I’m Sorry to Inform You I have Rejected Your Application to Date Me


Dear Ms. Pengelly:

First I want to thank you for your patience during the last few weeks as we finished scoring your exam. It’s over now and you can relax. I hope the end of the day finds you in a big leather armchair surrounded by pillows, feasting on a slice of your favorite cake (orange-gingerbread, as I recall).

Since you applied to this position over a year ago, your commitment has been tireless and impressive. Regardless of my final decision, you’ve joined the elite rank of applicants. Over 50 percent of potential romantic interests are eliminated before the examination round, whether because of a poorly written essay or failure to disclose their complete medical history.

Second, I invite all applicants to meditate on the words of ee cummings: “nobody loses all the time.” Life is random and arbitrary, and at any given moment most of us are losing at something. Tomorrow’s victories nip at the heels of today’s defeats, and vice versa.

Still, it is with great sadness that I inform you I must reject your application to be my dating partner.

As Miriam explained to you when you started the application process, the examination is graded according to five criteria: Professionalism; Recitation and Delivery; Knowledge of Culture; Opinions; and Survival in a Harsh Environment.

With respect to the first criteria, you acquitted yourself admirably. No applicant makes it this far into the process without demonstrating a marked level of professionalism, and your choice of attire—earth tones, non-garish nail polish, a splash of body spray—served you well during the oral portion of the exam.

The pieces you chose for the Recitation and Delivery portion of the exam were similarly impressive. I won’t pretend I wasn’t flattered when you recited the entirety of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from memory, as I believe I have been careful to mention (more than once) in your presence that it is my favorite poem.

I was equally pleased when you recited, with great vigor, the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V—although I would have preferred “Once More Unto the Breech,” the enthusiasm with which you grabbed hold of that tree limb and raised yourself into the air as you shouted, “And hold their manhoods cheap!” etc. won me over completely, and any complaints about delivery (the occasionally shrill timber of your voice, for example) feel like nitpicking.

(Though, for future reference, the correct line reading is “when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,” NOT “when I am writhing,” which any self-respecting seventh-grader might have told you).

Unsurprisingly, your knowledge of culture was impressive, but it’s when we come to Opinions that your responses really begin to raise red flags:

– you mentioned liking the Beach Boys “about as well” as Pink Floyd, when the Beach Boys are demonstrably better

– your assessment of Sufjan’s early works paid scant attention to “Illinois,” his finest album to date

– you (correctly) listed Poirot among your favorite detectives, but lavished far too much praise on Ms. Lemon (when Hastings is the real glue that holds the show together).

– you cited Harry Potter as “one of the great fantasy series of our time” when it is, in fact, the greatest, bar none

– most worryingly of all, near the end of the oral portion when I asked whether you preferred cats or dogs, you broke down in tears and said, “Dogs, I guess,” when the correct answer was obviously “cats.”

Overall, it pains me to say, your conduct during the exam was exemplary. Although the interviews and tests were grueling, you never wavered in your devotion. I can’t tell you how moved I was when you woke up in that replica of Regency England—how you spent two weeks searching for another human soul—how you taught yourself to make butter and sew and store meats… and at the end of it, when your resolve was breaking down, when you didn’t think you could go on living, you took out the photo of me that you keep in your wallet and whispered, “No matter what happens, I will always love him.” And you held on to that conviction, even when you found out it was a simulation.

So it’s only with the greatest regret that I’m rejecting your application, because of the concerns mentioned.

But at least the exam is over now! You should reward yourself, maybe by going some place where the weather is warm and you can eat paella all day in the sun. And remember that if you are unhappy with the results of this exam, you are welcome to re-apply at any time.

Best wishes,

Let’s All Agree to Stop Talking about You-Know-Who


Morse could not care less about You-Know-Who.

As of today, we have only one month and one day until the US presidential election. That can seem hard to believe, especially if you buy into the theory that this year has been going on forever and all our memories of the past are fake.

I hate to say it, but in the next month the election is just going to intensify. It’s going to be the last sixteen months again, only more. Terrorists will attack and one of the candidates will congratulate himself. Ex-wives and beauty pageant contestants and small dogs will come forward to explain how that candidate mistreated them. The Christian Right will continue its long, humiliating slide into irrelevance.

