More likely than not, depression will affect all of us at some point. Since the dawn of time and human sentience, the proverbial black dog has plagued our thoughts and has caused an incredible amount of strife and suffering in all corners of society.
Whether it be the internal battles that someone endures throughout their life, the oscillating nature of the general mental health experience or the extreme and heartbreaking lengths it can push a person towards, there are many reasons why it is dreadful and why, as a society, we have to keep working towards making the discussion of depression as natural as describing what you had for dinner last night.
Notably, depression can spring up for a myriad of reasons. These can be biological, environmental or otherwise, and regardless of the reasons why it’s happening, it is never an enjoyable experience. In the thick of it, you feel as if you’re drowning in quicksand and that there is no hope. This is where it can be the most destructive.
However, when it comes to music, in a bleakly ironic way, depression can end up having a fruitful outcome, bearing great art and giving the musician and their fans a ray of hope. Even if the song or album is imbued with the pain of the period of depression, it often acts as a cautionary tale for those consuming it.
Join us then as we list ten of the best songs written in the depths of depression. Expect to see some classics and some lesser-known cuts, and be ready to heed the countless ways musicians have dealt with the black dog through their craft. Just a word of warning, at points it gets very gloomy.
10 great songs written in the depths of depression:
‘Everybody Hurts’ – R.E.M.
Where else but start with the universal anthem about mental health struggles? Athens, Georgia, heroes R.E.M. really struck gold in 1993 as they scored a timeless crossover hit by means of notifying us all that it is okay to feel down and that this is a natural part of life.
The song is so powerful that you don’t even need to have heard it to know what it’s about. Written specifically for the confusion and despair that comes as a prerequisite of teenage years, this song isn’t going anywhere soon, and it is one of the best comfort blankets in music.
‘I Know It’s Over’ – The Smiths
No list about songs written in depths of depression would be complete without including one of Manchester’s finest ever bands, The Smiths. Frontman Morrissey is famous for his gloomy lyricism, taking his cues from the likes of Oscar Wilde, George Eliot and Jack Kerouac, and duly, many of his best moments in The Smiths feature pessimistic lyrics.
Without a doubt, the pinnacle of this is 1986’s ‘I Know It’s Over’, which features what is perhaps the best vocal performance of his career. The lyrics of the second verse say it all: “Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head / See, the sea wants to take me / The knife wants to slit me / Do you think you can help me?”
‘A Letter to Elise’ – The Cure
‘A Letter to Elise’ by English rockers The Cure is one of their finest songs and one of their ultimate tearjerkers, which says a lot about the quality of this cut because they’ve written numerous unhappy classics over the years.
Taken from 1992’s Wish, frontman Robert Smith wrote the lyrics of the tracks based on the collection Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka to his fiancée, Felice Bauer. Of the tragic sentiment of the song, Smith explained: “The mood is generally resignation in the face of inevitable change”.
‘Pennyroyal Tea’ – Nirvana
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain is possibly the most famous casualty of mental health struggles in music history. His tale remains as pertinent today as it was in 1994 when the tragic news of his suicide first broke.
Cobain wrote many songs with bleak sentiments, and although it would have been easy to have picked ‘Something in the Way’ from 1991’s Nevermind, given the lore of its backstory, we opted for ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ from 1993’s In Utero instead.
That year, he told Impact: “[‘Pennyroyal Tea’] is about a person who’s beyond depressed; they’re in their death bed, pretty much.” Elsewhere, he said that his bout with serious stomach pain influenced the song, saying, “That was my therapy, when I was depressed and sick. I’d read things like Malloy Dies [sic] by Beckett, or listen to Leonard Cohen, which would actually make it worse”.
The fact that he died less than a year after the song and album’s release, makes the essence of the song even harder to bear.
‘Us and Them’ – Pink Floyd
Even though the whole of Pink Floyd’s 1973 masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon is about both the passage of time and the mental state, ‘Us and Them’, is where it touches on depression most clearly. A languid and heady piece that makes you feel as if you’re floating on clouds, it explores the isolation that the depressed feel by using analogies of war and describing personal relationships.
