Nyla Matuk

I’ve Looked At Clouds That Way

James Taylor, “Fire and Rain” (1971)

I guess it’s true, as Elton John says, that “when all hope is gone, sad songs say so much.” When I was in my 20s, if I heard a song like James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” or Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” — even muzak versions in a department store or public transportation hallway — a heavy, intense melancholy would cover me. I’d get a lump in my throat and be on the verge of tears. I’d have to get away from the music.

Although I’m a lot less sensitive to sad music these days, I have to admit these are pretty sad songs. Sad enough that they could still, on occasion, throw me into a brooding gloom!

Back then, my companion would laugh and tell me that if a song is sad, melancholy, or otherwise mood-altering, it ought to be embraced until it becomes comforting. With a measure of distance, the music could bring on needed catharsis.

Yet it only made me feel terrible. If I wasn’t already in a melancholy mood, I’d quickly step down into one.

Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1977)

Since then I have grown more accustomed to and less fearful of hearing sad music. Over many years I have cultivated tolerance and appreciation. A middle, semi-blue period saw me able to listen to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Still, even then I couldn’t brave songs from the “Blue” album.

Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now” (1970)

Now I find some music sad but not intolerably so, like Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” album. I believe I’ve achieved the level of cool aesthetic appreciation for the sad that my long-ago companion kept trying to encourage.

Jackson Browne, “Love Needs a Heart” (1978)

I never understood it then, but now listening to Browne’s “Love Needs a Heart” and “Rosie” I realize I’ve made peace with poignancy. I can even manage to listen to these songs of love and loss from beginning to end.

Jackson Browne, “Rosie” (2011)

Whatever’s in my heart — pathos, longing, hurt, despair, regret — these songs bring it out.

Maybe they’d be good for what ails you, too.

– Nyla Matuk

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Nyla Matuk is the author of the poetry collections, "Sumptuary Laws" and "Stranger." Her poetry, fiction, and essays have also appeared in numerous literary journals including Event, Room of One's Own, Descant, The New Yorker and Poetry Review. She has also contributed journalism on architecture and literary topics as a freelancer to the Globe and Mail and various magazines. She is editor of an anthology of poems, "Resisting Canada." For more Nyla Matuk, go here.