And the news is going to be wall-to-wall coverage of that rascal. You’ll log onto twitter and everyone will be tweeting about him, even the folks who don’t like him. (Especially them). He’s succeeded in creating what most narcissists can only dream of: a republic where he is the sole topic of conversation, now and always, forever and ever.

What if we just stopped?

What if we all agreed, for the next month, not to talk about this man?

Not to tweet about him?

I can hear you objecting. “He’s the most dangerous candidate nominated by a major party in our lifetimes; this is about good and evil; we have to do whatever we can to stop him.”

I don’t disagree.

I just don’t think that “fighting him” and “ignoring him” are mutually exclusive.

Especially not for a man as narcissistic and thin-skinned as this one.

If no one was talking about him, what would he do? Would he wither? Would he disappear?

Or would he just explode?

Quite possibly he would. The only reason he hasn’t yet is because we haven’t tried it. We keep trying to fight him with words and attention, and that just gives him oxygen, and energy.

So let’s agree to stop talking about him. From now until the election, let’s shun him with our hearts and with our words. Let’s pretend he’s not there.

He’ll be the guy in the coffee shop sitting down next to us, waving his arms, trying to get our attention. And we’ll put in our headphones and turn up the music and read our books in peace while he slowly self-consumes with rage.

Imagine how he’ll feel when he logs onto twitter and not a single person has tweeted about him.

Imagine how much happier we’ll be, how much calmer it will be in a world where he doesn’t matter.

Sometimes it feels like we’re addicted to talking about him. But there are thousands of other things that are Not Him, each of which is more delightful and interesting. Here are a few suggestions to help you start a non-You-Know-Who-related conversation:

– Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” trilogy (Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys which is inferior but worth reading)

– hot-air balloons floating above church spires

– a goldendoodle in need of a good home

– the Blessed Virgin Mary

– a lighthouse that sells fudge and ice cream

– fox fur stoles

– sheep: do they go to heaven

– shooting jackets worn over fancy waistcoats

– cathedral parapets

– a hand-cranked sewing machine

– the 1973 film version of The Three Musketeers starring Michael York

– an empire gown made of the purest white linen

– a rusty clawfoot tub filled with perfumes and various unguents

– a boot-scraper chasing a sedan chair mounted on poles

happy tweeting!


The Real Reason So Many Christians Make Bad Art, or How I Learned to Love the World


During the past year or so I’ve become utterly engrossed in the TV series Friday Night Lights.

No one in my family expected this. I’ve never liked football; if you asked, I’m not sure I could tell you what a yard line is. (That’s a thing in football, right?). And it’s a show about rural Texas, a place I spent a good portion of my youth trying to escape.

There are no wizards or magicians, no real mysteries, and only a couple of murders (in the widely panned second season, which I’ve mostly avoided watching). In other words, none of the elements that usually draw me into a show and sustain my attention over four or five seasons.

What it does have, in spades, is detail. When she was reviewing the first season for the AV Club, Sonia Saraiya smartly noted, “The show is almost impossibly rich with detail… what makes Friday Night Lights evergreen is how detailed and authentic the production is.”

That sense of detail was what hooked me during the first season, far more than the high school drama between Tim, Jason, and Lyla, or wondering whether Jason would ever walk again. I had never seen a show that so perfectly captures what it’s like to grow up in Texas. (Among recent movies, only Boyhood comes close). Again and again the show gets it right on the smallest levels—the late-night runs to Whataburger, a fridge full of half-eaten barbecue, a screen door looking out on a back porch that’s just a single slab of concrete with a potted aloe vera plant. The writers clearly did their research. I felt like I was watching a documentary about my hometown.

Ever since I left the weird cult a few years ago I’ve had this peculiar hunger. It’s a hunger for something I didn’t have as a child, and that’s a passionate curiosity to know the names of things, to know what things are. It’s a hunger to know the world, to rub the back of my hand against it and feel its texture.

Maybe it’s a writer thing, but lately, when I read a book, it’s not enough for me to know that a tree was climbed. I want to know more about this tree: was it a cedar? An oak? An elm? Did it have fruit or nuts? Is the street on which the heroine and the giant centipede are fighting made out of stone blocks or asphalt? Because I don’t think I can be fully invested in this fight unless I know what the street is made of.

