Most love songs are rubbish. This is no particular fault of love songs, but rather fits with Sturgeon’s famous law that 90% of everything is crap. The same law applies for all artistic output – novels, movies, television programs, paintings – the world has long been flooded with cheap, disposable product through which we are forced to sift in order to find that rare percentile in which dwell the timeless classics. It is the purpose of this post, and indeed, of many subsequent posts, to highlight those songs which deserve respect for getting it right.
Firstly, it’s important to make a distinction between “love songs” and “songs about love.” A love song belongs to the romance genre – it is more often than not bludgeoningly romantic, fulfilling its function through cliché and banality, drawing upon well-established themes and tropes. They are often typified by overly sentimental choruses and trite circumstances involving material bribes, formulaic gestures, promises and the like. Or, otherwise, in the case of sad love songs, bemoaning the absence of certain stock sentiments and shows of affection, loss of trust and respect, lack of attention or commitment. Some of these songs have a simple charm and classic appeal, but all too many belong in the trash with all the other Valentine’s day pap, pandering as they do to the very worst commodification of romance, turning something beautiful into easily-marketed, mass-produced junk. They croon sweetly or bash our ears with brash platitudes, leaving the discerning listener feeling like they ate far too much sugar. The many failings of the average “love song” mirror the failings of most musical products (remember Sturgeon’s law) – bland compositions, tiresomely dull arrangements, and worst of all, dreadful lyrics.
Songs about love, on the other hand, are songs that explore the emotional experience of love and the complexity of relationships in a more sophisticated and less obvious manner. They use subtlety and carefully chosen, poetically expressed vignettes. They show, rather than tell, functioning in the same way as poetry: not being overly explicit and thus robbing the responder of the cryptic pleasure of interpreting the meaning and leaving little room for contemplation of the song’s, and indeed, the persona’s context. The best songs about love don’t even use the word “love”. Rather they find other means of expression, more covert modes of conveyance, hinting at and suggesting love, rather than just tossing it down on the table.
Equally, the best songs about sex function in a similar manner. Often they don’t even mention sex, but show through vignettes how the act reverberates in people’s lives and how its expression and the sentiments surrounding it can reside in objects, in spaces, in places, not just in the hackneyed “heart”, the body beautiful, nor in the wan, illusory “soul”. This doesn’t mean a great song about love or sex can’t speak of the heart, body or soul or indeed use the words love or sex for that matter, but it creates a context and a tone in which the word’s power is magnified through the potent lens of the very real and original emotion expressed. It’s not a cheap short-cut to meaning, nor a lame signifier of the song’s intent, not a repetitive slogan to drum us into emotional submission or give us a cheap sugar-high – it acts to punch us in the guts when we are already tearing-up in the emotional space the song has created around us – a very real story about very real emotions.
Such distinctions between the commonplace and the quality are as old as music and poetry. The ancients knew the difference well enough and Shakespeare’s sonnet # 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, is a piss-take on all the trashy clichés of his day, as well as a welcome acknowledgement that beauty comes in many forms. And, as with Shakespeare, much of the best writing about love is based on personal experience. The dictum of “Write what you know” holds especially true in this genre, and only the very best can write what they don’t know in a deeply affecting way.
Of course, none of this is to say that one cannot or should not enjoy any of the more mediocre offerings of the genre. Junk food can be delicious, and sometimes the most ludicrously sentimental and simplistic of songs can move us deeply and hit just the right note. Equally, many will disagree as to where a distinction might be drawn between art and mere product, between masterpiece and bathos, and taste is a wildly varying thing. Yet if the art of review and critique has any validity at all, if aesthetics is something that can be judged objectively, if we can distinguish between great and poor on the grounds of technique, originality, subtlety and the like, and I firmly believe we can do so in all the arts, then we can recognise and pay due respect to those works which excel above others. In this sense, I come not to bury love songs, but to praise them – the good ones, that is, as I see it. There are enough posts and articles out there dedicated to listing the worst love songs of all time, so you won’t have to look far to satisfy your inner troll. I’m not interested in rubbishing that which others might hold dear.
And so, to praise the first subject of this series: Tom Waits’ – Ruby’s Arms, from his 1981 album Heart Attack and Vine. Here’s the song:
I will leave behind all of my clothes I wore when I was with you
all I need’s my railroad boots and my leather jacket
as I say goodbye to Ruby’s arms, although my heart is breaking
I will steal away out through your blinds for soon you will be waking.
The morning light has washed your face and everything is turning blue now
hold on to your pillow case there’s nothing I can do now
as I say goodbye to Ruby’s arms, you’ll find another soldier,
and I swear to god by Christmas time there’ll be someone else to hold you.
