By Robert Masiello
Sadness and sex are inexorably linked.
The French understand this, coining the phrase le petit mort (a little death) to describe orgasm. While this directly references the release of tension following intercourse, there is something philosophical and altogether darker at play here as well. Their choice of words seems to indicate a yearning that remains intact even following sex. The intensity of the moment is met with an inevitable comedown, where we are forced to recognize the impermanence of fulfillment. The songs below capture the dichotomy between love and loss, between want and apprehension. They exist in the space that dominates so much of our emotions, yet remains nearly indescribable.
So maybe you’ve recently experienced a breakup. Perhaps you masturbate like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. Or maybe you realize just how fleeting love and sex truly are. Whatever the case, here’s a list of the sexiest sad songs (or is that saddest sexy songs?) you’ll ever hear.
“Bedroom Wall” by Banks
Banks is a young artist who will likely become a major presence this year. Her vocals drip with nostalgia for ‘90s R&B, while the airy electronic arrangements are very of-the-moment. On this track, she pines for another’s attention, wondering why he doesn’t recognize their potential. “Been losing all my shit for you ‘cause I’ve been thinking about putting my body on top of you” she sings alluringly. But she also sounds defeated, nearly torn apart by desire. It’s a spellbinding song that seduces as much as it aches.
“Corsicana” by The Antlers
No band is better at finding beauty in sadness than The Antlers. This track is one of their gentlest yet sultriest, using a burning house as a metaphor for a collapsing relationship. Celestial backing vocals swell over a delicate piano melody, and yet the song manages to stay grounded. It perfectly captures both the smoke rising towards heaven and the ashes collapsing down to earth. “We should hold our breath with mouths together now,” sighs Peter Silberman, seemingly torn between lust and indifference as the walls start to cave in.
“Unfold” by The xx
We are all guilty of embellishing relationships in our own heads. We strive to create meaning, twisting words and phrases to convince ourselves that the object of our desire wants us back. “Unfold” captures this perfectly. “In my head, you tell me things you’ve never said” coos singer Romy Croft over a spacious beat. When her voice entwines with her male bandmate’s for the chorus (“Let it unfold,” they plead), it’s both gorgeous and devastating, like waking from a dream that ends too soon.
“The Wilhelm Scream” by James Blake
“All that I know is that I’m falling, falling, falling…” sings Blake on his signature track, and you’d be forgiven for assuming that he’s falling in love. But halfway through the song, things get twisted. Ominous noises and hazy production envelop the music, suffocating his vocals and creating a sense of dreamy claustrophobia. “I don’t know about my love, I don’t know about my dreaming anymore…” he mutters through the distortion, wondering if he’s in too deep.
“Escape Before the Rain” by How to Dress Well
Songwriter Tom Krell records as How to Dress Well, a woozy electronic/R&B project. Imagine Justin Timberlake on codeine singing in a blizzard. His debut album “Love Remains” pairs his vulnerable falsetto cloaked with crackling, lo-fi production. While subsequent releases have been more accessible and confident, his debut still casts a spell. This standout track drapes a simple piano line over nearly inscrutable lyrics, but the mystery adds to its power; it’s unclear if he’s looking to escape with a lover, or from a lover. A whiff of apocalypse adds urgency and depth to this sparse ballad.
“Michael” by Gem Club
This Boston band’s sophomore album oozes romance and warmth, but their trademark melancholy still runs strong. “Michael” is one of the shortest and most direct songs they’ve recorded. It depicts a daydream, longing for someone who remains maddeningly out of reach. The song ends rather abruptly and leaves the listener wanting more, symbolizing the frustration and ache of unrequited love.
“I Need My Girl” by The National
The National isn’t a band one would typically associate with “sexy,” but they’ve never been more unabashedly romantic than on this track from their stellar 2013 release. The song’s narrator recognizes the imperfection of his relationship (“Remember when you lost your shit and drove the car into the garden?”), yet wants nothing more than to be back in the arms of his lover.
“Body Butter” by Kevin Drew
“Get the body butter baby, let’s go party all alone,” Drew beckons at the beginning of this wistful song, accompanied by a lighthearted strum. At first it sounds like a getaway, a retreat with his lover from the chaos of existence. However, a close listen reveals that he is reminiscing; the body butter and steamy nights are just memories that he’s grasping onto. “You wore my hands out…” he repeats, indicating both longing and exhaustion from a tumultuous relationship.