In my newfound fascination with things I started a notebook where I listed every interesting detail in the books I read and the movies I watched—a list that ran for hundreds and hundreds of pages: types of clothes; types of food; different architectural styles; dances of the Regency era; types of trees found in West Texas. Things I had never paid attention to before I joined the cult had now become the only things that could hold my attention.

When I was young, growing up in a fundamentalist church, this kind of absorption in the world was discouraged. “Love not the world, nor the things in the world,” was a verse that got thrown at me a lot (and is still thrown at me, on occasion). In the twisted interpretation of faith that my mom practiced, the world was just a coded symbol waiting to be deciphered, full of mysterious numbers and coincidences and patterns. This wasn’t a world that could be known or loved, but one that could only be decoded.

And I think that lack of engagement with the world can actually starve a child. It’s a form of spiritual malnourishment that leaves us grasping and impoverished. In one of his novels Jasper Fforde mentions how the lengthy descriptive passages in The Lord of the Rings can nourish a person spiritually. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within my cult, descriptive writing was preached against as if it was some kind of sin.

But now I’m finding that description, when it’s done well, doesn’t have to be flowery or purple. Description is just another word for the naming of things as they are.

So lately as I’ve been paying attention to things and asking questions, it feels like I’m reclaiming part of myself. At heart I’ve always been a person who’s absolutely obsessed with detail, but such fascination is anathema in a religious environment where the world is a place you’re trying to escape from.

And the reason so many novels marketed to Christians fail at the most basic level is because they don’t name these things, because their authors don’t know those things, because they’ve never taken to heart the advice of Rich Mullins and learned the names of birds and plants, the names of the constellations, the difference between a tulip and a redbud.

With a few notable exceptions (Rich Mullins among them—who could forget the moonlight spilling laughter on the cold Dakota hills?), Christian culture has lost the art of paying attention to things. Open one of the Left Behind books at random, for example, and notice how lovingly the authors describe their weaponry and telephones, but what scant attention they pay to anything else—the natural world, what people look like, how people actually talk. Then contrast that with someone like Flannery O’Connor, whose every line conveys an understanding of the place in which she lives and the people who live there: an intensely religious woman in one story has “the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.” (One gets the sense that the Catholic Flannery knew her white Southern Protestant culture better than it knew itself).

And I think what ultimately separates good writing from bad writing, and good ideologies from bad ones, is the permission to be curious, to be utterly fascinated with the beauty and the horror of the world and the million small things that make it so beautiful and horrible. I don’t want to be part of your religion if your religion has no time for gelato or prosciutto or Michelangelo. I’m not interested in your justice movement if you’re not interested in hearing me rave about velvet pelisses and candied hibiscus flowers and green bean casserole with deviled eggs.

Because in the end, the naming of things has a sacramental power. It puts us in touch with the things themselves, and things—material things, the stuff of this good earth—are signposts pointing us to God. That doesn’t mean we have to love them for that reason. But they carry the divine spark because they come from the divine hand, and if we allow ourselves permission to love things, we may eventually find ourselves falling in love with God.

Christians, It’s Time to Leave The Republican Party


Joe Raedle / Getty Images

“Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins.”

— Revelation 18:4

If you’re a white Evangelical Christian who came of age in the early 2000s, you’re probably used to thinking of the GOP as God’s Own Party.

If you were a dedicated churchgoer in a white Evangelical church, you would never consider voting for a Democratic candidate. Democrats were liberals who supported safe sex and abortion on demand; the Democratic president was caught in a sex scandal with one of his interns. They had no values. They weren’t really Christians, though they sometimes used the language of Christianity to deceive us.

Republicans, by contrast, were the party of faith. They believed in God, family, our country, and our military. When George W. Bush was asked to name his favorite philosopher during a townhall meeting in 2000, he said without hesitation, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” He was mocked for this answer by the godless media, but it resonated with countless men and women in the heartland who had never heard of Voltaire or Rousseau.

