Music that makes you feel: In praise of mixed feelings

In “Music that Makes You Feel,” columnist Sam Waddoups recommends albums that take the listener through a specific emotional journey. This week, he covers two albums of piano ballads that explore mixed feelings: Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” and Mitski’s “Lush.”

Poet W.H. Auden once defined poetry as “the clear expression of mixed feelings.”

In that sense, some songs are poetry, allowing you to feel something you couldn’t have described yourself, something muddled and conflicted. More than that, they make the mixed feelings beautiful.

Two piano ballads embody different sides of this poetry: Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” and Mitski’s “Bag of Bones.” While “Lilac Wine” finds disorientation in love, “Bag of Bones” takes that disorientation and tries to find wonder beneath it.

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Nina Simone is the master of mixed feelings. In her album “Wild is the Wind,” even the most straightforward love songs have a layer of melancholy. When she sings, “that’s how much I love you, daddy” in “What More Can I Say?,” every single word drips with the complicated pain of love — even when the lyrics allude only to devotion. Simone’s training as a jazz and classical pianist shines in the songs’ baroque ornamentations. It makes every emotion feel more visceral: the thrills are higher, the despair deeper.

The highlight of the album is the track “Lilac Wine.” The piano abandons its shimmering jazz trills for straightforward sustained chords. A minor key verse outlines an ambivalent hypnosis, as a lover loses control in the drunkenness of lilac wine on a “cool, damp night”: “it makes me see what I want to see / be what I want to be.” Drunk on love, you lose contact with reality but achieve exactly what you most crave.

When the simple major piano chords in the chorus hit, it’s a soothing but drunken relief: “Lilac wine is sweet and heady, like my love,” she sings. As the chorus develops, the uncontrollable hypnosis leaks into the previously simple sweetness: “I feel unsteady… where’s my love?… why is everything so hazy… am I just going crazy, dear?” No bliss comes without its cost.

Even still, by the end of the song, Simone accepts that the peril of love is what she seeks. “Lilac wine, I feel I’m ready for my love,” she sings as her voice gets more and more faint. On the final track of the album, “Either Way I Lose,” she expresses that she suffers in love no matter what she chooses. Ultimately, Simone accepts the bitter cup of mixed feelings.

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The perfect sister album to “Wild is the Wind” is Mitski’s “Lush,” the debut album from the now-ubiquitous indie star. Whereas Simone turns any ecstasy into agony, Mitski mines her melancholy for hints of beauty. The two artists see both sides of the coin in every single idea: romance, embodiment, brutality, desire. In the songs, bodies ache even as they feel the joys of living.

Mitski writes from the edge of destruction. In the album’s opener, “Liquid Smooth,” she describes her skin as “plump and full of life,” but “ripe about to fall” and rot. The seductive piano chords are slowly joined by ominous electric guitars and strings. In “Brand New City,” she sings, “I think my brain is rotting in places / I think my heart is ready to die.”

The lyrics in “Lush” are among the best of confessional poetry. They do not shrink from the self, but allow it to take shape on the page to be examined and accepted.

“Pearl diver / dive, dive deeper,” Mitski sings in “Pearl Diver,” describing a swimmer hunting for beauty even as they embark into darker depths. She could very well be chanting to herself when she sings, “if you didn’t want the beautiful so badly / perhaps you would’ve found it in your spirit singing softly.” Mitski embraces the darkness that comes with depth in order to discover a pearl hidden at rock bottom.

What does it mean to aestheticize both your pain and your numbness, both your darkest urges and most vulnerable hopes? It might mean holding your conflicting feelings together as real, even if they’re not ideal. It prioritizes vulnerable self-representation over the risks of glorifying suffering.

No song does this better than “Bag of Bones.” The first verse features piano notes in disarray as she describes marginal details of a hookup: her fading nail polish, the messy clothes on the bed, the sound of her heels as she walks away at the end of the night.

When the verse transitions to the chorus, dissonant individual notes give way to an almost Disney-like ballad, with a predictable chord progression and a straightforward arrangement. However, the words belie its sappiness:

Fluorescent store lights, you shine through the night

Illuminate my pores and you tear me apart

Mercy on me, would you please spare me tonight?

I’m tired of this searching, would you let me let go?

Fluorescent lights are not a wishing star, but Mitski pleads to them anyway. Tired of seeing and being seen, she wishes to close her eyes. Something doesn’t let her let go, though. It’s beauty — what the aforementioned pearl diver has been diving for the whole album. Even amid the harsh artificial lighting, there’s something beautiful about the image: the glow of a neon sign at night, the close-up of the pores on someone’s face.

At the end of the song, Mitski sings, “Let’s shake this poet out of the beast.” That is her mission: taking the beast of life and making poetry out of it.

At one point in the song, the singer asks her hookup partner to open up a window to “let the cool air in, feel the night slip in / as it softly glides along your back / and I hope you leave right before the sun comes up / so I can watch it alone.” That feeling of the night air on her skin is the one joy of embodiment in the whole song. Even as much as Mitski wishes for her body to be a “Bag of Bones,” the sensuous wonder of the body never goes away.

In “Lush,” Mitski is a doomed face staring into the sun, bearing witness to a blinding beauty. A bag of bones can still enjoy the cool air on her skin.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.


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