The plant called bittersweet is shown above. It has very beautiful flowers and berries, and both the leaves and the berries are poisonous to humans. Thus, bittersweet is a fine word for an emotional state were happiness and regret are mingled together. When songwriters tackle this emotional state, they can fall into one of two traps: they can go to far into the regretful part, resulting in a maudlin mess; or they can go too far the other way, producing a song whose happiness seems forced and false. So, when a song strikes the proper balance, it can lodge in the listeners head, and a great song may result. Where does that balance point lie? As will be heard in the examples below, it can vary from songwriter to songwriter.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters: Bittersweet
Big Head Todd and the Monsters provide our title track. The emotional state resides in the present, in the nagging doubt that a relationship is not all it could or should be. There is also the sense that this couple cannot take this any further. Each verse is a snapshot of a different point in the relationship, and yet the doubts persist. This track is a remarkable piece of songwriting, in that it captures the bittersweet emotion in the present tense.
Randy Newman: Dayton Ohio 1903
Bittersweet emotions usually are tied in with nostalgia. Here, Randy Newman takes us back to 1903. The song dates from the early 70s, so we know that Newman is not writing about a personal memory here. Rather, he has created an imaginary past. The regret in this song is implied; Newman has set his song so far in the past to establish that this couldn’t happen any more. Sadly, that may be even more true today.
The Dream Academy: Life in a Northern Town
Life in a Northern Town has the feel of a personal memory, perhaps embellished by the passage of time. The lushness of the arrangement only enhances the sweetness of the memory, and the ache of knowing that there is no way to return.
Iris Dement: Our Town
Iris Dement also remembers the hometown of her youth. But, unlike the Dream Academy, Dement uses a spare arrangement. This also works well, at least for her.
Joni Mitchell: Chinese Cafe/ Unchained Melody
Joni Mitchell remembers not a town, but a specific place where her character hung out in her teen years. She also remembers a specific song that was on the juke box. This specificity increase the ache. Joni Mitchell is one of the few artists who can take the emotion this far into regret without the song becoming maudlin.