I was a staunch Republican until late into my teens. I supported the invasion of Iraq (at least until the actual bombing started) because I thought Bush had been chosen by God to lead our country and reshape the Middle East. During my first semester in college I picketed an abortion clinic and wrote an article for the school newspaper making fun of Democrats like John Kerry for trying to speak the language of faith. I described the 2004 election as the most important election of our lifetime, and Bush’s reelection as a stunning repudiation of the liberal elites who defended Islam, immigration, and sex on TV.

When an English teacher I respected—one of the few outspoken liberals in our small, conservative town—asked me why I supported Republicans, I said, “Because they have morals!”

I was surprised she even had to ask.

But something happened early in Bush’s second term. I think the first blow was the revelation that our Christian government was running secret prisons and torture sites in foreign countries. Somehow it was hard to picture Jesus forcing a man to stand on broken limbs for days without sleep. It was hard to picture him approving the crushing of a child’s testicles.

I learned about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, how it drove white Southerners afraid of blacks into the arms of the Republican Party. I learned about Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to woo those disaffected white voters with coded language like “tough on crime” and “law and order.” I learned how whites turned out for him in record numbers because they understood the subtext buried in these words, that he was going to make life harder for people of color like myself.

I began to understand why the Republican Party was overwhelmingly white.

Here in Texas, especially, it’s been clear for some time that white Republicans aren’t driven by some high-minded adherence to conservative principles. Partly it’s a religious thing: Republican voters are driven by their faith to vote for Republican candidates.

But it’s something else, too. George W. Bush was very clear that the war on terror was not a war against Muslims. But I can tell you that’s not how it was perceived in the heartland. Millions of people supported him in his bid for reelection because they believed he was going to make war on the whole Middle East and defend our land from the savage hoards who wished to destroy us and our way of life.

In the ‘60s the GOP became the haven for people who were afraid of blacks. In the 2000s it wooed those who were afraid of Muslims and Arabs and Hispanics. Each of those groups, in turn, left the Republican Party, because it was clear to them, long before it became clear to the rest of the country, that something incredibly dark and toxic had taken root in the heart of God’s Own Party.

All of this has been happening for years. Decades, even.

But if you had tried to point that out before last year—pointed out that the GOP has become the party of racists, hatemongers, and authoritarians who want to torture and kill brown people in grisly fashion—it would have been a tough sell. Most mainstream Republicans were still too committed to the idea that their party is the party of God, the party of family and faith and freedom.

And then Trump happened.

Trump happened and now the GOP has officially become the party of the alt-right and anti-Semites and anti-feminists and “every unclean and hateful spirit.”

Trump happened and now suburban Republicans and conservative intellectuals and even Republican politicians are abandoning the party in droves because they no longer recognize it. Because they hate what he’s done to it.

But maybe we should be grateful for Trump.

Because he’s exposed the truth that’s been obvious to our black and brown brothers and sisters for years, back when they were lone voices crying in the wilderness and no one would listen.

Because even when it wraps itself in the mantle of faith, no party that is rooted and grounded in white supremacy is a Christian party.

Because regardless of its views on abortion, no party that promotes torture and black sites and the gutting of welfare and endless bombings of other countries is a pro-life party.

This has always been true. Trump has just awakened us to it.

So Christians, maybe it’s time for us to leave the Republican Party. Maybe it’s time for us to admit, with Rich Mullins, that all governments that are controlled by men are “anti-life and anti-God.”

To admit that a vote every four years for abortion isn’t worth continuing to prop up a party that is now defined by white nationalism and terrifying, murderous rage against anyone who isn’t white, and male, and Christian.

To admit that when the veil was lifted, Donald Trump was revealed to be the true face of the Republican Party. And he has been all along.

How to Tell if You’re in a Belle & Sebastian Song

the-bbc-sessions-520da3ea5629eYou have zero interest in getting married unless it would help save a nice girl you met at a party from having to go back to Ukraine.

You work in the acquisitions department of a small independent book shop, but dread your nightly walks home through the park for reasons that are not entirely clear.

You told your homeroom teacher you were tardy because your judo class ran over, but in fact you heard a Hammond organ playing somewhere down the hall and had to investigate. You met a handsome, bookish stranger and sang a duet with him, but left without getting his name.

It’s your last year of high school and you cope with the stress of family life by pretending you’re the lead singer in a band called Belle & Sebastian.

