Peter Neville talks us through the power of the ballad in modern music, pinpointing some of his favourites.
There is nothing quite like a powerful ballad, telling an emotional story or inviting us on a personal voyage, to open our eyes. Music has the amazing ability to move us, broaden our perspectives, and show us things through other people’s lives. That’s why I love ballads.
Generally, the best balladeers are seen as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Jim Steinman (for Meatloaf, amongst others.) However, I enjoy looking at the lesser known, but by no means lesser talented, craftsmen.
Colin Hay – The frontman of Men at Work, who went on to have an excellent, if somewhat unpublicized, solo career. A man of simple tastes, he wrote from the heart and expressed his voice on issues that concerned him amongst other people. His themes include the loss of somebody special; waiting to see what the future brings; and the love of his adopted Australia (he was born in Scotland.)
Some of my personal favourite lyrics from his songs include: ‘What am I to do?/ How can I live with only memories of you?’ from ‘Maggie.’ This is the epitome of isolation we all have experience of at the end of a relationship. Another beautiful and insightful lyric is ‘Down this beaten path, and up this cobbled lane/ I’m walking in my old footsteps again’ from ‘I’m Waiting For My Real Life To Begin.’ This song is about restlessness and the search for something better, when perhaps the best thing is right before his eyes. Essential Listening: ‘Overkill’
Train- This is an alternative rock group from San Francisco. Arguably, the most beautiful is the poignant ‘Drops of Jupiter’ written by the lead singer after his late mother. There is a hollow sense of loss, mixed with an almost childlike belief that she is up in space. As the song progresses, there is a heightened sense of acceptance, which is tinged with a worry that she forget about him. The sweetest lines, in my opinion, are ‘And did you miss me/ while you were searching for yourself out there.’ Then, there is the verse where he lists some of his mother’s favourite things, before adding an emotional plea- ‘The best soy latte that you ever had, and me?’
This is a personal favourite of mine, and one I continue to sing with pride at karaoke. However, the thing I enjoy most about Train is the surreal tone to the more upbeat lyrics. This is clearly evident in ‘Is this love?’ Where the singer’s idea to woo his girlfriend is slightly unorthodox- ‘Took a loan on a house I own/can’t be a queen bee without a bee throne.’ Their ability to change so flawlessly from heartfelt lyrics to, let’s face it, quite surreal ones, is the main reason I adore them. Essential Listening: ‘Drops of Jupiter’
Elbow- There is one stand out song for me, which I am surprised wasn’t more commercially successful- ‘The Bones of You.’ This is a very real song, documenting a couple’s decline from being deeply in love, to separating and being ‘Five years ago, and three thousand miles away.’ The male in the couple, which is no more, is filled with remorse as he knows it is his fault.
He is forever stuck with the knowledge that it was his burden that split them up- he was obsessed with work. For five years he is deep in regret, but knows he will never escape his memories- ‘The sickened hits, I can work ‘til I break/ But I love the bones of you that I will never escape.’ He reveals that he attempted unsuccessfully to rid himself of the remorse- ‘I took a hammer to every memento/ But image on image like beads on a rosary/ Pulled through my head.’
However, the most poignant, in my opinion, is in the second last verse. He relives the memories of how they were once so close. It is an image that most of us will be familiar with. That is why I think it is so mesmerising and beautiful- ‘I can’t move my arm/ For fear that you will wake.’ Essential Listening- ‘The Bones of You’
Ballads tell an amazing story, and move us in ways we never felt were possible. That is why I love them so much.