Love, Death and Tragedy: Ten Sad Love Songs That Will Break Your Heart
Why do we love tragic stories? We know how Pearl Harbor and Romeo & Juliet each end but we flock to these stories regardless.
A well-written tragic love ballad can tear your heart to pieces – but for some reason we listen to them anyway. Here are ten awfully sad, but poignant, songs about love, death, and tragedy.
Have tissues handy.
1. “Long Black Veil” by Johnny Cash
Cash, an expert at dark ballads writes this story of a man falsely accused of murder who faces death rather than to give up that he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife.
The judge said son, what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life
I'd been in the arms of my best friends wife
Check out this excellent cover by ‘gothic folk’ genius Iron & Wine for the 2012 We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash.
2. “O Valencia” by the Decembrists
This morbid Romeo & Juliet-inspired indie-rock tune is one of The Decembrist’s most popular songs, and for good reason.
Well, how soon we were betrayed
Your sister gave us away
And your father came all unhinged
3. “The Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee”
This tear-jerking country & western classic. I recommend the new life given to this tune in the cover independent folk-genius Sam Newcomer.
As I whispered, mother dear, where is Mary, she's not here
All the world seemed lost and sadness came to me
For she pointed to a spot in the churchyard's little lot
Where my sweetheart sleeps in sunny Tennessee
4. “Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens
The story of a teenage girl who dies from cancer by banjo-strumming, composer, Sufjan Stevens on his most successful record: Illinoise! which forms part of his now abandoned project of writing an album for every state in America.
All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth
5. “Swallowed in the Sea” by Coldplay
This Coldplay song has been open to a variety of interpretations. It can easily be read as mourning the death of a lover – with the sea as a common ancient reference to a place of evil and death, and other images in the song that imply the other person existing in an afterlife:
Oh the streets you're walking on
A thousand houses long
Well that's where I belong
And you belong with me
Not swallowed in the sea
7. “Murder in the City” by the Avett Brothers
Remember there was never a love worth sharing
Like the love that let us share our name.
Those are words for a wedding invitation.
7. “We Remain as Two” by Page France
This sad meditation on a deceased lover is by the obscure indie-folk band Page France whose first album, ‘Come, I’m a Lion!’
And if they give to you your wings
will you think to give to me your arms?
8. “Samson” by Regina Spektor
The hit by Regina Spektor which seems to be about a hypothetical lover who the biblical Samson rejects for Delilah who betrays him.
Samson went back to bed
Not much hair left on his head
Ate a slice of wonder bread and
Went right back to bed
And the history books forgot about us
And the Bible didn't mention us
Not even once
9. Album: The Hazards of Love by the Decembrists
The Decembrists have a long repertoire of tragic ballads. Their fifth studio album, The Hazards of Love, forms an album-length epic in the form of a gothic/classical literature fusion tells the fantastical story of young prince under a spell by his witch-mother and his quest to undermine her sadistic schemes to take his beloved away from him. The final track “The Hazards Of Love Part 4” is front-man Colin Meloy at his lyrical best, exuding his Victorian-level poetic sensibilities.
With this long last rush of air
We'll speak our vows in starry whisper
And when the waves came crashing down
He closed his eyes and softly kissed her
These hazards of love never more will trouble us
And these hazards of love never more will trouble us
10. "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie
One of Death Cab for Cutie's biggest mainstream hits.
Love of mine some day you will die
But I'll be close behind
I'll follow you into the dark
No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight
Bonus: “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley
While not explicitly about death, this universally acclaimed song of lost love stretches the bonds of a typical ‘break-up’ song with its evocation of Biblical tragic love stories and the poignant depths of despair and pain it explores.
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
See my article on the fascinating history of this song.