You are quietly mesmerized by a patch of winter sunlight.

You were inspired when your sprightly friend let down her hair and danced at a concert, so much that you wrote about it in your diary for a month, but have never actually danced yourself.

You work in a nail salon, you’re always late to parties and you’ve crashed your car twice in the last month. You’re in love with a girl across town who doesn’t know your name. (Her name is Belle).

You once spent an entire day being inexplicably happy and have devoted the rest of your life to finding out why.

Right now you’re wearing a striped scarf, a woolen jacket, and argyle socks. You have a friend of the same sex who’s wearing a cashmere cardigan. You might or might not fancy them.

You once contemplated murdering a stranger who spoke to you on the subway.

You had a small outburst in the café when you realized how old you’re getting. You’re sixteen.

You missed the train and now you’re standing at the station all alone. But it’s late autumn and the world is lovely around you.

Ted Cruz Wants You to See Him as a Biblical Hero

chip somodevilla, getty images

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Well, that was really something, wasn’t it?

 Last night, on the third night of the Republican National Convention—a night that’s historically served to showcase the vice-presidential candidate—Senator Ted Cruz got up and spoke at the Quicken Loans arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

But rather than endorsing one-time opponent Donald Trump, as he was widely expected to do, Cruz “congratulated” him once and spent the next twenty minutes pointedly talking about other things.

The crowd was into it, until they weren’t. Towards the end, as Cruz’s defense of individual liberty slyly segued into a plea to “vote your conscience” in November, the Republicans in attendance realized that he had no intention of endorsing a man who had called his wife ugly, who had suggested that his father was involved in JFK’s assassination.

That was when the crowd lost it. Viewers watching at home were treated to the spectacle of Ted Cruz leaving the stage to a deafening chorus of boos and yells. By some accounts the scene in the arena was even worse than it looked on TV. The former attorney general of Virginia had to escort Cruz’s wife out of the building for her own safety.

It was another weird twist in what has become the strangest election of our lifetimes.

Cruz succeeded in beating Trump at his own reality TV game. Today on the fourth and final day of the convention, his act of defiance in the arena last night is the only story anyone’s talking about. At a breakfast this morning Cruz admitted that he was driven by personal animus: “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father.”

There’s been some debate in the twittersphere and the media about whether this helps or hurts Cruz’s chances in 2020. At the very least it seems to have raised his esteem among non-Trump supporters. Even people who haven’t had a kind word to say about him in the past were forced to admit he made a gutsy move last night.

As Todd VanDerWerff pointed out on Vox, Cruz was using classic storytelling tropes to create a moment of unforgettable drama. Somehow even the negative image of Cruz that most of us have—resentful, unloved, loathsome, a man despised by seemingly everyone he ever met—played into this.

It’s one of the most powerful narrative devices, and we’ve seen it used over and over in some of our best stories. The sad-sack, worthless loser whom no one ever loved suddenly redeems himself with an unbelievable act of courage.

It’s the story of Severus Snape, a man to whom Cruz has been compared before. It’s the story of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities and Captain Renault in Casablanca.

But I have a suspicion that last night Cruz was going for something even more archetypal. Something… biblical.

Watching the end of Cruz’s speech, I kept wondering why his brazen act of defiance appealed to me on such a visceral level. I realized it was because I had grown up reading stories from the Bible about courageous prophets who stood their ground and refused to surrender their principles even when they were hopelessly outnumbered.

The parallels are especially striking given how rapidly the rest of the Republican party has surrendered to Trump. For me, and probably for a lot of people, the entire convention has been a nightmarish symbol of decadence, like the court of King Herod or Nebuchadnezzar.

And then Cruz marched in there last night and refused to kneel before the new pagan emperor. He refused to kiss his ring even though he must have known he was endangering his own safety.

It was a spectacle whose biblical echoes are legion. For a few minutes Cruz was Samson, “eyeless in Gaza,” trotted out by his rivals to be humiliated only to bring down the house on them.

He was Micaiah the prophet who spoke doom over Ahab when the 400 court prophets spoke victory.

He was Daniel in the lion’s den; Daniel’s three friends refusing to kneel before the hugest and classiest golden idol ever built.

