It’s Valentine’s Day and love is in the air. Despite the ice on the ground and the commercial exploitation of the holiday, this tradition taps into the sappy romantic in all of us. It would be remiss, then, for this reviewer to discuss anything but love songs.
Love is a volatile thing though, and a good love song shouldn’t have to be about when things are perfect. Great love songs can be made about lost love, love from long ago, or even the possibility of a love that never developed. It would not be possible to cover a song for every relationship status, but, hopefully, this list hits some of the biggest bases.
Single, but optimistically searching: “True Love Will Find You In the End” by Daniel Johnston.
Johnston was famously a favorite of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, but the childlike naivete that makes his work so powerful to his fans can seem disingenuous to some listeners. Outsider music, or music made by those with little to no formal music experience, also runs the risk of being dismissed for the very real possibility that the artist just has no idea what they are doing. This song dispels the possibility of any of that being the case for Johnston, though. What he has crafted here is a simple but incredibly effective ode to never giving up the search for love.
In a relationship on the rocks: “Sunday” by Earl Sweatshirt (Feat. Frank Ocean.)
“And loving you is different / I don’t like you a lot,” says it all. In this song, Earl is with someone, but wonders if he might be happier elsewhere. It’s not clear-cut enough to leave, and he’s still invested enough to stay, and even to still use the word love. “Sunday” features themes like fame, alcohol and drug use and LA weather, but all of those things tie into the central narrative of the relationships at hand. In the outro, Frank and Earl wonder if it might be better somewhere colder all the time (to be single), rather than where the weather might be unpredictable (the strained relationship.) The whole thing is tied together with a great hook, a fantastic flow from Earl, and one of my favorite Frank Ocean features to date.
See also: “You and I” by Wilco.
Love unrequited: “All I Need” by Radiohead.
Radiohead has possibly one of the most famous songs about unrequited love with their hit single “Creep,” but “All I Need” is a more mature and elegant take on the same subject matter. Thom Yorke compares himself to both an “animal trapped in your hot car” and a “moth who just wants to share in your light,” because that’s how unrequited love can make you feel. It can make someone feel worthless to feel so strongly for someone and then be ultimately ignored. Instrumentally, “All I Need” starts off cold and quiet, but builds into some incredible catharsis. The track is certainly a slow burn, but so is waiting for someone who means the world to you to share your feelings.
See also: The whole “Pinkerton” LP by Weezer.
Hopelessly in love: “Twin Human Highway Flares” by the Mountain Goats.
“Twin Human Highway Flares” is the song that made me fall in love with love songs. John Darnielle is one of the premier lyricists alive today, and even this early in his career he was capable of doing so much with so little. The song works to tell the story of a relationship that seems too good to be true, even to the people involved in it. Darnielle even makes a stroll through a motel parking lot with his lover into a near-religious experience. All of this builds toward a declaration that sums up my idea of true love: “And on the day that I forget you / I hope my heart explodes.”