Tougher Than The Rest by Bruce Springsteen
As I mentioned in an earlier post about One Step Up, Tougher than the Rest is in my opinion The Boss’s best love song, and one of my favourite. It’s hard to choose between this and Secret Garden, a song I absolutely love to bits. I find the lyrics to Tougher Than The Rest to be more resonant – it’s steady, insistent, and gently courageous: ‘Well if you’re looking for love / Honey I’m tougher than the rest.’ The declaration is made more impressive because elsewhere there’s a lot of weariness, of years of failed relationships, considerable mileages having been accumulated on both sides: ‘Well it ain’t no secret / I’ve been around a time or two / Well I don’t know baby maybe you’ve been around too.’ But Springsteen’s typically simple and direct words draw you in very forcefully, with great plangent beauty: ‘The road is dark / And it’s a thin thin line / But I want you to know I’ll walk it for you any time.’ He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of love. It’s a hard thing, and a rare thing. Listening to it, though, you’re filled with a small amount of courage yourself: because it’s hard and rare, one day you will find love that’s travelled a long way to reach you.
If I Loved You by Astrid Williamson
Astrid Williamson’s debut album, ‘Boy For You’, is the first and remains the only album I bought for its cover alone. Actually, it was the cover of the 1st single off that album, ‘I Am The Boy For You’, which I saw in an advert in NME. The way Astrid’s head was tilted back, eyes closed, lost in some bittersweet reverie, spoke to something in my heart, and I took a punt on the single as well as the whole album when it came out. This was the pre-iTunes days, so taking a punt meant shelling out 12 quid on an unknown quantity, but what a decision it turned out to be. Besides the (almost) title track, there was the luminous Hozanna, and the hidden track at the end was a superb and pared back piano ballad. But I would have paid twice the price for If I Loved You, one of my all-time favourite love songs. It’s 3 minutes and 25 seconds of pure sonic bliss, a swirling and twisting expression of female desire, with some heavenly backing vocals adorning the chorus. This was something new for me: until then, my musical intake was exclusively masculine, and I hadn’t yet opened up to the world of female singer-songwriters. Needless to say, Astrid is responsible for widening my perspective. Some love songs recall past instances, or describe certain symptoms of love, but If I Loved You is the one song that creates that rare sense of elation in my mind. A wonderful treat and a woefully under-recognised classic.
Don’t Get Me Wrong by The Pretenders
The Pretenders are responsible for some bona fide, stone cold classic love songs, and again it was either between this or Brass in Pocket. But Don’t Get Me Wrong has such thrilling, infectious melody and so wins out. It’s a pure musical manifestation of the joys of love in its bloom, with just enough held back to make you want more. It’s also worth it for this bonkers line: ‘Don’t get me wrong / If I split like light refracted / I’m only off to wander / Across a moonlit mile.’
Perfect Circle by R.E.M.
R.E.M.’s sweetest love song is probably At My Most Beautiful, a stripped down tune that surprised with its relative conventionality in the experimental ‘Up’. It deserves inclusion on this list, but I just could not overlook Perfect Circle from R.E.M.’s debut album. Written by Bill Berry, the drummer who departed in 1997, it possesses a mysterious and elusive power that is difficult to quantify with words. You have no idea what Michael Stipe is saying (‘Standing too soon, shoulders high in the room’), but the imagery the song conjures, the places that it takes you, a vaguely remembered longing that runs throughout, are utterly unique. I’m not entirely sure this is supposed to be a love song in the first place, and different interpretations have been made with regards to what it’s meant to be. No matter – for me and doubtless many others Perfect Circle has a timeless feel to it, as well as the sense that, impossibly, it almost seems to convey silence, of things unsaid, of feelings unexpressed.
Don’t I Hold You by Wheat
This 1999 masterpiece from Wheat is as tender as a love song can be without getting soppy. A slow burning verse loops without ever reaching chorus, and the resigned way singer Scott Levesque lays down his lyrics adds to the overwhelming sense of regret and melancholy. What really makes this song is the lo-fi approach typical of the late-90s: things never get dramatic, there’s no crescendo, and the band makes no attempt to ingratiate themselves to the listener. There’s no irony, no humour, just the pain of a love grown distant, driven by a quietly pulsing rhythm section that never lets up. When the minimalistic guitar solo kicks in and the chord changes become accentuated, the defences we’ve built up against unfamiliar music start to crumble, and as Levesque repeats the dying mantra of ‘Don’t I…’ at the end, we’re left heartbroken. A beautiful piece that sounds just as fresh now as it did 15 years ago.