This is how it started. Our friend The Writer pointed out this witty bit in Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review of the new Keats biopic Bright Star:
“Ben Whishaw, in a teal waistcoat, is a vision of 19th-century emo tubercular hotness as the great Romantic poet John Keats.”
Bright Star is the fruit of Jane Campion’s (The Piano) long labor, and the objet du lust of many a costume drama enthusiast. Forget that Whishaw isn’t half the looker that Keats was (to judge by Keats’ death mask, anyway); he’s got that wispy, emo charm. Even his name sounds like a sneeze. The description couldn’t be more perfect.
I soon realized I was listening to quite a lot of music that fit this perfect description as well. Gentle, earnest alterna-folk-poppy stuff, some of it from successful loves, some not, most of it melancholy, all of it riddled with angst, garnered from TV shows or commercials or happy youtube accidents or mixes from friends. Heavy on the piano, light on muscle. Steeped in passion, rife with confusion, more about the wanting than the having. And as I thought about it all, an idea started to swirl in my brain. And voila – the Emo Tubercular Hotness Playlist was born.
“Hazy,” Rosi Golan featuring William Fitzsimmons: Thanks to Dollhouse, this is my new favorite song and in many ways the inspiration for this list. “It’s more than I can bear,” each singer claims, watching the other sleep (and what’s more chastely intimate than watching someone sleep?). Delicate harmonies turn two versions of a monologue into an achingly sweet duet.
“The Fear You Won’t Fall,” Joshua Radin : I don’t know if I heard this first on Grey’s Anatomy, or from C’s friend L, but either way it was an easy sell. This meditation on the vulnerability of love is poignant and charming. There’s nothing more alarming, when falling for someone, than the realization that they don’t have to love you back, and that nothing you do can compel them to do so. It appears that Radin’s girlfriend Schuyler Fisk sings the female part, although it’s not very gentlemanly of him not to give her official credit.
“Imaginary Girl,” The Silver Seas: There can hardly be a less romantic place to find a song than a commercial about a washer and dryer – but the Romantics were all about the transfiguration of the everyday, right? And what could be more Romantic than the dream that lives richly in the imagination? “I was stranded in the middle of the night/ I was washed out to sea/ out of the water you appeared like a dream to me.”
“And You Give,” Matthew Barber: Anyone who’s seen the video for this song knows why it’s on the list – and if you haven’t, you should. This is all about the hotness. Through the flower-filled English fields we watch a gentleman, tormented in his “burning cell”, suffer love for a maidservant.
“Take It From Me,” The Weepies: The perfect complement to Matthew Barber; he takes, she gives. Potential gender politics aside, the song is sweet and quirky and tender and tremendously poetical: “What can I compare you to?/A favorite pair of shoes/maybe my bright red boots/if they had wings.” There it is again; the familiar taking flight.
“Never Is A Promise,” Fiona Apple : This one comes from the more painful side, the internalizing, spurning side. “I understand what I am still to proud to mention/to you,” she says, and so she bares her soul to us instead. “The skin of my emotion lies beneath my own/you’ll never feel the heat of this soul/my fever burns me deeper than I’ll ever show.”
“Breathe Me, ” Sia: No stiff upper lip or grand, high blown concepts or fancy words here. This one is so, so emo. “Ouch, I have hurt myself again,” we’re told. “Be my friend/hold me, wrap me up/unfold me/I am small/and needy/warm me up/and breathe me.” The song is stripped down, her need is naked, and it overmasters everything.
“Almost Lover,” A Fine Frenzy : The gentle piano, the refined pain, the hopeless dream, the luckless romance! So what if the verses sound disconcertingly like “Part Time Lover”? The refrain is haunting and tremulous. “I cannot go to the ocean/I cannot drive the streets at night/I cannot wake up in the morning without you on my mind.” “Did I make it that easy,” she asks, “to walk right in and out of my life?”
