There are easy enough ways to determine if you’ve encountered a love song. Does it include the word “baby” 100 times? Is the narrator pleading for someone to stay (or come back)? Are there deeply painful metaphors about the heart, likening it to an open field or a piece of granite? Baby, you got a love song goin’.
But there are also heaps of tunes about L-O-V-E that have nothing whatsoever to do with romance. Let us not ignore those. In proper celebration of Valentine’s Day, here are seven such tunes.
'Alone Again (Naturally)'
Logic dictates that lyrics referencing suicide in the first 20 or so seconds would disqualify something from being called a love song. And for the most part, this O’Sullivan classic is anti-love — the musings of a forlorn groom at the end of his rope. But as Sullivan’s protagonist details the passing of his parents, he comes to ponder love and life, taking all his heartache and misery and using it to affirm solitude as a condition of the natural universe. In doing so, our sad hero finds a kind of solace in perpetual suffering, an affirmation of his existence in the endless slog. Looking back over the years / And whatever else that appears: it’s the pop music version of “I think, therefore I am.”
Punk is sometimes less concerned with growth than with rallying losers around the cause of celebrating shared misery. Bad Religion aren’t your average punks, and the wit and intellect of frontman Greg Graffin drives transcendent punk fare. Case in point: “Sorrow,” a ditty about how the world is terrible and we’ll always suffer. But with Zen-like grace, Graffin unfurls a laundry list of ways to move beyond it all (“When all soldiers lay their weapons down”). It’s not that the band totally believe this could ever occur, but they know that the strength for change lies within us all. “Sorrow” is about love overcoming the darkness, but in a way that maintains self-worth and avoids any needless self-aggrandizing. In that sense, the band’s punk shouts loudest above the crowd.
'Ain't So Simple'
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors aside, there’s a real dearth of tunes dedicated to artistic collaborators. Detroit’s Protomartyr tap into this vein, though, with “Ain’t So Simple.” Singer Joe Casey sets the mood by framing the band’s efforts as a “confrontation.” He bad-mouths his bandmates’ hair and clothing choices and sings of bassist Scott Davidson, “Everybody seems to love him / Guess I’ll keep him around / Until the next song.” What’s going on within this band isn’t perfect by any stretch, but that’s the point: Love is an ongoing fight for space and feelings, and there’s magic in that struggle. Protomartyr likely couldn’t exist without this tension, and it is through this deeply meta process that their art is imbued with true feeling. Routine hugging might be easier, but as Casey says, “It ain’t so simple.”
Unlike their many hardcore counterparts, Albany’s Drug Church don’t accept the idea that a life of hard work and struggle is necessary to their craft. Their song “Work-Shy” dismantles the romantic notion of working yourself to the bone, declaring, “If you wanna see me sweat / Well, you’re gonna need a gun.” The band go so far as taking potshots at Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for selling an “old and tired” ethos about sacrificing one’s body for the greater good. Are these the musings of bougie sell-outs? Nope, Drug Church are engaging in self-love. All the romantic images of the working class mean nothing if you’re broke and miserable, and Drug Church would rather double down on their art than bank on an inferior system. “Work-Shy” is a song about valuing one’s dreams and desires over any “machine” and having the courage to buck history and politics in favor of doing it your own way. Now that’s punk.
Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock is fond of romanticizing the mundane while deconstructing the idyllic. That’s what makes “King Rat” such an effective song. Even amid a bizarre narrative structure (the song’s POV is likely that of a career criminal), our “hero” shares insights about forgoing indecisiveness (“Well, King Rat has me on his list again / I can never be on the fence again”) and the importance of self-reliance (“I hardly knew I should use my feet again”). His is an unfulfilled life and clearly outside the norm, but he’s found a measure of grace amid the chaos. Whether or not he can escape his lot in life, the message is clear: Our existence is about humor and hope, even if those are all you have. It’s a love song to a gross, imperfect world and the joys of living in the muck.
Rolling Blackouts C.F.
Rolling Blackouts C.F. exemplify dolewave, or jangly pop-rock that marries ironic distance with a ceaseless urge to dissect modern life. In “Bellarine,” the Aussies portray a man who has departed for the titular peninsula to watch the “fire in the west.” Part of that exit means leaving behind a daughter (not named Bellarine) and opting to waste his life drinking rum and trying to catch fish that’ll never bite. Sure, abandonment isn’t deeply romantic, nor is the cowardly indecision of watching everything fall apart from miles away. But when the narrator says, “From here I shoot my scene,” it’s as if he’s trying to create a story for himself about how this could all work out. That’s a true romanticism of our modern times, a grand desire for lasting change that’s often disconnected from the awful reality. When everything’s falling apart, you can’t help but savor the fantasy.
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Can you fall in love with an abstract concept? If you’re Washington, D.C.’s New Wave/punk trio Flasher, the answer is not only “yessir,” but a;so that you should write a song about it. As the band explains, “Skim Milk” is about escaping an existence that “expects us to make lemonade out of miserableness” and opting instead for the great unknown. Having the freedom to escape takes a mix of bravery, romanticism, and a dash of stupidity. That’s sort of what it’s like to fall in love, and this song equates the aspirations of love and transcendence like two sides of the same coin. The mantra of “no future, no fate” isn’t scary; it’s an invitation to create your own world where love is a commodity and not another hackneyed promise.