So, I’ll make no bones about it. I’m basically allergic to sappy mushy love songs. Not only don’t they apply to me (I am very happy to be a spinster – and isn’t “spinster” just a fantastic word? I’m serious!), but they are also, more often than not, either one-dimensional, badly written, trite, or just dishonest.
But a couple of love songs came up on random shuffle as I was listening to music the other day, and they made me think. There are some love songs that I love despite themselves. I decided to set up a few criteria and make a list:
- Sincere love songs only – not ironic, mostly sad, or primarily humorous ones.
- “I love you” is a different sentiment from “I wish you loved me.” I’m mostly looking for the former, here. This rules out “if only you were mine” songs, “why don’t you love me back” songs, the “since my baby left me” blues, and so on.
- Along those lines, no “this love is so great because it is doomed” songs. Likewise, no “love hurts and that’s what I like about it” songs. Looking for, I know this is radical, evidence of actual healthy relationships and human understanding here. Which also means no songs in which everything is perfect, always has been, always will be. Gag me.
- Finally they have to be songs I like. Which isn’t that hard because I like a lot of songs. But this is my list, and my taste.
So without further ado, sort of a bloggish mixtape – a few musical Valentines from me to you.
Little Steven, “Forever.” People who know Steven Van Zandt from the Sopranos or the E Street Band don’t always realize he is a hellaciously great songwriter in his own right. This song is maybe a little more of an invitation than a declaration of love, but it’s so purely celebratory that I had to include it. The studio version on the great “Men Without Women” album is better, but this live version with Southside Johnny is fun too. “If I give you my heart, would you love me forever? Will you pick up the pieces if I stumble and fall?“
Patti Smith, “Because the Night.” I loved this song before I knew that Bruce Springsteen co-wrote it. It’s certainly hyper-romantic, but it has an edge. I love both Patti’s and Bruce’s versions of it, so I chose the one I heard first and fell in love with when I was 16 years old. “Love is a banquet on which we feed.“
Ani DiFranco, “Pulse.” You gotta love a love song that starts out by comparing the beloved to a giant bug. And I love the wistful, downtempo, sort of gently obsessive musical bed Ani’s lyrics rest upon. “I would offer you my pulse/ give you my breath.“
Indigo Girls, “Starkville.” It’s maybe as much “longing” as “love,” but having fallen for someone who was physically far away (okay, more than once… damn you, Internet), the sentiment at the heart of this song rings true. And I love how the lyrics place you firmly in the real, geographical world. “Now I’m haunted by geography/ and the flora and the fauna of your heart.”
Lucinda Williams, “Something About What Happens When We Talk.” Speaking of long-distance thangs and the magic that can happen when the only way you can touch someone is with words. I just rediscovered this song tonight, actually, after not having listened to it in ages. It’s a song of regret, a little bit, but mostly it’s about realizing how that too-brief intersection with somebody can be pure magic. I love that sense of purity in this song. “Conversation with you was like a drug/ it wasn’t your face so much as it was your words.”
Nils Lofgren, “Valentine.” Nobody does “sincere” quite as well as this guy. I think this is just a really sweet song, simple and direct. The studio version has Bruce Springsteen on harmony, which is always a lovely thing, and Ringo Starr on drums – but this live version has so much great guitar (Lofgren is one of the all-time great rock guitarists) that I had to use it here instead. “So let your blue heart open wide…“
Bruce Springsteen, “Kingdom of Days.” Now, Bruce doesn’t have a shortage of songs about women, sex, love, whatever… but a lot of them are about wanting something good, not so much about actually having something good. This song is a gorgeous exception, and one that includes the joys of quietly growing old with someone. You gotta love that. “We’ll laugh beneath the covers, count the wrinkles and the grays…” (Honorable mention in the Springsteen category: Tunnel of Love – “the lights go out and it’s just the three of us: you, me, and all that stuff we’re so scared of.”)
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Soul Companion.” I’m including this less because of the song (which is lovely) than because of the videos made for it. Fans were invited to submit photos of themselves with their “soul companion” and the resulting videos – six of them, which you can see on MCC’s YouTube channel – were compiled from those photos. There’s so much real love in the photos: couples of all genders, colors, sizes, ages; friends; parents and children; people with their pets; animals cuddled up together. The videos remind me that love is love, no matter what shape it takes, and it’s all worth celebrating. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about? Oh yeah, you might see a familiar face right around the 3:04 mark in this video.