Love has been the No. 1 go-to theme for songwriters throughout the history of recorded music. And though it’s been addressed from a million and one different angles — pleading or flirting, savoring or hurting — the most popular way to go has been to play it straight and earnest. There’s a universal quality to the “baby, baby” language of romantic pop expression. Anybody and everybody can snuggle up to it and claim the sentiments as their own.
With plenty of fans who appreciate left-of-center songwriting and dismiss anything that smacks of schmaltz or bubblegum, Americana offers a wealth of alternative approaches to love songs. Three of the prominent impulses in the genre are to spike the lyrics with biting confession, to skew them with wit and to fill them in with literary detail.
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here’s a small sampling of what Americana has to offer in the way of not-so-simple songs about love:
• Early on, Lucinda Williams learned from the gut-level, down-home blues tradition, and she’s since authored many of Americana’s most visceral meditations on pairing up and splitting up. She takes her songwriting to extremes in the name of emotional catharsis, digs for images that are raw and fresh enough to have a potent impact and depicts what it’s like to sweat and suffer because of feeling so deeply for another person.
“Can’t Let Go,” written by Randy Weeks, is one of the rare songs Williams has made her own that didn’t come from her pen. She sings it in a way that drives home attraction’s powerfully untidy mixture of obsession, pleasure and pain.
• Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll is skilled at leavening his down-and-out narratives with wry humor. In the case of “Another Like You,” a barroom duet with Shovels & Rope’s Cary Ann Hearst from his album KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories), it’s the bitingly witty, below-the-belt banter that makes this story of attraction between social and political opposites so appealing.
As Carll put it during an interview last year, “You can’t have a dirge about that particular subject without it just being … .” He trailed off before finishing his sentence, but his meaning was clear enough. A seriously sad and straight-ahead version of “Another Like You” would’ve probably just fallen flat.
• Several decades ago, Rodney Crowell sharpened his songwriting craft in a circle of devoted and exacting practitioners that included Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. This millennium, Crowell has elevated his wordsmithing to a new level, publishing a memoir and treating his songs almost as short stories.
“The Night’s Just Right” is a quiet, little, finger-picked ballad that appeared on Sex & Gasoline, his high-concept album about women. The song explores the knotty nuances of staying together for the long term and the relief a lover can provide late in life when time has taken so much else away.