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The Cathartic Release of “Sorrow” by The National

By: Tim DePass

album art for "High Violet" by The National
"High Violet" by The National

For this week’s exploration of art and mental health, I will be going deep into the song “Sorrow” by The National. Conscious Counselling has just released a Spotify playlist of feel-good music that has a positive impact on our mood. “Sorrow” would not be described as positively uplifting, but it has its own significance in relation to our mental health. This song is a portrayal of a person’s relationship with their own sadness. With The National, there is a feeling of catharsis that comes with listening to their music. In “Sorrow,” embracing the gloominess can create an emotional release that develops a connection to the music and provides a relief from intense emotions. (Full disclosure, The National is my favourite band of all time, so my feelings when listening to “Sorrow” may not be the same for everyone.) But I think the song is a unique expression of our mental health and provides insight into feelings of depression.

In “Sorrow,” like many of The National’s songs, lead singer Matt Berninger croons melancholic lyrics over the backdrop of intricate guitar pieces and heartbeat-like drum patterns.

Sorrow found me when I was young

Sorrow waited, sorrow won

Sorrow, they put me on the pill

It's in my honey, it's in my milk

The opening verse is a timeline of events of how sorrow, or depression, developed in the narrator’s life. Depression usually begins in young adolescence or childhood. Since the symptoms of depression can be evident at such an early age, many people think it is just a phase and wait and see if the person will grow out of it. But as these lyrics suggest, depression waits too, and if you let it linger it will win. The following line then suggests that the narrator was put onto pills or antidepressants to deal with his sorrow, a common option to deal with the effects of depression. The first verse is a description of the developmental process of depression in an individual and the various stages someone may go through.

Sorrow's my body on the waves

Sorrow's a girl inside my cake

I live in a city sorrow built

It's in my honey, it's in my milk

Where the first verse was a direct explanation of the process of depression, the second verse is an abstract view on personal feelings of sorrow. The lyrics use different types of imagery to describe restless anxiety and a feeling of sadness that is inescapable. The first lyric of this verse uses imagery of the narrator floating on a wave to portray depression. It is as if the depression is dictating where the narrator goes in life; this person is feeling helpless and is at the mercy of their sorrow to float them along from one experience to the next.

The last three lines of the verse can be seen as how depression can poison everything in our life. Berninger broods over the fact that no matter where they go or what they are doing, a lingering sense of dread surrounds the narrator. During periods of depression, things that are supposed to be symbols of happiness (the song uses an image of a cake) no longer bring joy. Berininger sings, “It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk." "Milk and honey" is a biblical phrase representing prosperity and abundance, two things that should bring happiness. But no matter how much the narrator achieves, depression or sorrow still won’t go away completely. Depression affects our thinking to the point that all our experiences are clouded by a darkness. This song provides a powerful description of how depression feels inescapable even in moments of glory or happiness.

“Sorrow” develops an emotional connection that can provide comfort during times of loneliness. During periods of depression, it is so common to feel like no one truly understands what you are going through, or to be reluctant to reveal your deepest emotions due to fear of being judged. A song like “Sorrow” can act like a close friend you have had for years. The music kicks in and it is like someone is finally understanding and listening to our feelings that we have hidden for so long. There are emotions that are too difficult to express, and our words fail us all the time. “Sorrow” can provide a cathartic release of emotions where the listener can get feelings they have tucked away off of their chest without fearing judgement. That is the power of music. It understands and expresses a range of emotions that remind us what it means to be human.

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