For the first in a series of attempting to highlight ambiguously defined trends in music, here’s a pointless rundown of a few songs featuring an incongruous contrast between the downbeat subject matter and the upbeat musical timbre. This is definitely not a waste of anybody’s time.
1. Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire
When you hear that opening brass fanfare, it’s a guarantee everyone is up on their feet at the wedding reception/east London indie club/teenage house party. This is a song which transcends age, race, creed or musical snobbery. But have ever really listened to it? It’s depressing as fuck, either a tragic metaphor for romantic rejection or a needlessly graphic account of post-curry defecation. “I fell in to a burning ring of fire, I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher. And it burns, burns, burns; the ring of fire.” Yeesh. Pass the talcum powder.
2. Tunng – Hands
Tunng are an impossibly sweet British folk band with lashings of electronica invading their softly melodic acoustic guitars. Listening to them is analogous to soaking in a bath of distilled loveliness. But they relish being a bit dark. The lyrics on Hands (musically, a delightful, friendly little tune) are a bit like an episode of Eastenders, opening on man who can’t resuscitate his wife, before launching into this cheerful chorus: ‘We sing as the sky falls down, We sing as the sky collapses, And make of this what we can, It’s ok, we’re all going to end up dead and gone.” These may be the nicest emos you will ever meet.
3. Eels – Your Lucky Day In Hell
There are a few candidates from Mr E’s discography, to be honest; the man has a habit of making upbeat, bouncy indie with an undercurrent of melancholy, and ‘World of Shit’ is certainly a close second. But ‘Your Lucky Day in Hell’ just about snags it. It’s the chorus which really kicks it, the whimpering refrain ‘Never know who it might be at your doorbell‘ in the vague HOPE that the Reaper will drag you down to Beelzebub’s lair, set to inoffensive 90s pop-rock.
4. Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart
Perhaps getting a bit obvious now, but ignore the resoundingly bleak words and listen to that music. Quite chipper, isn’t it? It’s in the major key, and those eighties synths almost seem closer to new wave than post-punk. Of course, the lyrics, sung in that incredible baritone of 23-year-old Ian Curtis, are nothing if not disturbing, especially with impending Curtis’ suicide, just months after the song was released. ‘When routines bite hard, And ambitions are low, And resentment runs high, But emotions won’t grow.’ As sad and poetic as music can ever be.
5. The Doors – Alabama Song
Originally written by Bertolt Brecht, this is one of the more cheerful tracks on the blues rock legends’ self-titled debut; it has a choppy edge of gypsy folk, and the “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar” refrain will, when selected on a jukebox, rouse the patrons of a pub into merry singing unison. But this is a song about alcoholism (“For if we don’t find the next whiskey bar/I tell you we will die” and prostitution (“Well show me the way to the next little girl”). Blues to the bitter end.