“This Years’ Love,” David Gray: Gray’s throbbing, rhythmic piano and gravelly burr asks the question so many others do; should I let myself feel this? “It takes something more this time than sweet sweet lies/oh now/ before I open up my arms and fall/losing all control, every dream inside my soul.” This year’s love, it better last.
“If You Want Me,” Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova : You might not think it at first, but there’s a lot that’s Victorian in the suppressed passion of Once, the gentle not-quite love story of a street busker and a girl with a broken vacuum cleaner who end up making a magical album together. And no, the Romantics weren’t Victorians, but this particular song is a plea for a Romantic breakthrough of the more rigid, formal bonds. It’s a thoroughly modern film, but the theme of two artists whose lives are ennobled by self-denial is very, very old-school.
“Let There Be Morning,” The Perishers: A haunting melody welcoming the end of, well, life, “Let There Be Morning” manages to be simultaneously stirring and elegiac. This might be our most tubercular find. Its message? Beauty remains. The Perisher’s glorious romantic masterpiece “Sway” is a close second for its tortured plea for forgiveness: if given another chance, the speaker will finally be solid ground for his lover. This time it will be different.
“The Weakness in Me,” Joan Armatrading: Take that, “Part Time Lover.” Adultery songs don’t have to be cheesy. There is genuine anguish in her broken voice when Armatrading pleads with her lover to let her forget, to let her be faithful, to leave her the heck alone. “[You] make me lie, when I don’t want to… You make me stay when I should not/Are you so strong, or is all the weakness in me?”
“Fortress Around Your Heart,” Sting : When I was a painfully shy young tween, oh how I longed for someone to build a bridge over the walls around my heart! What’s more Romantic than the desire for someone to rescue you from yourself? I literally wore through three cassettes tapes of this brilliant album (The Dream of The Blue Turtle). Too much of my life then was like negotiating a minefield, and that image spoke to me deeply.
“Gravity,” Sara Barielles: Talk about unhealthy! The speaker has a passion she cannot deny – against her will, against her character – for someone cruel. “You hold me without touch/you keep me without chains,” she sings, “…And all my fragile strength is gone.”
“She Will Be Loved,” Maroon 5: “I don’t mind spending every day/out on the corner in the pouring rain.” Yep, that’s emo alright. She will be loved whether or not this enchantress loves him back. She’s fragile, and sad, and he loves her for her sadness. He makes of her a figure of Romance.
“Nobody’s Girl,” Bonnie Raitt: (With apologies for the atrocious video – it was that or a cover) Raitt sings with compassion (rather than passion) about that same sort of Romantic figure. Neither compliments nor devotion nor possession will help this hapless lover achieve true communion with his sad, lonely, lovely beloved. “She gives herself to him/but he’s still on the outside.”
“Northern Sky,” Nick Drake : Tragic suicide Nick Drake is the epitome of the tubercular emo sound, and “Northern Sky” is perhaps his most romantic effort. (Apologies again for the link, this time for sound quality – the remastered version I have is much better, but I can’t find it online. Buy Way to Blue, it’s totally worth it.) “I never knew magic crazy as this,” he sings, filled with the beauty of the world around him, exhorting his love to brighten his dark world. The song pulses with the conviction that love could save him. Love didn’t save Keats from tuberculosis, and the desire for it didn’t save Drake from his demons; we, at least, are the richer for their struggles.
“Pictures of You,” The Cure: “There’s nothing in the world than I ever wanted more/ than to feel you deep in my heart/there’s nothing the world than I ever wanted more/than to never feel like breaking apart/all my pictures of you.” He wants the real girl, but he also wants someone on a pedestal. Betrayal cuts him to the quick. Is anyone more emo than The Cure? None. None more emo.
And there it stands. We hope you’ve listened and enjoyed! In some ways it was really hard to limit: passionate songs like U2’s “Hawkmoon 269” and James Morrison’s “If You Don’t Want to Love Me” tempted, but we ultimately decided that the former was too robust and the latter, too uptempo. I’m still kicking over the fit of Missy Higgins’ dysfunctional stab at nobility, “Where I Stood.” What do you think? What did we miss?