Smile Politely

Songs of Winter

“I Will Follow You Into the Dark” Death Cab for Cutie, Plans

Every time I direct a play I get a song stuck in my head. Sometimes it’s a song that gives me a great idea for a scene, and sometimes it’s a song that reminds me of a moment in the script or of something that happened one night at rehearsal. Regardless, I walk away from every show with a song that will never be the same to me. This November, when I opened Hamlet at the Station Theatre, the song that would never be the same was Death Cab’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” It’s what I like to call a Sad Bastard Song, with lovelorn journal-entry lyrics and a plaintive delivery over acoustic guitar. Simple, genuine, and effective. Also, it happens to have a music video (who knew those still existed?) that makes for a damn good short story. Looking out the coffee shop window at a cold day, maybe some bare trees … this is the song. — Mathew Green

“Laura” – Bat for Lashes, The Haunted Man

This entire album nourishes my soul. Natasha Khan (who is Bat for Lashes) is sexy and her music is smart. Her past collaborations with Beck and her 2008 tour with Radiohead only add to the enigma. Khan is a talented multi-instrumentalist whose creative edge borders experimental. Likened to Bjork, PJ Harvey, and Cat Power, Khan brings something big to the scene. Nominated for 2013’s Brit Awards Best British Female, Khan makes sense to me. “Laura,” the best-selling track on the album, is both melancholy and hopeful, making it the perfect match for winter blues. 

The opening lines, “You say, that they’ve all left you behind/ Your heart broke when the party died,” initially makes the listener aware of an ideal past that isn’t likely to repeat. However, the ferocity of the piano and the subtle key changes build as the piece comes to a determined climax filled with the spirit of longevity. The empowering lines, “You’ll be famous for longer than them/ Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin/ Uh, Laura you’re more than a superstar,” fill me with much-needed perseverance. I probably owe an apology to my students, my children, and my fellow grocery store shoppers for repeatedly singing this song, often at inappropriate volumes. It’s that good. — Kathy Decker

“Astraea’s Dream” – The Sword, Warp Riders

Personally, the whole album kicks ass. This tune, from The Sword’s 2010 album, Warp Riders, brings me back to my roots — long before I needed to color them. And although it’s not their newest album, or even their best selling track on WR, I still dig me some instrumetal — yes, I just made a new word. 

New metal, done well, doesn’t suck in the winter.  And even though the band doesn’t suffer the same meteorological extremes in their home town of Austin, they carry this Midwesterner through the bleak months of cloud cover. These tracks are cathartic, aggressive, and determined — all crucial to survival until it’s time to play outside again.  Good shit when you want to get your metal on. — KD

“Don’t Take All Night” – Meshell Ndegeocello w/ Sinead O’Connor, Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone

I’m a sucker for a good cover, especially when it brings something of the second artist that enhances or reinterprets the first. This winter I’ve been listening to several cover versions of songs I already liked, including Jack White’s jangly, unhinged wail-through of U2’s “Love is Blindness.” But the one I keep coming back to is Meshell Ndegeocello’s spare remake of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Take All Night” from her Simone tribute album Pour une Âme Souveraine. This, if any modern song can be called such, is a torch song, with Ndegeocello’s full, deep voice caressing the listener the way Barry White used to. (You feel me, old timers?) The harmonies of perennial wildcard Sinead O’Connor don’t hurt, either. The sound of the song is perfect for a winter’s night, whether you’re with, waiting for, thinking about, or wishing you had an all-night partner. — MG

“Same Love” – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Lambert, The Heist

I’m late to the party with a lot of cool bands; I often don’t hear about new groups or songs until everyone else has been listening to them for a while. But I’m happy to report that I knew about this charming, positive, well-executed song just slightly ahead of some of my much hipper friends. Smart lyric writing, a refreshingly open-minded viewpoint about homosexuality and gay marriage (especially for hip-hop), and a chorus that will get stuck in your head. Winter is hard enough sometimes; it’s good to have something warm to listen to. — MG

“99 Problems” – Jay-Z/Danger Mouse, The Grey Album

This song isn’t new. It doesn’t have any special connection to winter or evoke any wintry images or feelings. It’s just that, all winter long, I mostly drove around with my three-year-old daughter in the backseat of my car. And every once in a while, Dad gets to drive alone… At times like that, nearly any Jay-Z song will do. Sometimes it’s “Oh My God”; sometimes it’s his half of “Otis.” (Seriously, Yeezy, just hand the mic back to the grown-up.) Come to think of it, this might not even be a song that Jay-Z is comfortable playing around the house nowadays, what with Ms. Knowles and little Ivy Blue present. But it’s a monumental bit of hip-hop swagger that got a jolt of karma from the Fab Four courtesy of Danger Mouse for the once-underground Grey Album. — MG

“Winter” – Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes

Tori Amos’ “Winter” is actually about two kinds of winters — one literal and one symbolic. The song begins and ends during the winter season. It also begins with the story of a child, playing in the snow, holding her father’s gloved hand; and it ends with the woman, older now, grieving the death of her father, who tried to warn her against loving him at the expense of everyone else (including herself).

Hair is grey
And the fires are burning
So many dreams
On the shelf

It’s a heartbreaking, lonely song, which is made even starker by the knowledge that Amos, indeed, wrote “Winter” about her father.

