To this day, people still can’t agree on whether or not size matters. In the realm of music, this is complicated by acoustic songs that have a unique power that louder, maximal ditties never quite do. Here are eight of the deadliest.
MARTIN AND ELIZA CARTHY: “DIED FOR LOVE”
This is a tale of a woman pining for her lover who has set out to sea and not returned. Desperate to find him, she ventures out to sea herself. One day, her father enters her bedroom to find her “hanging by a rope”, with a note attached to her chest asking him to bury her with marble stones at her head and feet, with a snow-white dove in the middle, “just to let the world know that I died for love”. Okay, yikes. True love is great and all that, but this is something else.
NIRVANA: “WHERE DID YOU SLEEP LAST NIGHT?”
What makes Nirvana’s 1994 acoustic live album MTV Unplugged in New York such an immortal work is that each of its 14 tracks exudes a raw, wild energy. And it’s this album-closer that is the darkest of the lot. Unplugged but screamed, in parts, it’s an update of an American folk song that dates back to the 1870s. Cobain’s distinct voice renders it mesmerising until it sinks in that the song chronicles an affair between a married woman and a man and culminates in a murder and beheading. That’s when his scream – and ours – erupts.
CURRENT 93: “A SAD SADNESS SONG”
Like its title suggests, this is a beyond-plaintive ode to sadness, which is depicted as a universal state here, framed by death and decay. “When we touch the world / Just to fall apart / And our mother lies in state / And the broken pitcher glistens”, denotes a fundamental hopelessness that borders on metaphysical cruelty. With its irrevocable imperative, it gels quite nicely with frontman David Tibet’s fascination with the end of the world. But take it out of that context and “All the world seems / A sadness song / And all the world seems / A sadness song”.
NEKO CASE: “DIRTY KNIFE”
From Neko Case herself: “It’s [based off] a story my grandmother told me about a bunch of people in our family who all went crazy at the same time. People didn’t realize it ‘til they went and found them in their house. They had just stopped leaving the house, and they were burning the furniture for heat. They were pretty nuts”. Yes, in the hands of one of the most compelling songwriters of our time, nutty family members make for a great song that is imbued with a tenderness that isn’t deceptive, even when the “blood runs crazy”.
CHAD VANGAALEN: “MOLTEN LIGHT”
The Medieval period stands out for being one of great beauty and also one of intense violence stemming from society’s fascination with the occult . Witches, one of the key motifs of the era, are largely responsible for this. Canadian weirdo-genius, Chad VanGaalen, acknowledges this in “Molten Light”, widely regarded as one of his best songs. Set in the 1600s, when witch burnings in North America peaked, the song tells the story of a witch, who, burned alive, survives, and exacts her revenge on the townsfolk. The refrain, “I’ll find you and I’ll kill you”, is all the more chilling because of VanGaalen’s angelic voice.
This sisterly duo touts a sound, that featuring hip-hop, electronica and operatic flourishes, is usually hyperactive. But on this simmering cut, things are dialled back considerably. The entire song is sung in a whisper, which sets the tone perfectly for its Gothic narrative – a hanging is chronicled, with no backstory. The high notes lend the proceedings a surreal feel that intensifies as we follow the characters to the gallows. Then, as the hanging takes place, we hear the screams of the punished and his loved ones. The concluding lines, “And our screaming / Is in his screaming”, imply that the screams never stop.
BLITZEN TRAPPER: “BLACK RIVER KILLER”
“Oh when, oh when / Will the spirit come a calling for my soul to sin / Oh when, oh when / Will the keys to the kingdom be mine again?” – are the words of a stone-cold killer whose bloodlust is portrayed as a God-given mandate, here. What sets this song apart from the rest on this already niche list, is that it’s an inversion of the core Christian belief of empowerment through the spirit of Christ. In dark blues-folk pomp, this spirit is one that emboldens the Black River Killer to claim his next victim. Just imagine what his “kingdom” looks like.
THE DECEMBERISTS: “ELI, THE BARROW BOY”
Oddly enough, The Decemberists’ rep as indie darlings has never had to contend with their incredible penchant for the macabre. Written and sung in first person, this song is a perfect example of the band’s folksy chops that’ve endeared them to the cold-pressed-coffee-drinking set who probably haven’t considered its lyrical import. This is a ghost story about Eli, the Barrow Boy, who committed suicide by drowning himself after he lost his beloved. “Would I could afford to buy my love a fine gown / Made of gold and silk Arabian thread / But I am dead and gone and lying in a church ground”, goes the most chilling moan.