Matt told Rolling Stone: “Now more than ever before, it feels like there’s a real fear of being emotional in songs,” says the National frontman. “Music seems so desperate to be cool. There’s something really brave about songwriters who open up and say sentimental things. It’s really difficult to do well – I’ve attempted it, and they’re the hardest kind of songs to write.”
1. “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack” | Liars, 2006
Liars are a bizarre, hilarious, twisted band. This is the last song on their album Drum’s Not Dead, and it’s not what you expect from them – it’s this very simple love song that repeats, over and over again, “I can always be found.” That’s such a beautiful way of saying to somebody, “Come back to me, I’ll be here.”
2. “Jersey Girl” | Tom Waits, 1980
Tom Waits has a lot of songs that will break your heart. It was tough to pick just one. I chose this one because of the way he sings it to the rafters with unbridled passion. He’s just so in love, and he can’t contain it. You want to raise your fists in the air and sing along.
3. “Without Permission” | Caroline Martin, 2005
Caroline Martin is a singer who we saw perform in London years ago. We actually covered this a few years ago, not very well. It’s a desperate song, so raw and unguarded. She says, “Just come back to me for one more day” – she’s on her knees pleading for one last chance, and you get the feeling that it’s futile. That makes it all the more powerful.
4. “Love Letter” | Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, 2001
Nick Cave often digs into the dark and uncomfortable sides of passion and love and sex, but he also writes a lot of great love songs. I love the idea in this one that some words in a letter could change someone’s heart – it’s possible, but it’s unlikely, like a magic trick.
5. “Famous Blue Raincoat” | Leonard Cohen, 1971
Half the time I hear this song, I forget that he’s singing to a man who stole the love of his life. But it’s not vengeful. It seems like the couple is together again, and they both miss this mystery guy: “I guess I forgive you/I’m glad you stood in my way.” He throws in these little things so you see almost a lifetime of relationship between these three characters. It’s a novel in one five-minute song.
6. “If Only it Were True” | The Walkmen, 2008
Hamilton Leithauser has a booming, emotional, desperate voice. This song features it in a really beautiful way. He has a lot of songs that are filled with anger, but this one is a sweet, loving song – and coming through his lungs, it turns into this epic, powerful thing.
7. “Without Rings” | Neil Young, 2000
This song comes right at the end of Silver & Gold. It’s just Neil and a guitar, as far as I can tell, and it feels like a one-take thing. He sings in a lower register than usual; it sounds really raw and honest. It’s a mysterious song, which works well – it lets you connect the dots and put your own emotional baggage into the song.
8. “Sad Love” | Crooked Fingers, 2001
Eric Bachmann is one of the best writers on the subject of love. This is such a haunting song. The story is pretty blurry – but it drips with emotion in a non-forced way. It takes a master to do that, and he’s one of them.
9. “Standing in the Doorway” | Bob Dylan, 1997
I’ve heard that Dylan doesn’t talk much about Time Out of Mind. I think it’s because he let his guard down, which he almost never does. I don’t know how much of this song is autobiographical – I’m sure he would say none – but it’s impossible not to think there’s a lot of honest truth in there. When he says, “Last night I danced with a stranger, but it just reminded me that you were the one,” I get the feeling that’s coming from a very real place.
10. “Maybe Not” | Cat Power, 2003
Chan Marshall is our generation’s Billie Holliday. Her voice just cuts to the bone the second you hear it. The combination of minor piano chords and the velvety rough sadness in her voice on this song is so beautiful.
11. “Learning To Hunt” | Guided By Voices, 1997
Bob Pollard has so many songs that are just about partying, or weird poetry, but this is one of the rare times where he embraced a raw desire to reach out to somebody. A friend played this at their wedding as the bride walked up the aisle. It was unbelievably moving.
12. “Damn This Feeling” | Hayden, 2008
I’ve been a fan of this singer-songwriter from Toronto for 20 years. This song is about somebody who desperately misses the feeling of being heartbroken – he’s gone through a really emotional, dark place, and he sort of wishes he could stay there a little while longer. I thought it was a fitting way to end this playlist.