accurate depictions of mental disorders in music

Kurt Vonnegut said his absolute favorite song about a low key depressive episode is Counting Flowers on the Wall. I completely agree; whoever wrote that song has been there. (Just looked it up: it was written by Lew Dewitt, who sang tenor for the group and suffered depression largely due to major health problems; he died of Crohn’s Disease at 52.)

I’ve always found Psycho Killer interesting.

Say something once, why say it again?

We are vain and we are blind
I hate people who are not polite.

Chris Bell suffered depression for all his life, and the lyrics to most of his solo songs reflect this. I know from personal experience that they reflect the way someone in the midst of depression thinks. When I was lonely in college I listened to him a lot because he expressed a lot of what I was feeling.

I’ll go over some of Chris Bell’s songs as examples.

olivesmarch4th, if you read the lyrics to any of these or listen to them on YouTube I’m interested to know what you think. Some people think his lyrics are too self-pitying, and I can see where they’re coming from, but IMO self-pity and recognizing it and hating yourself for it and feeling even more sorry for yourself as a result is what happens to deeply depressed people.

I Am the Cosmos is about… well, actually I don’t entirely get it. I think it’s about feeling powerless.

YouTube link

Better Save Yourself begins with him out on the streets alone, trying and unable to come up with an explanation for why he’s been cast out. The next stanza is one of his most blunt:

And then it gets to the chorus, where he combines religious guilt with self-anger at how he feels and blaming himself.

The next song, Speed of Sound is a mixture of hope and despair. It opens with “I remember the first time you said you loved me” but then immediately follows with “I waited all weekend, you never called me”. Later in the song he describes his existence as “lonely” and calls it a lie. Then he ends the song singing about a plane being unable to land because the pilot is dead, so it crashes.
YouTube link

Despite having mostly positive lyrics, Look Up is possibly the most devastating song of his, partly because of his tortured vocals. It sounds like he’s desperately yearning for them to be true as much as believing in them. In the middle of the song he watches someone walking by who wants to give up, and then says:

It’s pretty obvious that the other person is himself. Seeing his different moods as different people is something I’ve experienced too.

There Was A Light is similar to Look Up in the mixture of hope and despair. Musically it reminds me of Let It Be. It doesn’t have many lyrics, and the few it has are all great. I especially love the last line of the opening stanza


Oh, absolutely. Country music is particularly good for songs about depression. And drinking. And drinking while depressed.

That is some really interesting imagery. This is cool! I haven’t heard of a lot of these songs.

I just thought of some more:
Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience, pretty much the entire album. It’s depressing as hell, but it’s also a masterpiece.

I guess the songwriter/guitarist killed himself about a year after the album was released. I can’t say I’m surprised.

I also think Chevelle’s ‘‘Family System’’ is one of the best songs ever written about family dysfunction. It totally skips the narrative and makes you feel like you’re smack in the middle of the conflict.

And then the best part is they break in the middle of the song and scream, ‘‘JUST GROW UUUUUUPPP!!!’’


I think the lyrics definitely reflect a deep despair. I actually relate the most to ‘‘I am the cosmos,’’ I think it’s the same message as ‘‘Everything Zen’’ by Bush (or at least, how I interpret it)… trying to find a spiritual center in the midst of chaos or suffering and knowing it’s really not going to happen.

I agree that hating yourself for your feelings makes depression worse. Self-pity may have a useful function. As a person who is chronically depressed I have learned that the sooner I accept it as a part of my life, the less I suffer. It’s comforting to listen to these songs, it’s validating to know others have gone through it too. Without question.

Good point, NDP. Right on!!

How about Benjamin Britten’s operas? Peter Grimes or The Turn of the Screw. Or Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Some serious craziness there, that is pretty well explored in the text and music. Then there are the various bel canto “mad scenes” – usually of sopranos going batty. I don’t find those quite as convincing because the style does get clichéd over time. Nevertheless, some people find them to be fairly accurate musical depictions.

Matchbox 20’s Unwell describes depression:

That last line breaks my heart.