In my ongoing efforts to spread great music in a time when the concert industry is still mostly on pause, here are a few recommendations of love songs that think outside the box of chocolates.
John Prine: “The Glory of True Love”
It’s almost become a tradition, if not a cliché, that I open these playlists with a John Prine song, but if the shoe fits … plus, I still miss the guy. His voice had become a little ragged by the time of this later recording, but it perfectly encapsulates its title.
Palace Music: “Ohio River Boat Song”
Cult singer-songwriter Will Oldham’s breakthrough 1993 single has more than a few hints of unrest among its narratively rich lyrics, but it’s the reverential parts toward a lover whom the singer knows is “untrue” that most stick with me—particularly a full eight lines describing her hair.
David Allan Coe: “Just to Prove My Love For You”
A little humor goes a long way. On the shortlist of my favorite tracks by outlaw country troubadour David Allan Coe is this hoedown-tailored jig about all the life-threatening tasks the singer would take on for love. I don’t think Meat Loaf would do any of them.
They Might Be Giants: “New York City”
The church bells chiming at the opening of this TMBG hit (a cover of a song by Canada’s Cub) are like a Pavlovian dopamine hit to my brain. As its title suggests, it’s a love song to a city as much as a person, and its story has all the depth of a commercial romantic comedy, but if it works, it works.
Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: “Buzz Buzz Buzz”
Eternal teenager Jonathan Richman’s gentle doo-wop-indebted love song, about how a great partnership supersedes even the pleasures of the animal kingdom, is filled with references to the birds and the bees, but knowing Richman, no sexual double entendres were implied. It’s just straight-up adorableness.
Art Brut: “Good Weekend”
Puerile though it may seem at times, this crunchy and cheeky ode to a well-executed date, courtesy of post-punk ironists Art Brut, channels the intoxicating thrill of a relationship in its first giddy weeks. Dig the appreciation of the simple things: “I’ve seen her naked—twice!,” frontman Eddie Argos exclaims, an accomplishment so miraculous he says it a second time.
The Magnetic Fields: “If There’s Such a Thing as Love”
If there’s anyone on the list who’s most familiar with a textbook love song, it’s Magnetic Fields bandleader Stephin Merritt, whose 69 Love Songs is one of the canonical box sets of the aughts. Any of them would have worked here, but instead, I went with this sprightly piece of string-enhanced baroque affection from 2004’s i album.
Lucksmiths: “Sunlight in a Jar”
Indie-pop bliss from Australia’s finest. Like Belle & Sebastian, this twee four-piece with literary bona fides declares its love with polysyllables, winning over their subject’s minds and hearts at the same time. Plus, you can bop to it.
Lucinda Williams: “Right in Time”
Lucinda Williams is a master of anger and rage, but she can write about love with equal conviction, as proven by this classic from her essential 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. “Right in Time” crystallizes the feeling of being in complete harmony with a partner that the luckiest among us are able to achieve.
The Mountain Goats: “02-75”
The unreleased “02-75,” named after a post office box, is among the Mountain Goats’ most nakedly personal love songs, written for his future wife, at a time when John Darnielle rarely penned autobiographical songs. Simple but resonant lyrics like “You are my best friend / and I have always known you” cut to the quick.
Guided by Voices: “Drinker’s Peace”
Put aside for a moment that this GBV concert anthem is really about alcoholism. I prefer to read the lyrics another way, as a love song toward a human savior, not a six-pack of PBR. “My life is dirt, but you seem to make it cleaner / Reduce my felony to a misdemeanor. When I feel sick, you’re an antibiotic / Organize my world, my world’s pointless and chaotic.” It gets me just typing these out.
Cigarettes After Sex: “Heavenly”
I could have selected virtually any cut from El Paso ambient pop quartet Cigarettes After Sex, whose music is often as carnal and suggestive as its name. But “Heavenly” is, perhaps chief among the band’s dreamy bedroom fantasies, as much baby-making music as anything Al Green recorded.
Leonard Cohen: “The Night of Santiago”
For a singer-songwriter as genteel and PBS-approved as Leonard Cohen, his songs could ooze lust and pheromones; even the hallowed “Hallelujah” is essentially about sex. For the sexual urgency of it, I’m going with this highlight of piano, handclaps and Spanish guitar from Cohen’s posthumous swan song, a romantic rendezvous in which the poet offers, “Behind a fine embroidery / Her nipples rose like bread” and Her thighs, they slipped away from me / Like schools of startled fish.”
The Velvet Underground: “I’m Sticking With You”
“Soldiers Fighting with the Cong” is certainly an unorthodox lyric for a love song, but this being the Velvet Underground, such chafing against the grain is to be expected. All in all, a lovely and underrated B-side featuring the sweet, unadorned, almost cartoon vocals of drummer Moe Tucker.