I don’t know if those echoes were deliberately cultivated by Cruz when he planned that speech. But I know that I felt them, that they resonated. Whether he intended it or not, Cruz was playing directly to his base of social conservatives and Evangelicals without having to use words.

I’ve never been a fan of Ted Cruz, but what he did last night was a legitimately brilliant act of protest. One might even call it a prophetic act. Millions of Christians saw it. And they will not forget.

the 51 Cleverest and Wisest Song Lyrics of All Time

 keaneAfter carefully, bravely listening to every song ever recorded in any language, I have compiled an objective list of the world’s 50 greatest lyrics. This ranking is definitive. I will not heed your laments.

  1. “There’s so much beauty around us, but just two eyes to see:

but everywhere I go, I’m looking.” (Here in America, Rich Mullins)

  1. “I try to stay awake and remember my name, but

everybody’s changing and I don’t feel the same.” (Everybody’s Changing, Keane)

Keane wedded adolescent melancholy with U2-style hooks and won the hearts of awkward, sensitive teens everywhere.

  1. “Albert Einstein trembled when he saw that time was water

seeping through the rafters to put out this burning world.” (Lake Geneva, The Handsome Family)

The Handsome Family, a husband-and-wife folk country duo from New Mexico, deserve to be better known. Their lyrics combine Night Vale-style weirdness with realistic, Flannery-esque characterization. “Lake Geneva” describes a woman losing her husband to religious mania and mental illness while “raccoons in the darkness” drag off their hot dog buns. The story pauses briefly in the middle to discuss the nature of time. Somehow, it all works.

  1. “There is another world

there is a better world

there must be.” (Asleep, The Smiths)

For a band that often trafficked in sarcasm, the Smiths achieved a new threshold of greatness when they decided to go earnest.

  1. “You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation

of the sequel to your life!” (Shady Lane, Pavement)

  1. “Walk till you run, and don’t look back

for here I am.” (The Unforgettable Fire, U2)

The creepiest Bono lyric ever. Play it on a dark road late at night and try not to be afraid that he’s walking behind you.

  1. “She’s well-acquainted with the touch of a velvet hand like a lizard on a windowpane.” (Happiness is a Warm Gun, The Beatles).

Ultimately I have to go with Paul as the better songwriter, but John’s hallucinatory turns of phrase were exquisite.

  1. “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun

crying like a fire in the sun.” (It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, Bob Dylan)

Nothing about these lyrics makes any sense, and yet somehow they are… perfect? Dylan had gone deep into Rimbaud and the other great French poets when he wrote this, and it shows.

  1. “And you always had it, but you never knew.” (Flesh and Bone, The Killers)

Early Killers lyrics were biting and melancholy, but as they’ve matured they’ve included some uplift among the sass and sadness. People will break your heart, Brandon assures us, but they won’t break the fight inside of you.

  1. “We lived in the shadows

and we had the chance and threw it away

and it’s never gonna be the same

‘cause the years are falling by like the rain.” (Hello, Oasis)

Oasis is so rambly and self-indulgent that when one of their songs resonates, it almost seems like an accident. Yet Noel Gallagher is actually a master of crafting lyrics rooted in the deepest of human feelings.

  1. “We said we would never fit in

when we were really just like them;

does rebellion ever make a difference?” (So Long, Astoria, The Ataris)

This nostalgia-tinged ode to childhood and The Goonies is one of the better songs to emerge from the post-grunge era.

  1. “She says, like, literally, music is the air she breathes…

I wonder if she even knows what that word means,

well, it’s literally not that.” (The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment, Father John Misty)

Father John Misty’s lyrics are typically cleverer than they are good, but they are very clever.

  1. “Suspended clear in the sky are the words that we sing in our dreams.” (Let There Be Love, Oasis)

oasis4Oasis has been high for at least four or five albums, and at this point I don’t even think they realize they’re still recording music, but at least it’s given us some striking lyrics.


  1. “We know the true death, the true way of all flesh;

everyone’s dying, but girl, you’re not old yet.” (Step, Vampire Weekend)

The rare “memento mori” song that manages to both encourage and break your heart.

