country music is drowned in feedback and surrealist lyrics. Country music is the terrain of breakups, infidelity, tears, and beers. No list of sad indie songs would be complete without a denim-clad tear-jerker.
You have to really peek between the blinds to pick up on the sadness of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," the album opener from Wilco's game changing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Beneath Jim O' Rourke's whimsical arthouse production, there is a sense of loss and fatalism, "What was I thinking when I let go of you?" Jeff Tweedy takes the setting of a typical lover's spat over drinking and turns it into a dark existential ocean which perhaps can't be crossed.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
J. Simpson occupies the intersection between criticism, creativity, and academia. Based out of Portland, Or., he is the author of Forestpunk, an online journal/brand studying the traces of horror, supernatural, and the occult through music, fashion and culture. He plays in the dreamfolk band Meta-Pinnacle with his partner Lily H. Valentine, with whom he also co-founded Bitstar Productions, a visual arts collective focused on elevating Pop Culture to High Art.