Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like a Wheel” came on recently, and once again I was moved to tears.
For me, this is the saddest song of all time.
It’s not just the song, though Anna McGarrigle’s melody and lyrics are finely wrought. It’s also the exquisite production — by Joe Boyd — and the McGarrigle sisters’ heartbreaking vocals. This verse, in particular, reduces me to a puddle:
When harm is done no love can be won
I know this happens frequently
What I can’t understand
Oh please God hold my hand
Is why it should have happened to me
That “Oh please God hold my hand” is devastating. It’s practically parenthetical, almost tossed off. But the singer is completely bereft. I can hear Anna’s heart breaking. All I want to do is hug her like a child.
Other versions of the song — Linda Ronstadt’s is the most famous — may be letter-perfect, but just don’t reach the beautiful depth of the McGarrigles’. I think it’s the willingness of Anna McGarrigle to expose (just enough) her hurt soul — that and the empathy she inspires. I get the same feeling with Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” (perhaps the saddest song to hit No. 1), the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the Kinks’ “Young and Innocent Days” — though perhaps that last is more wistful than sad.
Indeed, there are all kinds of fine lines you can draw when it comes to sad songs. Are first-person tales more effective than plainly presented third-person narratives? Is less more when it comes to singing and production styles? Paste and Rolling Stone have whole lists of sad songs and though I agree with many of the selections, some of them just don’t move me. I can’t separate “Last Kiss” — whether J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ version or Pearl Jam’s — from the whole teen death song genre, which is just morbid. George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” has Jones’ brilliant vocal, but the song is undone by Billy Sherrill’s overly weepy production.
And don’t get me started on Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey.” There’s sad, and then there’s mawkish.
As they say on the Internet, your mileage may vary. All I know is, when I hear something like “Heart Like a Wheel,” I have to pause for breath. It’s powerful stuff.
What are some of your nominations — and why do they move you? Leave them in the comments.