The Misanthrope’s Guide to a Musical Valentine

by Duncan Harman

If, like me, you’re neither a florist nor a greetings card manufacturer, it’s easy to despise St. Valentine’s Day. Tacky, cliché-ridden and trite, it’s the one day of the year when social convention acquiescently rolls over to the lowest common denominator, to some mercantile-led confederacy of fuckwits. It’s affection that’s prescribed, uniform and detailed to the point of when and how and with what it should be reconciled against. I mean – you can’t be truly loved if you don’t receive at least three dozen red roses and a teddy bear with I WUV YOU strafed across its chest in Comic Sans every February 14th, can you?

I’ve nothing against florists or greetings card manufacturers per se (let’s just say that the day presents them with my ill-earned cash, for that socially acceptable window of I WUV YOU outpourings will be the day you’ll find me arguing Meatloaf’s “I’ll Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is a seminal slice of vinyl). No, virtually any store you care to mention is equally complicit in the peddling of this Valentine’s Day aesthetic. Valentine-themed chocolates and crotchless panties and commodes and coffins and compilation CDs. Especially the CDs. At this time of year, there’s almost an unofficial rule that every gas station, convenience store and pizza parlour has at least one, unavoidably huge display dedicated to “The Best Love Album in the World Ever!!!!!” or “100 Luscious Love Songs for that Chick You’ve Been Stalking Since Halloween!!!!”

It’s just what the world needs, another brainlessly compiled three hours in the company of Celine Dion, Richard Marx, and Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes’ truly hideous “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” (the only occasion in musical history the sound engineer recorded a duo suffering a communal aneurysm, and it won an Academy Award). Where-as heartbreak has a strong and vibrant tradition within popular music (off the top of my head: Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”; “I Must Have Been Blind” by Tim Buckley; Elvis Costello’s haunting “I Want You”), there appears to be a collective mind-block amongst the songwriting fraternity when attempting to elucidate one of humanity’s greatest – and maybe the purest – emotions. In a world abundant in literary triumphs, visual masterpieces, orchestral zeniths, all liberally flavoured with passion and tenderness and the heart’s rampant urgency, the combination of popular music and I WUV YOU is all too frequently distilled from mawkish sentimentality, sung by some has-been or never-was with the musical legitimacy of a performing nutsack.

But I can kinda see it from your angle. You’ve got that special somebody coming over for that romantic meal. If all goes well, you might even be licking something suitable – oysters perhaps, or Golden Grahams - from each other’s naked flesh, and if you don’t have something on the stereo to delicately garnish the evening – something that isn’t “Happy Together” by the Turtles or Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” – you may have to resort to the Comic Sans teddy bear. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way; lurking amongst the backwaters, the distant shores of the musical spectrum, are enough heartfelt, original and pulse-quickening tunes to simultaneously make you question love, and fall in love all over again. Here’s just a sample of what your stereo should be playing…

Spritualized – “I Think I’m In Love”
- from the album “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” (1997)

J Spaceman constantly eschews conventional romance, mining instead a deep, almost metaphysical seam that’s both meditation and triptych. Over symphonic, occasionally atonal yet always beautifully crafted guitar buzz, the love is simultaneously directed at his intended, absolution, and the draw of narcotics; the triple helix of a screwed-up mind. “I Think I’m In Love” begins as a paean to a wasted day, before evolving into a counter-pointed statement of intent. “Think I can be your man – probably just think I can”.

The Ronettes – “Be My Baby”
- from the album “Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica” (1964)

Ignore all that earlier tosh about lyrical sentimentality; here’s an example of light and fluffy that acts as a perfect accompaniment to Phil Spector’s immense soundscape.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “There She Goes, My Beautiful World”
- from the album “Abattoir Blues” (2004)

Cave is a man who could invest the acme of passion into the most debased of advertising jingles. That he also invests his lyrics in rich literary, folk-tale and Old Testament imagery, has one of the finest backing bands in contemporary music, and goes about the whole caboodle as if building to an orgasm, a hellfire sermon or a ritualistic slaying, it results in a large canon from which to choose a potential Valentine song. That I’ve selected this particular single obviously has nothing to do with his throwaway mention of Johnny Thunders.

Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
- Single (1980)

Much has been written about what has become Ian Curtis’ obituary, but even time and ubiquity haven’t stripped away the energy from the dark failings of suburban love. From the understated instrumentation to Curtis’ flailing lyrics, this remains one of the richest records released in the entire decade.

Dusty Springfield – “Son of a Preacher Man”
- from the album “Dusty in Memphis” (1969)

Not so much a conventional love song than a (resigned? knowing?) wink on how love can sneak up and unexpectedly grab you by the balls (or the female equivalent there-of), performed by an indefatigable Dusty with a glint in her eye.

Ed Harcourt – “She Fell Into My Arms”
- from the album “Here Be Monsters” (2001)

Try to combine heartfelt lyrics with a simple yet catchy piano-based melody, and chances are, you’re going to end up with a nauseous mess that appeals to the aged and the dribbling. Get it right, however, as British singer/songwriter Ed Harcourt does here, and the result is a merry ditty that sweeps and slides over your emotional machinery with a yearning grace.

REM – “At My Most Beautiful”
- from the album “Up” (1998)

Winner of the “God Only Knows” of the Year award ten years ago, it may be, but if anyone tells me that they “count your eyelashes, secretly, with every one whisper I love you”, the chances are I’d stay for breakfast.

Mint Royale – Don’t Falter
- from the album “On The Ropes” (1999)

“Hey, I saw ya, I knew that we should be together”. Another sun-tinged record whose lyrics are never going to trouble the Pulitzer panel, yet its unpretentious, almost child-like optimism of what a relationship should be is enough to melt the heart of any misanthrope. Well, almost.


Duncan Harman is based in Glasgow, Scotland, and didn’t get any Valentine's cards this year. A selection of the above tracks can be found at