Talking about the old Foo Fighters song February Stars, Dave Grohl said the sombre ballad was about hanging on by the tips of your fingers and hoping you don’t slip and fall. We’ve all been there. And perhaps you’re there right now, deep into a pandemic and awash in the winter greys. Cabin fever is in season, Prozac needs a pill, and seasonal affective disorder is the order of the day.
The experts say music can help, but they will tell you the prescription to beat the blahs is not cheery music – which makes sense: if I were to come across Bobby McFerrin singing Don’t Worry Be Happy this month, I might just punch him the nose. Instead, the thing to do is to own your moroseness.
“If you’re in a depressed mood and you put on something happy, it sounds like somebody else doesn’t trust you,” says Daniel Levitin, the bestselling author and professor emeritus of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at Montreal’s McGill University. “But if you put on the right sad song, you think, ‘That person gets it. I’m no longer alone at the edge of the abyss.’”
Neil Diamond is no neuroscientist, but the Song Sung Blue composer was onto something. “Me and you are subject to the blues now and then, but when you take the blues and make a song, you sing them out again,” he smilingly crooned on the No. 1 hit from his 1972 album Moods.
There is science to the musical commiseration. Comforting music, it is believed, can trigger the brain to release prolactin, the hormone produced when mothers nurse their infants. “It’s soothing and tranquillizing,” according to Levitin, the author of the groundbreaking 2006 book This is Your Brain on Music.
With that Rx in mind, here are two new melancholic albums from the dispensary to help you feel validated and understood:
Leif Vollebekk’s New Waves (Live Recordings ‘19-’21): Recorded at various venues including Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall and the famed Troubadour club in Los Angeles, the empathetic EP from the mellow Montrealer begins with I’m Not Your Lover and ends, as these things do, in Hot Tears.
Jodie Nicholson’s Live at The Old Church Studio: “Some time a long time ago I prayed for a second sun to rise and lighten my weight.” An intimate recording features Second Sun, a cover of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb and other forlorn material from the piano-based British singer-songwriter.
Music, of course, is subjective. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. As Levitin puts it, “A music therapist isn’t going to tell you to take two Adeles and call me in the morning.”
But that’s exactly what one music therapist did when I asked her about music lifting you out of a low emotional ebb toward a pleasing high.
“What we’re witnessing as therapists in a clinical setting is that certain music can resonate with the feelings of the client in the moment and also help them move closer to what they aspire to feel,” says Jennifer Buchanan, a Calgary-based music therapist whose latest book is Wellness, Wellplayed: The Power of a Playlist.
To illustrate her point, Buchanan mentioned Adele’s latest album, 30, a divorce record that begins with the despondent line “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart” but resolves with the album-ending Love is a Game, an uplifting exercise in Motown grandness that finds Adele on the other side of heartbreak. “I can love again,” she sings, big-finish style.
Once a piece of music takes us to a joyous place, then what? We’d probably want to listen to something other than Adele’s sad serenades. It’s time to kick things up a notch.
“Faster and louder music is associated with physiological arousal, and an increase in heart rate can generally have a positive effect on our mood,” says Sean Hutchins, director of research for the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. “Moving around a little bit more can be valuable in winter.”
To get one’s blood pumping, there are no shortage of February albums up for the job, including these serotonin jump-starters:
Black Country, New Road’s Ants From Up There: There’s so much happening on the second album from the acclaimed London septet one could get lost. Which isn’t the worst thing. There are moments of hurt, jazz, raw honesty, klezmer, saxophones and whimsy. Unfortunately, front man and co-founder Isaac Wood has just left the band. “I have bad news which is that I have been feeling sad and afraid, too,” Wood wrote on the group’s Instagram account. The album is receiving ecstatic reviews, but a coming tour has been cancelled. Welcome to February.
Best Coast’s Always Tomorrow: The California rock duo’s latest is fun and boppable, even if singer Bethany Cosentino recently announced on Twitter that her cat and best friend (Snacks, who is featured on the band’s 2010 album Crazy for You) had died. The deluxe version of the new album includes a live cover of an old Sheryl Crow hit with a memorable question: “If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?”
If one doesn’t wish to consider lyrical conundrums, instrumental music is an alternative. “It can ignite your brain into the spirit of imagination, where you can put your own stories into the music,” says Buchanan.
Indeed, listening to wordy, cryptic tunes might be too much for the dark days and frazzled emotions known to February. “There’s a distinct network in the brain that processes lyrics apart from the music,” says Levitin, who just released his own poetic album, sex & math. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t want that part of your brain to be engaged, instrumental music bypasses all of that circuitry.”
In that spirit, I would recommend the following vocal-free albums:
Jean-Michel Blais’s Aubades: The first new album from the post-classical Quebec pianist since 2019′s soundtrack for Xavier Dolan’s Matthias et Maxime is a serene, uplifting outing done in major keys. Sounds like springtime.
Kevin Hearn’s There and Then: Solo Piano Improvisations: Eleven of the 13 tracks are instrumental. Produced by Mark Howard (who has engineered albums by Dylan, Emmylou Harris and the Tragically Hip), the album by Barenaked Ladies keyboardist is atmospheric and impromptu – a soundtrack to the uncluttered mind.
Hearn didn’t collaborate with any other musicians for There and Then. And while isolation isn’t necessarily depressing, socializing in a melodious way is beneficial to one’s well-being.
“The best piece of advice I have would be for people to find a way to make music with other people,” says the Royal Conservatory’s Hutchins, trained in neuroscience with a specialization in music cognition “Being able to create something together is going to lead to a lot of pro-social feelings and lead to a lot of positive emotions.”
If you require a second opinion, the singalong specialist Doctor Diamond concurs.
Song sung blue, funny thing,
But you can sing it with a cry in your voice...
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