  1. “She said the hardest thing in the world to do

is to find somebody who believes in you.” (Sad, Sad Song, M. Ward)

  1. “Maybe you’ll find life is unkind and over so soon;

there is no golden gate, there’s no heaven waiting for you.” (Perfect Symmetry, Keane)

Keane addresses terrorism and religious extremism, suggesting that those who kill others in the name of God may not find heaven waiting for them. It’s also possible to read these lines as a lament for the hopeless dreams of one’s youth.

  1. Wilco_MassMoca_AustinNelson“You were right about the stars:

each one is a setting sun.” (Jesus, etc., Wilco).


  1. “Looking for evil, thinking they can trace it, but

evil don’t look like anything.” (Westfall, Okkervil River).

This is maybe the best song about a gruesome Austin killing ever written, St. Augustine by way of a murder ballad.

  1. “And in my best behavior I am really just like him;

look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” (John Wayne Gacy, Sufjan Stevens)

The most chilling moment in Sufjan’s wistful song about a famed serial killer is when he turns the mirror on himself and us.

  1. “And I have used your unbelief to set them free

so die now, die now, My Judas.” (Iscariot, Bison)

This song seems to have disappeared from recent versions of the folk band’s first album, perhaps because Jesus seeming to taunt a dying Judas was too creepy for some tastes.

  1. “Got to be good-looking ‘cause he’s so hard to see.” (Come Together, The Beatles).

beatlesLike a good Simpsons joke, the best Beatles lyrics work on multiple levels.


[tie] 30. “Kathy I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping:

I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” (America, Simon & Garfunkel)

[tie] 30. “Half of the time we’re gone and we don’t know where.” (Only Living Boy in New York, Simon & Garfunkel).

Many prefer the youthful poetic posturing of “Sounds of Silence,” but for my money these are their best and saddest songs.

  1. “They will never forget you till somebody new comes along.” (New Kid in Town, The Eagles)

The Eagles came dangerously close to writing the definitive statement on moving on and being forgotten by those you loved.

  1. “And now that it’s over I promise you I’ll go

and wander in the night, and never come home.” (Med School, Dry the River).

Dry the River understood better than most bands how it feels to be young and lost and weighed down by your mistakes.

  1. “I can’t stand all the things she sticks into her skin

like broken ballpoint pens and steel guitar strings:

she says it hurts but it’s worth it.” (Your Little Hoodrat Friend, The Hold Steady).

A single Hold Steady song contains more and sharper characterization than most novels. In a typically Flannery-esque touch, the song goes on to describe the woman’s two tattoos: one says, “Jesus lived and died for all your sins,” and the other says, “Damn right, you’ll rise again!”

  1. “It burns being broke, it hurts to be heartbroken,

and always being both must be a drag.” (Your Little Hoodrat, The Hold Steady).

Yeah, this is from the same song. I DON’T CARE.

  1. “Tuesday night at the Bible study

we lift our hands and pray over your body

but nothing ever happens.” (Casimir Pulaski Day, Sufjan Stevens)

This guitar-and-banjo song from Sufjan’s best album is a lot of things: a gently devastating portrait of bone cancer and first love; a Job-like deconstruction and reaffirmation of faith.

  1. “Now and then I’m wishing I’d never

let you let me disappear.” (Blue Skies, JayMay)

  1. “The trouble with talking is it makes you sound clever

and the trouble with waiting is you just wait forever.” (Here It Is, Over the Rhine)

It goes on: “There’s a love of excuses that plays in your mind // and makes the truth even harder to find.” The best part is, this is a CHRISTMAS song.

  1. “You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre

contemplating a crime.” (Year of the Cat, Al Stewart)

But really, any line in this song.

  1. “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact

but maybe everything that dies one day comes back.” (Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen)

The rare song to make the resurrection sound like a warning.

  1. “Y’all don’t wanna hear me, you just wanna dance.” (Hey Ya! OutKast)

It’s a toss-up between this and “Nothing lasts forever // so what makes love the exception?” but I love the casual bleakness of this admission, in the middle of the most infectiously groovy dance tune of the 2000s.

  1. “While her disappointed sister looked on quiet as the snow

knowing well that those who know don’t talk

and those who talk don’t know.” (Goodbye, I! mewithoutyou)

On this album of animal fables, it’s the disappointed sister who sticks out.