The only thing I’m taking is the scarf off of your clothesline
I’ll hurry past your chest of drawers and your broken wind chimes
as I say goodbye, I’ll say goodbye, say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.
I will feel my way down the darkened hall and out into the morning
the hobos at the freight-yards have kept their fires burning,
so Jesus Christ this goddamn rain will someone put me on a train
I’ll never kiss your lips again or break your heart
as I say goodbye, I’ll say goodbye, say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.
This is a song about the sadness of leaving someone behind, yet it is richly complex in its evocation of regret, disappointment, loss and failed expectations. The maudlin brass with which it opens creates an almost agonised air of emotional pain, of desultory emotion, which is countered by the beautiful melancholy of the piano melody. The piano, in turn, tames the brass, bringing it, along with the strings, into a more complete, affecting whole. It is the sound of hollowness in the wake of an irreversible decision – it captures the unbearable sadness and the cold certainty of being cruel to be kind.
It is clear that the persona is deeply affected by his decision to leave; there is regret, there is sentiment – he misses Ruby even before leaving, yet has an intense awareness that what he is doing is necessary for he is simply not cut out for staying. His statement that “you’ll find another soldier,” offers a possibly misleading insight into Ruby herself – we catch a glimpse of a woman who, touchingly, desires a strong man, perhaps to protect her, comfort her and look after her. Yet perhaps our narrator has got it wrong? Is it not just “another soldier” that Ruby desires, but this particular soldier? Is this some cold comfort he is finding, reassuring himself that she will be alright, another man will come along, when really the failing lies with his inability to settle down, to stay with her and be faithful and fulfil the role she wishes him to fulfil?
Either way, irrespective of his understanding of her expectations, needs and desires, he is incapable of staying and this fills him with regret on her behalf as much as his. With this knowledge, he is deeply sympathetic on account of the hole he is leaving in her life: “Hold onto your pillow case, there’s nothing I can do now.” He knows how much she depends on him for strength and support, yet he simply cannot stay and provide this.
The slowness of his departure allows us to take the journey with him – a pre-dawn, wanly lit, sentimental tour of furnishings and personal effects which embody the intimacy they shared and remind us of how when we love someone and spend time in their space, we develop a deep fondness for their context and possessions. When we leave someone, we don’t merely lose them, but we lose all the trappings that signified their personality; that brought us comfort and pleasure – be it a chest of drawers or broken wind chimes. It is this reference to everyday objects, which, in the melancholy of the song, are invested with intense significance, that makes the song so effective. Indeed, the broken wind-chimes are, perhaps, a symbol of Ruby herself. Something beautiful, yet imperfect, and they also, indirectly, say something of her circumstances – she is not well off, but strives to have nice things, so to speak. By such means a surprisingly rich characterisation is achieved, just as “railroad boots,” and “leather jacket” are strongly suggestive not just of a working class persona, yet one who is perhaps a drifter, an itinerant worker, likely a de-mobbed soldier, offering further explication of the inevitability and root cause of what is perhaps the latest in a series of departures from other such women as Ruby.
The pale blue light of morning, the mention of the scarf, the rain and the fires of the hobos at the freight-yard create a cold atmosphere of early morning departure. Perhaps our persona has been lying awake all night thinking, only knowing for certain in the chilly reality of morning that the time to leave has arrived. And yet, despite this certainty, we can feel his anger and frustration, seemingly directed at the weather “this goddamned rain”, yet really directed at himself. “I’ll never kiss your lips again, or break your heart.” He knows only too well that he can’t be anything but his flawed self, yet wishes somehow that he could manage to be otherwise. At this point the difficulty of his decision has left him exhausted and doubting; “will someone put me on a train.” He finds some hope in the fact that the hobos have “kept their fires burning,” yet the burden of his choice, the weight of emotion he carries has left him spent; he wishes things to be taken out of his hands, he needs someone to be strong for him now, to get him away from this source of angst, doubt and regret.
This is a song which must be listened to to be fully appreciated. This is no deficiency of the lyrics, but rather a compliment to Tom Waits whose slowness of delivery, whose pauses and lingerings lend these lyrics quite extraordinary pathos. No matter how often I listen to this song I still get tears in my eyes at the line “and your broken wind-chimes.” Rarely have I come across such a potent piece of sentimental symbolism, combined with such a heartbreaking rendition. I always try to sing along with this song, but can never sing that line because my voice chokes every time. And that, apart from all the other great qualities of this song, is enough to make it one of the greatest ever written about love.