Love; exciting and new, a many splendoured thing, a battlefield. It’s been described in song in many ways, and yet the fascination we have about it, surrounding it, still doesn’t seem to get old. People have written countless songs about the mysteries of love, from the ooey-gooey feelings which are often associated with it, to the struggles which are necessary to keep it alive. Chances are, a love song is being written right now, as you read this, by someone. I like to think that means it’s a pretty important aspect of human existence. As such, here are 10 love songs – these ones without what I call cheese. No Ladies in Red, or Feelings to be found here, I’m afraid.
There is more to these particular 10 songs than the gushy feelings of being in love, and all of the maudlin statements which often come out of songs like that. These 10 have some of those sentiments. But they also reveal that love is often as complicated as it is joyous. They show that love is not just a natural high – it is often a force which challenges our preconceptions, calls us to overcome the prejudices of others, and is ultimately transformative. To me, the best love songs are the ones that depict some kind of struggle, that the shape of love is undetermined, demanding that lovers rise to the occasion which it brings. In short, these are 10 songs which point out that love is not for wimps.
Generally speaking, I’m not much of a crooner sort of guy. But Nat King Cole goes beyond his genre for me (as does Tony Bennett…). There is something deeply emotional in his voice, effortless, and full of conviction without being over the top. ‘Too Young’ is one of my favourites of his, a song about young people who are wise beyond their years, even if those around them can’t see it. This kind of love between young people is often dismissed by those who are older, and jaded. But this tune is about how love can be beyond the boundries of age, that its presence in people’s lives is all down to how aware they are of it, and what they do with the choices they make everyday under its influence – a love ‘to last, though years may go’. In this song, the bonds between love and faith in it, and in each other, are inextricable.
The musical West Side Story is about divisions and prejudices, with love being the ultimate overthrowing force of both. In the story, a Caucasian guy falls in love with a Hispanic girl, the sister of a rival gang-member who is leading an effort to push into the gang territory of her lover’s friends. Their love is forbidden – this is a modern day Romeo and Juliet tale, basically. The ‘somewhere’ spoken of is just a fantasy in this story, the place where the two star-crossed lovers can live and love together, and explore what love means as a couple without the added problems of other people’s perceptions of it. This kind of love demands even more commitment, because it is unsupported by everyone other than by the two who share it.
The song and its themes have a wider meaning outside of the context of the story. At the end of the 50s and early 60s when the song was making an impact both on stage and on screen in Robert Wise’s movie version, there were all kinds of divisions along racial lines, and interracial relationships were rare, and frowned upon when they were seen. And even in this modern age, the right to love those of the same sex is frowned upon by many, with same sex couples only now gaining traction as being seen as legitimate in the legal, as well as the cultural sense. The ‘somewhere’ spoken of in the song is becoming less of a fantasy, and is hopefully within sight for couples who, at one time, had to keep their love a secret.
One of my favourite kinds of love songs are the ones where the narrator is not a dashing figure of romance, or an insightful sensitive type. I like the ones where the narrator is a bit of a clod when it comes to love, one who easily misjudges what it means, and what it can mean as a transformative force in life. This may be because I’m a clod myself! Ultimately, I love stories about being surprised by love, by realizing that it is accessible even if it had always seemed far away, and meant for others ‘but not for me‘.
There are many to choose from here, but I like “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees (actually written by Neil Diamond), because it’s a jubilant conversion story, a waking up to the fact that love is within reach and always had been, even to those who were previously burned, or chronically pessimistic. It also has a ring of innocence to it as well, like the narrator is starting entirely from scratch.
Oh, and I love Mike Nesmith’s guitar on this song too. And that circus-organ that Peter Tork plays. You doubt that the guys actually played on their own record? What kind of believer are you? Oh, all right. How about Mickey Dolenz’ vocal, then? Say what you want, but I think he was great on those original Monkees tunes. Still not a believer? Check out his performance on this lesser-known Monkees song, ‘Goin’ Down’.
