This is the time of year when the calendar is suddenly jam-packed with holidays. For many of us, that means returning home to spend a bit of that time with the whole fam-damn-ly. Of course “home” has many meanings: it could literally be the town where you grew up, your new life built in a city far from that town, or it could be simply wherever your loved ones are at the moment—be it at a house in the suburbs or a 4 hour layover at airport terminal B.
Regardless of your definition of “home”, returning there for the holidays is an act likely to illicit many-a-complex and conflicting emotions including: joy, nostalgia, love, gratitude, frustration, disappointment, mournfulness (over lost youth perhaps?), and many many more. But hey, that’s why we have music: to express that which we feel when words alone fail us.
And so when you need a little musical catharsis to help you on your travels home this season, check out the smattering of tunes below. I have picked just a handful, but each one wonderfully explores the concept of home and what it actually means to go back.
Dan Auerbach is mostly known for being the lead vocalist/guitarist for the Black Keys; though in 2009 he released an album of solo work called Keep It Hid. In this solo debut, Auerbach still very much maintained the bluesy rock sound he had carefully cultivated with drummer Pat Carney of the Black Keys. Now, I’m a fan of the Keys and could wax poetic about their nostalgic sound, but even I’ll admit they are a bit of a one trick pony.
This song stands apart from the rest: it still feels homespun, but isn’t heavy-handed in either its lyrics or song production. There is a simplicity to it that cuts straight to your core.
Fun fact! This song was made famous for its use in the film Up in the Air.
I’ve spent too long away from home
Did all the things I could have done
Gone are the days of endless thrills
I know I’m not the only one
So long, I’m goin’, goin’ home…
“Devil Town” was originally written by singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston. Johnston’s songwriting was brilliant, but in terms of performance I prefer the version by Tony Lucca: it is beautiful, poignant, and achingly bittersweet. Lucca’s cover was also featured prominently on the brilliant television show, Friday Night Lights. I know, I know: I plug this show a lot, but for good reason. It’s amazing. Also, this is my column, so deal with it.
I was living in a devil town
Didn’t know it was a devil town
Oh Lord, it really brings me down
About the devil town
All my friends were vampires
Didn’t know they were vampires
Turns out I was a vampire myself
In the devil town
No other musician has been better at capturing the complex love/hate relationship we all have with our hometowns. Truth be told, there is an extensive list of songs available from the Springsteen oeuvre that deal with the very concept. Hell, one could argue that Springsteen’s thematic through-line has always been, in one way or another, about one’s relationship with his/her hometown: be it struggling to get out, resigned to stay, going back, fostering pride for where you came from, or simply recognizing how that town shaped you. See: “Darkness on the Edge of Town“, “Long Walk Home“, “Thunder Road“, “Born to Run“, “Badlands“, “My City of Ruins“, and “Freehold“, to name just a few.
Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to your hometown
This song, off of the 1999 album Mule Variations, is beyond beautiful. Tom Waits is a poet, plain and simple, but there is nothing plain nor simple about this song.
What makes a house grand
Ain’t the roof or the doors
If there’s love in a house
It’s a palace for sure
It ain’t nothin but a house
A house where nobody lives
Without love it ain’t nothin
But a house, a house where
This is an ode for all those returning to a home in the suburbs! This song comes from Arcade Fire‘s third studio album aptly titled, The Suburbs. The lyrics for each of the album’s songs were based on the childhood experiences of Win and William Butler—the band’s lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, respectively—of growing up in Houston, TX. Win Butler told NME Magazine that the album was, “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.” “Sprawl I (Flatlands)” is about returning to the town of one’s youth to find it painfully unrecognizable. It has a sister song in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)“, also on on the album. The Suburbs came out in June of 2011 and received great critical reception, even winning the Grammy for “Album of the Year”.
The last defender of the sprawl
Said “Well, where do you kids live?”
Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer’s worth
Been searching every corner of the earth…
Who said all the songs on this list had to be about conflicted emotions? This one here is about pure joy. And don’t believe the naysayers: a song doesn’t have to be dark to be good. For those of you not familiar, Foy Vance is a charming singer/songwriter from Northern Ireland. Ok, I don’t know him personally so I can’t personally vouch for him being charming; but, he has an accent and is adorably Irish so I’m just going to go ahead and make that assumption. That’s cool, right?
His debut album, Hope, was released in 2007, followed by a string of successful EPs, including Watermelon Oranges and Gabriel and the Vagabond.
Everywhere we went just looked the same to me
The skies were blue and the grass was green
I wonder how different I might see them now
Yet I see them somehow
It has been said that this song is actually about Ireland in the 1980s and Bono returning to the country and all of her history (yes, Ireland is a girl). It’s a beautiful piece with a swelling energy and carefully orchestrated musical arrangement. This was the opening track off the album, The Unforgettable Fire, which marked a significant change in direction from the band’s previous heavy hitting rock sound (see: War).
Fun fact! This song’s title comes from a quote by poet Paul Celan: “Poetry is a sort of homecoming.” In my humble opinion, so is music.
And your heart beats so slow
Through the rain and fallen snow
Across the fields of mourning
Lights in the distance
Oh don’t sorrow no don’t weep
For tonight at last
I am coming home
I am coming home
Yes, I included this song on my Thanksgiving Survival Guide music list. And, yes, I am using it again here. Get off my back! This song is gorgeous, hauntingly honest, and a wonderful addition to this list. It perfectly captures the push/pull of emotions that often come while heading home—be it from work at the end of a long day or from driving home for a visit after being away for months. Listen to it and I promise you will agree.
Well I stumbled in the darkness
I’m lost and alone
Though I said I’d go before us
And show the way back home
There a light up ahead
I can’t hold onto her arm
Forgive me pretty baby but I always take the long way home
Ok. This is song is not about going home—not even close. But after dealing with the stress of holiday travel (not to mention the epic battle that is holiday shopping), you’ll be glad to have this number in your back pocket. Listen and take comfort in the song’s irreverence before you decide to body check your cousin for criticizing your use of nutmeg in the pumpkin pie.
Some stupid chick in the checkout line
Was paying for beer with nickels and dimes
And some old man who clipped coupons
Had argued whenever they wouldn’t take one
All I wanted to was buy some cigarettes
But I couldn’t take it anymore so I left
I hate everyone
This song is utterly infectiously and a joyful throwback to the tunes of June Carter and Johnny Cash. Remember the whole “home is where your loved one is” thing? This song expresses that beautiful sentiment in a way that is nothing short of perfection. You will find yourself whistling along in no time. Yes, whistling. This number can be found on the band’s Here Comes EP and their first full-length album from 2009, Up From Below.
Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my Ma & Pa
Moats & boats & waterfalls & pay phone calls
Let me come Home
Home is wherever I’m with you
Let me come Home
Home is when I’m alone with you