This post was originally written for Largehearted Boy (note: there's a Spotify playlist over there, too!).
The man at the center of The Dismal Science is a careening but charming mess named Vincenzo D’Orsi. An Italian widower in his mid-fifties, Vincenzo loves playing chess with his boozy friend Walter, but is otherwise quite lonely. He’s also, as it happens, a vice-president at the World Bank, and must regularly make yes/no decisions regarding the fate of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Latin American countries—decisions that ripple out from his quiet perch with remarkable power, profoundly altering the lives of thousands across the globe.
Early in the book, he publicly quits his job over a seemingly minor argument with a colleague. A scandal ensues, and he systematically burns every bridge to his former life. The Dismal Science follows his efforts to rebuild his identity without a career or the company of his wife, who died three years earlier. According to the back flap, the book "is an exploration of the fragile nature of identity—it reveals the terrifying speed with which a person’s sense of self can be annihilated."
In terms of music, Vincenzo likes classical music, and a bit of classic rock, but he’s not a big music guy. That’s all fine and well for him, but I was listening to music the ENTIRE time I wrote the book, every single minute of writing I had music blaring in my ears, and none of it was classical in either sense (not classic rock and not classical of the violins and oboes variety).
So, without further ado:
Is there a more perfect song for this book? Probably not. Vinenzo’s primary relationship is with his daughter, Leonora, who is in her early twenties and has many tattoos, works at a trendy diner in Williamsburg, which I based on that actual trendy diner in Williamsburg. Leonora, understandably, doesn’t love the politics of her father’s job, and she also is understandably seizing her independence, but he is (also understandably) missing her a lot, since she’s his only surviving family and the person he loves most in the world. The song drives right to the troubled core of their relationship. The lyrics are so apt that it’s eerie: "Well I've lost it all, I'm just a silhouette / A lifeless face that you'll soon forget / My eyes are damp from the words you left / Ringing in my head, when you broke my chest." Vincenzo could more or less say those exact lines to Leonora.
The Mountain Goats: "The Mess Inside"
It’s totally irrelevant, but John Darnielle graduated from tiny Pitzer College three months before I entered Pitzer as a freshman. What is relevant is how his music seems to explode out from his crippled psyche, reeling with anger and sadness and thwarted love. The slight distortion on his voice, like he’s singing this to you from a payphone on a street corner in some distant country. This song in particular captures, crushingly, the feeling that Vincenzo has for his daughter, who is basically moving "past" him, and he wants her to need and love him like she did when she was younger, but she is growing up.
Miike Snow: "Animal"
"Am I free or am I tied up?" asks the singer of this song. "There is a hole and I try to fill it up with money." The Dismal Science is at once a study of a man attempting to apply his reason to the muddle of life and a book about how that same ostensible rationality, and the mathematics of finance in particular, operates—with similarly dubious results—in our world. This song celebrates the duality in its narrator, as well, his sense of himself as an animal.
Alicia Jo Rabins: "Neil Gow's Lament for the Death of his Second Wife"
Rabins is a superb violinist and poet who created the alt-pop band Girls In Trouble, for which she writes and performs music about the women in the Torah. She also wrote "A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff," which is a kind of chamber rock opera about the real he-who-must-not-be-named. And then there’s this melancholy and swooning song, which is one of the few on this list that I think Vincenzo would really love.
Barr Brothers: "Beggar in the Morning"
I love the long slow intro to this song. You get a full minute and ten seconds of gentle feedback and chirping and ambient noise before the guitar and vocals finally start in. Drums sneak in after another minute, and the song isn’t fully awake until it’s more than halfway over. There’s a gorgeous melancholy to it, a remarkable wisdom and weariness, and by the end the song has developed a powerful energy, even momentum. "I think I’ve come a long, long way to sit before you here today. They’re yours alone the songs I play, to take with you or to throw away."
Elliott Smith: "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands"
Actually, bitterness is not as unattractive as everyone thinks it is. Especially when Elliott Smith is dolling it out.
The Walkmen: "In The New Year"
Melancholy in Washington DC has a certain kind of aplomb that only these kids can locate, and this improbably upbeat song, my favorite of theirs by far, perfectly captures the mood of the day that Vincenzo awakes to a very cold morning in DC, freshly unemployed, and barely yet aware that he has made such a conspicuous scandal that there are news vans camped outside his house.
Jonathan Fire Eater: "Don’t Forget Me"
The Walkmen, above, were once this other band, Jonathan Fire Eater, which people of a certain age might recall. This song, originally by Harry Nilsson, is a great song about mourning and loss. Neko Case did a jolly good cover of it, too, but she does not sound sufficiently ruined by life, yet. Stuart Lupton, singer of JFE sounded plenty ruined when he sang this as a youngster back in 1997. It’s all for that moment when he wails, "When we’re older, and full of cancer, it doesn’t matter now, c’mon get happy—nothing lasts forever, and I will always love you."
Radiohead: "How to Disappear Completely"
Was a tie between this and "Electioneering," one of the few songs to mention the IMF. But "How to Disappear Completely" is simply too great, and too apt. And OK Computer is the best record of...um...is it the best record ever made? Yes, I suppose it is.
Father John Misty: "Fun Times In Babylon"
More melancholy shoe-gazer crooning? Yup, I’m afraid so. But this song kills. In particular that moment in the chorus when he gets a bit into the upper registers on the line, "Smoke everything in sight with every girl I've ever loved." It’s not sad sad, it’s warm sad, which is far better. Cozy sad.