‘I’m a Believer’ was covered more recently by Smashmouth and was featured in the animated movie Shrek.
Stay with me, people. I know I said no cheese, and I’ve kept my promise. I know that the Carpenters are looked upon by many as being bland and sentimental. But this song is enormous; not just because Karen Carpenter’s voice is effortless and soaring, but because it’s believable, man. And this song is also not a soppy, sentimental mess that many other songs written in this genre are (I’m looking at you, Air Supply…). This is a song about working, about ‘talking it over’. Basically, this is about building something together, not admiring love as a polished jewel for as long a time as it takes to notice the flaws. And yet, it’s still a powerful song on an emotional level.
I know some out there may still identify this one with the waiting room at the dentist. But, listen to the lyrics, hear those horn shots, the ah-ah backing vocals. And Karen plays the drums, man! This is practically a power-pop song, people! Whatever it is, it’s one of my favourite love songs, because it is a clear manifesto of what love should be – working toward a future with another person, knowing that the path is not yet cut, and moving ahead anyway.
Another type of love song I like is the kind which comes from a writer not generally known to lack confidence, but is one which reveals how humble love can make anyone. Let’s face it; Sting is no shrinking violet. He’s a well-read, urbane, blonde Adonis with a bass guitar, a sex symbol, and with an arrogant streak which is (purportedly) about a mile wide. But in this song, he’s as weak as a kitten, a guy fumbling for words, a fellow who loses his nerve when it counts. Is this the Sting we know and love? Yes. It was about Trudie Styler, who must have made him feel a little bit outside of himself at the time, freeing him up to write from the standpoint of his inner nerd.
The song was recorded for the 1981 album Ghost in the Machine, actually coming out of a pretty tense session. The song was recorded by Sting with a keyboardist, which the guys tried to do reproduce without much success when Sting brought the demo to the session. So, they ended up building a new track around the demo, specifically around the piano and synth lines which have become its trademark. It’s always been one of my favourite songs by a favourite band. It reminds me of my wife actually, since in the seventh grade when this came out, I resolved to call her up a thousand times a day to ask her if she’d marry me in some old fashioned way. It took about 20 more years, but I finally got there.
This is another one of those songs which shows love in three dimensions. This song is as much about doubt and fear as it is about dedication and trust. The narrator is someone who knows what love can be, and wants to get serious about it with an acknowledgment of past weakness and loss of resolve. I love that – there is no triumphalism here. This is about risk, about pushing through the noise that keeps one from revealing oneself to someone else. This is where many of us aspire to be, not just because we want to plumb the depths of love and all of its joys, but because we aspire to the courage it takes to get there.
The song was originally featured on the latter-day Split Enz album, 1983’s Conflicting Emotions, when the band had shifted leadership from Tim Finn (who embarked on his solo career) to his younger brother Neil Finn, who would go on to write a number of love songs in this tradition, first with Crowded House, to his own solo career, and then back with Crowded House where he still performs the song regularly. I saw him do a solo version of this when I saw Crowded House last year. It had actually been the first time I’d heard it, not being familiar with the Split Enz version. It became an instant favourite.
A lot of people associate this song with the 1989 movie …Say Anything, with John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler holding his boom box aloft to remind his former love of the joys they once shared. But this song isn’t one about mourning a lost love. It’s about the effort to keep love kindled. There are a lot of mystical images in this song. But there’s also the line I get so tired working so hard for our survival/ I look to the time with you to keep me awake and alive. This is a really down to earth idea, that love is not just about ‘the light, the heat’, but is also about the mundane, day to day aspects of life which wear one down, and those other details to which we must be attentive in order to keep love alive. In this, love is a very practical consideration.
