In an episode of his Revisionist History podcast titled “The King of Tears,” Malcolm Gladwell determines that the devil is, indeed, in the details when it comes to writing a really great weeper, and he deconstructs some of the saddest songs in country music to support his thesis. In his thinking, the flashpoints of real emotion come from the moments of small truth that great songwriters thoughtfully, carefully detail. Though Gladwell focuses largely on classics, he could have easily thrown a dart at the tear-stained catalogs of Lori McKenna, Gretchen Peters, Rose Cousins, or Caroline Spence for further supporting evidence.
Another master of musical melancholy is, undeniably, Lucy Wainwright Roche. On her new album, Little Beast, she churns out lyrical impossibilities time and again, each conveying so much with so little. It happens on “Soft Line,” “Trouble,” “In Relation to Disaster,” “Ohio Is for Lovers,” and almost every other cut. The depth and density of songwriting on display, here, is truly something to behold.
In “Heroin,” for example, Wainwright Roche equates her lover with a drug that causes euphoria, yes, but also a nearly unbreakable addiction and, far too often, death: “Some things that I want to say aren’t survivable or advisable, like, ‘Happy birthday, Heroin.’ But God, how I loved you and how I still do.” She wants just one more “hit,” as it were — one more interaction — but her better angels know that she might not make it out of there alive, should it come to pass.
One of the most creatively devastating tracks of the whole set is the duet with Matthew Perryman Jones, “Quit with Me.” When you stop to ponder the number of breakup songs that have been written over even just the past 50 years, you might not think it possible to find a new way to approach the topic. But here it is.
Wainwright Roche takes a decidedly loving approach to the ending of her love, beckoning her partner to be that for just one moment more — the worst moment, to be sure. But being fully in the quitting together is a remarkably mature and compassionate way to move through such a grief-laden experience. The person on the other side of the divide is, after all, the only other person who has any idea how this particular history has been written. “You were my love. You were my friend,” the voices note. “We lost it all. We’re on an island, now, that’s worse than small.”
They continue, “Quit with me. There is no closer we will grow to be. You were a burning, bleeding part of me. One thing I know is true: The path I walked was laid by you.” Writing with that level of gratitude and presence in the face heartbreak and upheaval is truly extraordinary, and Little Beast is overflowing with similarly staggering confessions. No doubt Malcolm Gladwell would love Lucy Wainwright Roche.