  1. “On a Sunday morning sidewalk

I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned

‘cause there’s something in a Sunday

that makes a body feel alone.” (Sunday Morning Coming Down, Johnny Cash)

Johnny Cash was a Christian and a country-music legend, but it’s hard to imagine half his songs being played on country or Christian radio today.

  1. “Democracy is coming…

to the USA.” (Democracy, Leonard Cohen)

A Canadian singing about democracy one day coming to America might be the greatest trolling Leonard Cohen has ever done.

  1. “I was told the streets were paved with gold

and there’d be no time for getting old when we were young.” (The Dying of the Light, Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Birds)

In his recent, post-Oasis albums, Noel Gallagher has taken the trademark angst of his youth and transplanted it to middle age.

  1. “We’re burning down the highway skyline

on the back of a hurricane

that started turning when you were young.” (When You Were Young, The Killers)

I don’t know what this means. Friends have tried to draw it for me on the backs of napkins. I still don’t get it.

  1. “Slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball.” (Champagne Supernova, Oasis).

See above.

  1. “There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away;

They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets.” (Thunder Road, Bruce Springsteen)

Bruce was so young, his dreams were so huge, this album is so perfect.

  1. “And if you think you see with just your eyes, you’re mad.” (The Model, Belle & Sebastian)

In this quirky tale of two blind people who find love at a party, Belle & Sebastian attained a depth that was rare even for them.

  1. “Climb on your tears and be silent

like a rose on its ladder of thorns.” (The Window, Leonard Cohen).

Leonard Cohen is and has been for many decades the world’s greatest lyricist. From the same song: “Oh, bless the continuous stutter of the word being made into flesh.”

  1. “Half the town are underground and half are halfway there

and we’re the only good ones left.” (Alarms in the Heart, Dry the River)

Over the last five years, the late, lamented Dry the River crafted a handful of perfect albums that managed to capture the apocalyptic angst of early Keane and The Killers.

  1. “Should rumor of a shabby ending reach you

it was half my fault and half the atmosphere.” (The Traitor, Leonard Cohen)

I could quote all of Suzanne or Famous Blue Raincoat, but I love this underrated gem from 1979’s Recent Songs.

  1. “I made a lot of mistakes.
    All things go, all things go.”
    (Chicago, Sufjan Stevens)

When you’re young, the fact that all things are passing away seems like a curse. The older you get, the more grateful you become.

  1. “Darkness fills the eastern sky and street lights stretch for miles

through the spring and the winter and the morning.” (Waiting for the Moon to Rise, Belle & Sebastian)

Whether they were sketching indelible characters or painting landscapes with words and music, Belle & Sebastian seemed to possess a beauty that was not of this earth.

  1. “Another head aches, another heart breaks

I’m so much older than I can take.” (All These Things That I’ve Done, The Killers)

All-These-Thing-That-I-ve-Done-UK-brandon-flowers-10567762-533-400Baby-faced Brandon Flowers penned this lyric when he was all of 22. With every year that passes it gets more relevant.

  1. “When I look at the television I want to see me

staring right back at me.” (Mr. Jones, Counting Crows)

Counting Crows missed a golden opportunity by not having Adam Duritz watching himself on TV in the music video.

  1. “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see

trying to learn how to walk like the heroes

we thought we had to be.” (Backstreets, Bruce Springsteen)

As close to a personal anthem as I have (and the opening quote of my forthcoming book).

  1. “Sometimes I feel like it’s all been done

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one

Sometimes I want to change everything I’ve ever done

I’m too tired to fight and yet too scared to run.” (Stop for a Minute, Keane featuring K’naan)

We’ve all had those moments when we feel like the guys from Keane are the only ones who get us.

  1. “I’m not sure any of it mattered

but all of it was music.” (All of it Was Music, Over the Rhine)

There are those songs you only play once because their beauty breaks your heart.

  1. “We’re all gonna die.” (Fourth of July, Sufjan Stevens)

As Rainbow Rowell pointed out on twitter, it’s not even the saddest line on the album. The more I listen to it, the more I wonder whether it was meant to be sad at all.