Valentine’s Day in this culture is all about love stories and feel-good fantasy. But what about those of us who don’t have love — those of us whose hearts are broken by need and emptiness?
For me, love has been closely associated with painful longing recently. I’m torn about what to think about this, because I feel something strongly that I perceive as the truth, but some psychologists and writers say that’s not healthy.
“Deep painful longing, yearning and craving are not characteristics of love,” writes Shari Schreiber, for instance. “If you think they are, you were emotionally programmed to believe this in childhood, when you couldn’t get your adoration for mother returned.”
If I’m deceiving myself about love, then our culture is filled with music from people who are similarly deceived by their longing. For Valentine’s Day, I’ve created a list of 10 songs that fall into that category. These aren’t songs about happy love. These are songs for those of us who are alone — and who are longing for love we can’t have.
I didn’t try to find the 10 best songs of all time about love and longing. Instead, I wanted recent music that expressed the idea in ways that felt relevant and authentic to me, even if those who aren’t in the throes of longing would find many of the songs emotionally overwrought.
But isn’t that the point of such songs? Isn’t that why we listen to them? Aren’t we trying to express a desperate longing for something which we can’t really explain to others — and which they probably wouldn’t understand anyway?
My only rules were that the songs had to be from within the last 10 years and they had to be songs that moved me emotionally for one reason or another. I’ve provided a commentary for each song to explain what it means to me or why it ended up on this list.
(For seven of the 10 songs, you’ll see a message explaining that you have to watch the video on YouTube, so just click the link on each that says, “Watch on YouTube.”)
“Dust to Dust” — the Civil Wars
Lonely people look just like everybody else most of the time. Most people don’t notice there’s anything wrong. But sometimes two lonely people can encounter one another and recognize each other — in a way that can make it feel as though there’s nobody else around. That’s the feeling this song evokes for me. It’s about the feeling two people have when they become emotionally naked with each other. The rest of the world might miss the clues, but two lonely people recognize each other and can look right through each other. (That can be difficult for someone who struggles to allow vulnerability.)
The emotional core of the song for me comes in these four pleading lines:
Let me in the walls
You’ve built around
We can light a match
And burn them down
It’s an invitation from one lonely person to another. It says, “Yes, we’ve both been lonely, but we don’t have to be. You’ve built a wall around you’re heart and you’re scared to let me in. But if you’ll let me in, we can tear down that wall so we can be vulnerable together in our love.”
For some people, that’s a powerful invitation. For others, it’s a source of fear and it causes scared people to hold tighter to their walls — and push away the person who would give them what they need.
“Blizzards and Bygones (All Frost and No Thaw Version)” — Five Iron Frenzy
When this song first appeared on a Five Iron Frenzy album about five years ago, it was a straight-ahead rock song and didn’t make much of an impression on me. (Here’s the original version.) But on a subsequent EP, there was an alternate take on this song. It was slower and more spare. There was a haunting and emotional quality to it that wouldn’t leave me alone. There are several specific lines that grab me, but it’s the haunting music and the primary metaphor that stays with me.
I interpret the cold as a metaphor for the bitter feeling of being alone. At one point, it says:
And you look around but find yourself all alone
And you hunker down but the cold’s already in your bones
For me, that’s what being lonely feels like. At first, you don’t realize it’s so bad. You might not even mind being alone after the end of a previous bad relationship. Then you look around yourself one day and realize how alone you feel — and you notice that “the cold’s already in your bones,” which just means it’s become a deep presence that you desperately want relief from.
You tried to pull yourself out of the bitter cold and loneliness. You thought you had found a love that would end the cold inside:
I lit a fire,
It started then stopped.
Who doesn’t know what that feels like? Someone says, “I love you,” and you believe the person. You feel warmth and well-being inside, but then the fire unexpectedly dies.
The most haunting and plaintive thing about the song comes at the end, when it says:
Can you stand the weather,
If winter lasts forever?
Can you live the rest of your life in the cold of loneliness? Is this a life worth living? For me, it’s not, but when you’re feeling this way, it seems as though nothing is ever going to change.
“Back to December” — Taylor Swift
It’s shockingly rare for me to listen to music these days that might be classified as mainstream pop, but this is a good song and has become meaningful to me.
It’s a song from a woman with regrets. A man had loved her and she ultimately — and inexplicably — refused to accept him. As the song starts, she’s seeing the man again — maybe years later. It seems to be an uncomfortable reunion:
Your guard is up and I know why.
Because the last time you saw me
Is still burned in the back of your mind.