Amos can be a polarizing figure. I’ve stopped bringing her up in conversions about music because I get tired of hearing the criticisms that she’s cold, arrogant, and melodramatic (and the video for this song doesn’t help matters). But in “Winter,” a voice that others might describe as “cold,” sounds, to me, crystal clear, bright, sharp: an icicle partnered with the beautiful piano that brings to mind the falling snow that opens the song. And, damn it, I happen to think that melodrama makes for some of the best music ever written. — Tracy Nectoux

“Anchored” – Tony Lucca, Rendezvous With the Angels

I’ve been listening to, and traveling to see, Tony Lucca since a friend introduced me to him way back in 2009. (This was before he became almost unrecognizable on The Voice.) “Anchored” has been around that long, and is quintessential Tony Lucca: just him and a guitar singing the goodness. I don’t know if my interpretation of this song is correct, but what I hear is a man — a musician — second-guessing his life choices:

Smells like Los Angeles, in the middle of Winter
And rain comes a pourin’, palm trees shimmer
And New Year grows older, this sleepless night
And one resolution, away from all right

This song’s lyrics are honest, naked, as Lucca opens up to us about the emotional and financial toll that being a struggling, relatively unknown musician has taken on not just him, but his family as well. So, like most everyone, he spends New Year’s Eve tormented by the same questions a lot of us are tormented by: “How can I make next year better than this one? Should I start over?” He wonders if his resolution this year should be to give it all up, which will make everything “all right.”

“Anchored” beautifully and sensitively illustrates a moment in time that is familiar to anyone trying to make a living in the arts. And the fact that it takes place in the dead of winter, on New Year’s Eve, makes it universal. — TN

“Chelsea Hotel #2” – Leonard Cohen, New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Is there a more sad song? Maybe. Maybe “Hurt.” Perhaps. But Cohen’s personal, heartbreaking, beautiful, angry song about his friend will always top my list of saddest, bitterest songs ever written. It laments the death of someone “brave,” someone “sweet.” Someone whose “heart was a legend.” Someone who, goddamn it, let her self-esteem issues and self-destructive behavior get in the way of everything else that was so magnificent about her.

Nowhere is winter mentioned in this song. And Janis Joplin didn’t die in the winter. So, why choose it? Because this song is cold, but not empty; it’s ruthless, but not destructive; it’s about the death of a great singer, but it’s also about her beauty and her life. And all of this is, to me, what the season of winter is all about.

The video I chose is Rufus Wainwright’s cover during the 2006 tribute to Cohen. And though I know Wainwright’s version — possibly — changes the meaning of the song (depending on how we listen to it), I vastly prefer his interpretation and rendition. In my defense, the video opens with a recording of Cohen praising Wainwright’s “wonderful job” of covering the song. — TN

The Walkmen – “While I Shovel the Snow”, Lisbon

Even though everything about Lisbon, and Portugal in general, feels like it would be warm and the most comfortable temperature at all times, for some reason whenever I think of this song, it feels very melancholy to me. Regardless of the title of the song, it reminds me of taking a walk in the snow, kicking up flakes and embracing being cold for a short while. The Walkmen have the tendency to diversify their sound to fill every season, but this one is straight out of the winter months, making everything feel a bit colder than it should be. Lisbon is one of the most veristile records from this band, and for them to have songs like this one, combined with tracks like ‘Victory” and “Blue As Your Blood,” songs with an incredible amount of fire, when they sing “When there’s no life, like the snow life,” being cold for a while never felt so inviting. — Patrick Singer

Fever Ray – “If I Had a Heart”, Fever Ray

I don’t believe there could be a colder attribute than to not have a heart, and Fever Ray takes that sentiment and blows it up. The droning track that starts out her brilliant, self-titled record sets the mood for the entire album, in all honesty. A lot of her music, along with most of the material she creates with The Knife, is gut-wrenching enough, but when I listen to Fever Ray, I am overcome with a lot more. The white and black of the album art works both ways with what the album entails: while it invokes a lot of emotion and depth, it makes you feel so empty at certain points. This track just empties the tank right away as it starts out the record, and while it does that, it feels like you’re already full and satisfied as the song comes to a close. It reminds me of the cold of a winter’s day, when you walk outside and the air is just pulled from your lungs from the freezing temperatures. This song explains why that happens, and its the shiver that it sends through you that makes it feel good to have that numbness for a few seconds. Then you catch your breath and realize how great it feels. — PS

Portishead — “The Rip”, Third

Another modern masterpiece from one of the best, Portishead’s Third is an total winner all around. It doesn’t quite feel like their past records, which can be accredited to the break between. However, “The Rip” utilizes more than just the fluid trip-hop that the band is well known for. The acoustic guitars bring the guard down and feel much more comfortable than the gripping electro and synths featured throughout the catalog. Although “Machine Gun” is a personal favorite from this record, “The Rip” celebrates everything great about the band all in one delicate, beautifully progressive track. Something about the lyrics “white horses will take me away” reminds me of dying, and what it must feel like have closure that warrants such a heroic exit onto the next life. Numbing and goosebump-inducing all at the same time. — PS

Related Articles