Some obvious songs and artists will undoubtedly crop up on any romantic playlist today (I dare say Ed Sheeran will frequent many of them) but consider this selection your alternative, a carefully crafted mixed tape that not even a Spotify shuffle could deliver to you. They are tracks that don’t always boast happy endings but cause us to stir and reflect on what it means to love. They are the songs that live on the fringes – outside that neat little box of what we consider to be typically romantic. Whether it’s a Gritterman who misses his late wife or an old Tom Waits waiting for Martha to return his call, these ten songs will leave their mark on you long after Valentine’s Day.
Leonard Cohen – “So Long, Marianne“
Dedicated to his then-love Marianne, “So Long, Marianne” has been regarded by Pitchfork as one of the greatest songs of the 1960s. Like most of Leonard Cohen‘s work, it did not receive much in the line of commercial success, leaving the song largely (and regrettably) unknown to the modern ear. The track follows a passionate love that started “when we were almost young” but ultimately ends in loss, leaving Cohen as “cold as a new razor blade”. Cohen’s background in poetry makes the song particularly poignant in his use of vivid imagery and pained metaphors to describe their romance. It is a song that feels old and somehow, in that, finds its place today.
Ray Lamontagne – “It’s Always Been You“
Taken from the mysterious crooner’s seventh studio album, Part of the Light, “It’s Always Been You” tells the story of a love that transcends time, having existed “since the first star split the black”. It’s love in its purest form – innate, natural, and wholly inseparable from any sense of self. Ray Lamontagne‘s unmistakable husky tones against the slow pace are entirely in keeping with the raw theme of the track. Of the album, NME observed that Lamontagne straddles the divide of “the spectral and the flesh, the emotional and the intangible” and this song is no exception.
Death Cab for Cutie – “I Will Follow You Into the Dark“
Their best-selling single, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”, features on Death Cab for Cutie‘s 2005 album Plans and showcases Ben Gibbard‘s gentle voice as it plays against the backdrop of only his acoustic guitar. While the track might appear bleak in its portrayal of the afterlife, the message that love prevails even in the “blackest of rooms” gives us a strange sense of dark comfort. Reportedly conceived and written in only 20 minutes, Gibbard taps into something special in this song; he takes the inescapable truth that we all must die and somehow makes it romantic. He knows it’s something we can all relate to.
Sturgill Simpson – “I Promise You“
A surprising country cover of a 1980s track, Sturgill Simpson‘s version of “The Promise” bears little-to-no resemblance to the original by When in Rome. Of the song, Simpson said he “always thought the lyrics made for a very beautiful, sweet love song”, and his rendition does not disappoint. It’s the promise we all want from someone – when we’re in doubt or danger when we lose our temper – that person will always be there. If the promise can also be made in the same dulcet tones as Sturgill, all the better.
Cue 3:38 for a stunning crescendo and some tears.
Orlando Weeks – “Seasonal Hero“
Inspiring his project, The Gritterman, the Maccabees‘ frontperson creates a powerful stand-alone piece in “Seasonal Hero” that leaves us gulping for a good four minutes. The track opens with a short poem, setting the scene for the song. Our protagonist, the Gritterman, tells of his grief in losing his wife. It becomes a conversation with her as he laments, “I’m still your man”, and recalls all the things he misses about her. This romanticism against the wholly unromantic role of being a Gritterman creates a juxtaposition that makes the piece all the more moving. Orlando Week’s pained, tender voice lends itself perfectly to the tone of this love letter and reminds us all of a love we have experienced – whether romantic or not.
The National – “I Need My Girl“
There is something beautifully effortless about this story of a man needing his girl. The somber baritone voice of Matt Berninger never reaches any height, and the song seems to exist in the general lull of conversation and yet, in this, has power. Taken from the American indie rock band’s Grammy-nominated album Trouble Will Find Me, the frontperson told NME that “it’s just a song about missing your wife”, and it’s this unashamed honesty that causes us to feel every word as a desperate plea. The National‘s unique “ability to turn feelings of loss, inadequacy, and longing nostalgia into poetic and spine-tingling memoirs” has never rung truer.
James Vincent McMorrow – “If I Had a Boat“
“If I Had a Boat” features as the first track on the Irish singer–songwriter’s first album Early in Morning, released in 2010. Coming late to the game, James Vincent McMorrow is often pitted against other more familiar folk stars but has found praise for his “vapor-thin high tenor” among his competition. This particular song reads like a love letter from long ago – a man with a boat willing to sail to the ends of the earth for the person he loves. The striking imagery layered with the serenity of McMorrow’s voice creates a warm, nostalgic effect leaving us feeling wrapped up in the heart of this song.
Regina Spektor – “Summer in the City“
If a song could ache, it would be this one. In true Regina Spektor fashion, the cult songstress serenades us with her unconventional narrative on missing someone. The story is nothing new, but the way Spektor tells it through her choice of phrasing and singular song style makes the song entirely unique. She tells us of wandering the streets, “drinking in late-night establishments” before trying to convince herself that she’s doing quite fine, a familiar scenario to many. The song was released in 2006 and appeared as the final track on her fourth album, Begin to Hope.
Tom Waits – “Martha“
Tom Waits might not be able to boast mainstream success, but that is not to detract from his influence on countless artists and the cult following he’s amassed over the years. He was ranked number 55 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time, and “Martha” demonstrates one of the earliest examples of his genius. Before Adele uttered the words “Hello, it’s me”, a young Waits made a call to Martha. His deep, gravelly voice lends itself to this older character and tells the story of a young love now lost to the passage of time. The lyrics “there was no tomorrows, we’d packed away our sorrows, and we saved them for a rainy day” leave us pining for Waits, who now lives in the midst of a rainy tomorrow in the hope that Martha will call him back.
The Divine Comedy – “Everybody Knows (Except You)”
Some of this list has been admittedly heavy. The Divine Comedy offer you some reprieve in the form of “Everybody Knows”, a song that’s impossible not to like and also a nod to Northern Ireland. There are no hidden metaphors, only the plain and simple message that “I love you”. The song is equally sweet and humorous with its carefree choice of lyrics and frontman Neil Hannon’s exclamations as the track draws to a close. From their album Songs of Love, the single was released in 1997 and became one of the band’s biggest hits, reaching number 14 on the UK charts. Songs of Love was included in the book, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.