You gave me roses and I left them there to die.
The thing that appeals to me most is the woman’s conclusion that she wants the man but she’s afraid she can’t have him — afraid she’s messed things up too much. That appeals to me because my heart likes the idea of being able to say to her, “Of course I still want you. I just need you to decide you’re committed to me.”
In the song, the woman is afraid to ask for him to take her back, but she finally says what she wants in a roundabout way:
Maybe this is wishful thinking,
Probably mindless dreaming,
But if we loved again, I swear I’d love you right.
She offers herself to the man, but the song ends without us knowing what he wants or what he does. The song is all about her regret at having handled things so badly one fateful December. I’m just injecting myself into the story, of course — as I think most of us do — but I like to think he still wants her, too.
“Christmas Eve” — Nickel Creek
This song by Americana group Nickel Creek has a story similar to the previous one, but it’s more simple. A man and woman who have been in love meet again on Christmas Eve after she contacts him to say she needs to talk:
We sat in your car that night
Cried and said it all
Then parted knowing nothing
So they talked about what happened and things are left unresolved. He sings, “You headed north and I made my way back south.” When he finally gets home,
Stumbling through the door, I hit the ground
And there I laid,
With 10,000 words to say
That all amount to one thing
Please, darling, wait
It’s not all over yet
Those last two lines — a plaintive and emotional cry to wait — are the centerpiece of the song. Although things might not be resolved by their Christmas Eve meeting, he wants resolution:
Now it’s New Year’s Eve
So I fake like I’m all right
To say I’m moving on would be a lie
’Cause I still believe
Though you’re wounded and so am I
That we still have something
Most of the rest of the song consist of his painful plea to her not to give up yet:
Please, darling, wait
It’s not all over yet
Please, darling, wait
It’s not all over yet
Over and over, he begs. But we don’t know what happens. I find it heartbreaking because I know what that feels like.
“Need You Now” — Lady Antebellum
When I miss someone who I can’t talk to, one of the hardest parts of dealing with everything is resisting the temptation to pick up the phone and call her. The woman here has the same problem that I do and she wonders if he even still thinks of her, just as I wonder.
Picture perfect memories scattered all around the floor
Reaching for the phone ’cause I can’t fight it anymore
And I wonder if I ever cross your mind?
For me it happens all the time
Then she expands on what’s going on and where she is:
It’s a quarter after one, I’m all alone and I need you now
Said I wouldn’t call but I’ve lost all control and I need you now
And I don’t know how I can do without
I just need you now
It turns out that he’s thinking of her, too, at the same time. They’re both drinking or drunk and losing the self-control that stops either of them from calling. (Since I don’t drink alcohol, that’s the only part I can’t identify with.)
It’s another song in which the end is left unresolved. She says, “Guess I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all,” so we wonder whether she’s going to continue hurting, but we just don’t know. I’d like to believe the story plays out as the video depicts, but the song doesn’t really say.
“Black Leaf” — John Paul White
I think John Paul White is one of the best songwriters making music today. He was half of the Civil Wars until their breakup and his solo album about a year ago — filled with bitterness and regret — made a strong impression on me. (White lives with his family in Florence, Ala., and co-owns a studio and record label there.) This opening track from that album is a powerful testament to the regret of lost love. He laments the fact that the woman has given up, but admits that he’s giving up, too:
In my heart and in my mouth
She’s a quitter
But I guess we’re both quitting now
The emotional center of the song for me is in this verse which remembers what it was like to have her love — and then he admits that the love and longing for her are still alive:
It was hard to breathe
She was holding me
Now she’s gone and I can’t get no air
Those old butterflies
Guess they haven’t died
‘Cause they’re eating me alive in there
Maybe that’s the part I identify with most here — the feeling that the “old butterflies” in his stomach won’t go ahead, so they’re eating him alive inside. That’s what unrequited love feels like to me. It’s crippling.
We don’t know what will happen, but he offers us a hint that something could change when he sings, “Oh well, there’s always a second time around.”
“Tired of Traveling Alone” — Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell is another north Alabama native who’s become widely known as one of the country’s best songwriters, especially for lyrics. This song makes more sense if you understand his past. He spent years as a member of a southern rock/alternative country band called the Drive-By Truckers. During his time with the group, he sank more and more into addictions to alcohol and other drugs.
After a divorce and then after leaving the group, he started dating the woman who is now he wife. She gave him an ultimatum. She told him she wasn’t going to be with an addict, so he had to get his life straightened out if he wanted to be with her. His award-winning album, “Southeastern,” is partly a chronicle of that period of trying to get himself right.