Clearly written with former frontman Syd Barrett in mind, as well as Roger Waters’ struggles with mental illness resulting from growing older, ‘Us and Them’ is one of the most affecting pieces ever written, and even though it brings tears to the eyes, there’s a positivity that runs throughout it. Compounding this is the sound of the saxophone, which is just exquisite.
‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ – Hank Williams
I bet you didn’t expect country great Hank Williams on this list. Williams felt the blues at many points across his career, and the most notable period has to be the pain his divorce from Audrey Sheppard caused.
Three years before he passed away, aged just 29 in 1953, he wrote ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, and although it’s filled with depression, there’s an uplifting edge to the song, courtesy of Williams’s unmistakable voice. We’ve all been here after a breakup or divorce, so we can all get on board with the central message.
‘Place to Be’ – Nick Drake
‘Place to Be’ is the second track on Nick Drake’s third and final studio album, Pink Moon, which was released in November 1974, only two years before his death at the age of 26. The lyrical essence of the album has long been attributed to the late folk hero’s lifelong battle with depression, even if his estate maintains: “Nick was incapable of writing and recording while he was suffering from periods of depression. He was not depressed during the writing or recording of Pink Moon and was immensely proud of the album.”
‘Place to Be’ is the most beautiful song he ever wrote, and both the music and lyrics are incredible. It is hard to figure that this piece was written in any other state than a depressive one when you note just how downbeat and introspective it is. Take the following set of lyrics, for example: “And I was green, greener than the hill / Where flowers grow and the sun shone still / Now I’m darker than the deepest sea”.
A beautifully melancholic song, you’re sure to have it on repeat.
‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ – Neil Young
Neil Young’s ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ is definitely the bleakest track on this list. Taken from 1972’s timeless body of work, Harvest, the song was written when the Canadian troubadour was deep in what is ostensibly the darkest chapter of his life. He’d lost great friend and Crazy Horse collaborator Danny Whitten, to heroin and roadie Bruce Berry, and understandably, this sent him into an extended period of depression.
Famously, he told a crowd in February 1971 when introducing the song: “Ever since I left Canada about five years ago or so and moved down south, I found out a lot of things that I didn’t know when I left. Some of ’em are good, and some of ’em are bad. Got to see a lot of great musicians before they happened, before they became famous, y’know, when they were just gigging, five and six sets a night… things like that.”
He continued: “And I got to see a lot of great musicians who nobody ever got to see for one reason or another. But, strangely enough, the real good ones that you never got to see was… ’cause of heroin. And that started happening over and over. Then it happened to someone that everyone knew about. So I just wrote a little song.”
The sense of sadness is palpable so have the tissues ready.
‘Yer Blues’ – The Beatles
‘Yer Blues’ is taken from Liverpool icons, The Beatles’ 1968 double album The Beatles AKA The White Album. It is of the quartet’s heavier pieces, complete with a swaggering attitude and Paul McCartney’s bass amped up to what was then an unprecedented level for the group. The song was written by frontman John Lennon, and it veered off the beaten track for what was usual for him, as he penned it whilst in India “trying to reach God and feeling suicidal”.
“The funny thing about the [Maharishi’s] camp was that although it was very beautiful and I was meditating about eight hours a day,” recalls Lennon in The Beatles Anthology, “I was writing the most miserable songs on earth. In ‘Yer Blues’, when I wrote, ‘I’m so lonely I want to die,’ I’m not kidding. That’s how I felt.”
‘Today’ – The Smashing Pumpkins
1993’s ‘Today’ by Chicago grunge heroes, The Smashing Pumpkins is one of their ultimate cuts. Taken from Siamese Dream, the track’s delicate main riff is one of the most uplifting of the era, carrying a lullaby-like feel that remains as brilliant as when it was first released. Even though the song is upbeat, the lyrics are the opposite and were written by frontman Billy Corgan during a period of depression.
It was the first song he penned for the album, which helped to cure him of his writer’s block that had been feeding his depression even more. “I was really suicidal,” Corgan later admitted about the dark place he was in when he wrote the track. “I just thought it was funny to write a song that said today is the greatest day of your life because it can’t get any worse.”