The Perfect Songs, Part IX
...Number nine, number nine, number nine, in my surprisingly enduring* (I've been doing this for a year and a half!?!) ongoing tally of the songs in my life that have grabbed me long and hard with illicit intent, the ones I can listen to again and again and never tire of, the ones that in my wee self-centered way, I might just call... "perfect." This time – three songs loosely related by love and faith.
(*So far: parts one, two, three, four; five; six; seven and eight!)
25. Prince, "When Doves Cry." That bizarre, robotic drum machine beat, elongated by stripped, raw heavy metal guitar lines, then an oddly poppy synthesizer melody – anyone who grew up in the '80s knows this song before the singer opens his mouth. In 1984, "When Doves Cry" freaked me out, burning out of the radio like static from another planet, Prince's insectoid voice buzzing about animals striking curious poses. It sounded like nothing else on the FM radio station I usually listened to. I didn't realize until just the other day that this song has no bassline – perhaps that gives it some of its creepy-crawly allure. Twenty-plus years on, the sheer rattling strangeness of it stays with me. Prince's main lyrical topic is doin' it, but here, his usual slinky sex talk morphs halfway through into an anguished conversation with someone – God? — and anyone that's ever wronged him in his life. It's the sound of a breakdown. How could you just leave me standing, indeed? The #1 selling single of 1984, which shows popular sometimes can be good for you. "Dig if you will the picture / of you and I engaged in a kiss"
26. Cheap Trick, "The Flame." Oh man, my street cred just went out the window. Not everyone loves Cheap Trick, and even those that do probably consider this 1988 ultra-sappy ballad among their lowest moments. But this almost absurdly over-the-top love song I submit to you as among the finest achievements of that maligned genre, the power ballad. The power ballad has as its one and only goal the notion of making your love affair seem like the greatest thing that's ever happened to anyone in the world, of capturing that sensation that your romance is the center of the universe, "whatever you want, I'll give it to you." It's a manipulative track, of course, but Cheap Trick's ace performance and Robin Zander's utterly sincere vocals sell the sugar. Here's the power ballad for the ages. And shoot, it brings back lovelorn memories of high school proms to me. So there you go. (And I won't even tell you how Peter Cetera's "The Glory of Love" almost won the power ballad spot on the list.) "After the fire, after all the rain / I will be the flame."
27. Sufjan Stevens, "Chicago." Let's keep this from being the all-1980s chapter of this never-ending saga. Here's something from this decade that I so far never tire of. This beautiful song, with a message like a calming mantra, evokes hope in the moment when it's darkest. "Illinoise," Sufjan's lush 2005 concept album about Illinois and life in general uses this as its emotional centerpiece – an effortlessly epic, heartfelt tune about taking a chance and asking for forgiveness. Sufjan's childlike voice, sweeping orchestration and sturdy backup singers craft a sincere anthem in an age overflowing with insincere chart-toppers. It's vague enough that it can apply to anyone who's ever felt down and out, specific enough that you can see the corn fields as the song's narrator drives to Chicago, "I made a lot of mistakes, in my mind, in my mind." Sufjan's music contains a lot of nods to his Christian faith, and this track can certainly be seen in that vein – surrendering to God for your sins – but in my kinda agnostic sort of way, I just like it as the sound of a man in trouble pausing for breath, gathering courage to examine his life and starting over again. "All things grow, all things grow."