In a recent interview, I heard Isbell say that the idea for this song came to him as he sat alone in an airport waiting for a flight. He realized that he was “tired of traveling alone,” both literally and in life. He made notes on the Voice Memos app of his iPhone while fellow travelers wondered what he was doing. And he turned that into this song.
In the song, he shows himself to be a miserable addict who even the prostitutes in Tampa wouldn’t accept. The details of the story don’t resonate for me, of course, but the chorus does. It’s a plaintive confession of loneliness and an invitation to someone to travel life with him from now on:
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me?
By the way, the woman playing violin in the video is now his wife, the one for whom he decided it was worth cleaning up his life. They have a young child together.
“Astronaut” — Simple Plan
This song from Canadian rock group Simple Plan is a straightforward metaphor comparing being lonely to being an astronaut who’s been forgotten out in space.
I’m deafened by the silence
Is it something that I’ve done?
I know that there are millions
I can’t be the only one who’s so disconnected
It’s so different in my head
Can anybody tell me why I’m lonely like a satellite?
This song has much broader applicability than just the loneliness of missing love. It’s the cry of anyone who has ever felt alone in this world.
’Cause tonight I’m feeling like an astronaut
Sending S.O.S from this tiny box
To the lonely people that the world forgot
Are you out there?
Cause you’re all I’ve got!
Although the song is more generalized and less specific than most of these other songs, the video ends with the man making connection with a woman. So even though that might not have been envisioned as the only interpretation, even that says that a way out of loneliness is to connect with one person deeply in a romantic way.
As a side point, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield played this song from the orbiting International Space Station in December 2012.
“Hello My Old Heart” — The Oh Hellos
This song is from the very first EP by a Texas-based brother/sister folk duo called the Oh Hellos. Maggie and Tyler Heath wrote a powerful first song about hiding from love and building walls around a heart. The story is never explicitly revealed, but it’s obvious that someone has loved and lost:
Oh, don’t leave me here alone,
don’t tell me how we’ve grown
for having loved a little while
The singer keeps coming back to address his heart as the song goes along. He makes it clear that he’s trying to protect his heart from being hurt again:
Hello my old heart,
it’s been so long
since I’ve given you away.
And every day
I add another stone
to the walls I built around you
to keep you safe
He sings about how he doesn’t want to be alone and how he wants to find a home with someone, but he keeps coming back to address his heart again:
Hello my old heart
how have you been?
How is it being locked away?
Don’t you worry, in there you’re safe
and it’s true you’ll never beat,
but you’ll never break
When we’ve been hurt — and when we’re desperately alone — it’s easy to want to stay away from the dynamic and powerful love that’s waiting for us. If we leave it alone and focus on everything else in life, our heart will be safe and that heart will never be broken.
But the unspoken subtext, of course, is that that tradeoff isn’t worth it. Unless we set our heart free and take the risk of loving, we will never have the things we need the most.
“Where is Love Now” — Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips has a bleak song here about dying love. She speaks of being with someone and not knowing what to do — because she’s lost all hope. She’s watching love die and she finally cries out, “Where is love now?” It’s a cry that I know and the question of what to do is one that is very personal to me.
When we’re in that space of knowing who we want love from — but knowing the love has died — we’re caught in a middle ground, not wanting to give up on love, but knowing the other person doesn’t love us. Or at least doesn’t love us enough to choose us.
“I offered you everything I could give you, but it wasn’t enough,” we painfully think at such a time. And then, finally, we start to wonder, “Why would I think I’ll ever be enough for you? And why would I want someone who wouldn’t choose me?”
With Sam Phillips’ music, the story is always subtext. That’s what this song makes me feel — but I’m certainly bringing my own emotions to the song, seeing my feelings in her words, as though the song is a musical inkblot for my interpretation.
So where does that leave us? Do we know any more about love and loneliness after these 10 songs? Will the painful longing last for the rest of my life?
Probably not, if my history is any guide. For me, it’s always been like a light switch. I will go to incredible lengths to preserve a love I want, but if I ever give up, I will walk away with no warning and no looking back. If my heart ever turns off the switch, the person might as well be dead — but I do everything in my power to give love a chance before walking away.
Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be happy stories and loving fantasy. Sometimes it’s just a day of reckoning that shows you that someone you loved will never love you enough to choose you. Maybe we have to go through this much pain to start giving up on someone who no longer loves us.
That doesn’t make it hurt any less, though.