“This Will End in Tears” is not a work of music criticism. When Houghtaling needs an opinion, he often looks to other publications, pulling quotes and interview snippets from magazines and Web sites. Mostly, he lists. The meat of the book is an alphabetized collection of artist profiles. These provide only a Wikipediaesque reading of each performer’s career — sketching out the basic biographical material, the chart positions and the lineup changes, but offering little in the way of analysis or insight into what these musicians did to earn their chapter in this encyclopedia of ennui. Houghtaling is comprehensive, though. He includes old-school standbys, such as Johnny Cash and Billie Holiday, and newer voices, such as the Duluth, Minn., band Low and the New York-based composer William Basinski, whose most popular work is a recording of old, corroded instrumental tape loops falling apart as they are played back.
Houghtaling also includes short, themed essays that ponder sad song ephemera: How does a heart actually break, scientifically speaking? Why do so many people refer to the color blue when speaking about sadness? He inventories songs about crying, songs about cheating and songs that chronicle major disasters. The book closes with a list compiling what are, from Houghtaling’s perspective, the top 100 saddest songs of all time (Spoiler alert: Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” wins the title.)
What makes a song sad? Houghtaling points out the obvious: It’s slow, it’s in a minor key and it often involves lower frequencies. Lower recording fidelity helps, too, he claims. “The buzzes, clicks, and showy distortions are all signifiers suggesting to the listener ‘authentic statement in progress,’ as if tape hiss alone could build a bridge to artistic truth.”
“This Will End In Tears” presents itself as a sort of Zagat guide to moody music, but, less flatteringly, it’s also an instruction manual for self-absorption. After all, rarely do we listen to sad songs in an effort to empathize with another person’s pain. Instead, we listen in order to enhance the roller coaster ride of our own mood swings. We listen to wallow. Nobody ever turned on the Cure’s icy and somber 1981 record “Faith” in the hope of communing with another living human being. And the genus of “This Will End In Tears” is cold and heartless, indeed. It’s the bookish equivalent of an iPhone. In fact, in the first lines of his author’s note, Houghtaling surveys his life as a music listener by thumbing through a hard-drive’s worth of songs that he keeps stored on his phone. But this device is only capable of presenting music as a solitary experience. In “This Will End in Tears,” Houghtaling sets out a great menu for dinner, but it’s a table for one.
Leitko is a music critic living in Washington.