Peter Gabriel has the advantage of having that sandpapery, soulful voice which lends a lot of credence to nearly everything he sings. But in this, there is another level of greatness. He sounds a bit lost in this, as if everything he’s singing seems to be coming to him in a moment of desperation, like he’s working out the magnitude of the love he’s got and is struggling to keep in focus. There is a real tension there that, for me, comes about as close as one gets to how love in moments like this really feels like; frightening, overwhelming, and absolutely essential, all in one powerful irradiating burst.
And here is the McCartney song. This was inevitable on this blog. You knew that. But, thankfully for you, I skipped ‘Silly Love Songs’, ‘My Love’, and any of those other more predictable McCartney tracks in favour of 1997’s ‘Calico Skies’, from the album Flaming Pie. For me, this is one of his best songs he’s written, including the ones written when in the Beatles. I love the English folk influences, which are not entirely unlike those which informed earlier songs like ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son’. And his voice sounds downright boyish in this tune, as if the love that he is speaking about is coming from a place that had always been waiting for it.
This song frames the idea that love is bigger than we are, that we are drawn to it as if we have no choice in the matter. And yet there is the line always looking for ways to love you/never failing to fight at your side. So, this song is not about passivity either. In the midst of our expectations of the soppy McCartney love song, there’s a lot of imagery about fighting in here: crazy soldiers never having to be called to handle the weapons of war we despise. This is a fight, but in the context of love, in the context of a choice between two dedicated lovers. This song to me stands as a testament to his love and marriage to Linda McCartney, who died the next year of breast cancer. I imagine that the idea of fighting next to the one you love takes on a different meaning in these circumstances.
The thing about love is that it doesn’t always pan out the first, second, or third time you try and grab it. There is just no guarantee, other than at some point everyone is going to get hurt by someone else. In this song, taken from the 2004 album Retriever, Sexsmith places this in the context of trying again, and not being held back by past hurts and by the fear of things one can’t control. As such, this is not just a love song so much as a pep talk, a game plan with which to start a successful relationship with someone who has as much, or more, baggage than we do.
Musically, Ron is channelling Bill Withers here, a songwriter who has also demonstrated that he knows a thing or two about writing eloquent love songs without dismissing the darker side of it – ‘Lean on Me’ anyone? ‘Just the Two of Us’? Overall, both writers have their feet firmly planted on the ground when it comes to love. It’s risky, and can be merciless. But in this song, fear never gets in the way of the work of it, and the ultimate joy of it.
Often love songs are thought of as kind of wimpy. That sentiment, especially from a man, is a kind of weakness. But, to me this song ‘It’s Only Time’, taken from the 2004 album by Magnetic Fields, i, is about unshakable resolve. It’s about defiance, and firmly-rooted faith and conviction in one’s own dedication to what is most important. What, I ask, is tougher than that? This song is about how love can change your point of view, that the strength one finds in love is often enough to to make circumstances irrelevant; what could stop this beating heart/once it’s made a vow? Here, immovable, immutable love is just a given.
In this song, the love being sung about is of the transcendental kind. A lot of songs have been written trying to capture this idea, and many have been successful. But this one smashes it out of the park for me in a way that few others do. This is a song of naked vulnerability, yet one of immense strength too. Stephin Merritt is one of the best songwriters who ever lived on the basis of this song alone.
If you’re interested in more love songs by Magnetic Fields, you might want to investigate their triple album 69 Love Songs, which explores a number of genres and points of view on the subject of love.
So, love; wonderful, challenging, terrifying, and up for nomination for ultimate meaning of life all in one. Of course there are scads of songs about it in every tradition and genre. Artists tend to tackle the big stuff, because they know that the average person is searching to find some insight on it. And perhaps a lot of songwriters, poets, playwrites, or whoever, haven’t a single insight that sheds any more light on the subject than we could sort out for ourselves. But, thrashing about and being clumsy is sometimes as telling as being insightful and eloquent. Sometimes knowing that we’re all in the same boat when it comes to love is enough comfort to keep us forging ahead with the business of keeping love in our own lives. And this, to me, is always easiest when I have a tune I can whistle. How about you?