There are lots of songs about home. Whole genres or movements dedicated to them. And even the songs that aren’t about home probably are, in some way, whether that’s leaving it or longing for it. That said, here’s 11 of my choice anyway.
The Ship Song – Nick Cave
Not necessarily the most obvious of choices…either as a Nick Cave song, or a song about home. But I see a similar tonal and thematic reference in this track as that of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren, already featured here. Perhaps I’d go so far as to call it a joyous, celebratory twin.
Like the Siren song, this is an invitation, an echoed call that beckons a ship:
“Come steer your ships around me”
This song is about love – and homecoming – as catastrophe. One in which “everything comes tumbling down”, one that will “burn your bridges down”, and yet is something, somehow, that keeps coming back, that returns.
“We make a little history, baby, every time you come around”
The reference to ‘history’ is interesting as it shows a concentration on different times, rather than just the present moment. This has more resonance by the final verse, which indicates how the lovers in question are intrinsically bound to look back and forward, but also beyond, in a similar paradox to that of Buckley’s siren and sailor.
“you know the time is nigh
When I must remove your wings and you, you must try to fly”
These combined themes leverage the Odyssean twinge of desire, delay and return as notional agents of ‘home’.
Homeward Bound – Simon & Garfunkel
I love the duality of this song, sung of course by two. How it is wistful but also purposeful. Hopeful and harried.
The singer has a home and longs for it, and this is a good, happy positive thing. Although travelling and homesick, the narrator will eventually get back to where “love lies waiting”.
But the dreamlike echo of the song shows a complexity behind this vision.
Else, why does it feel so sad?
Homesick – Kings of Convenience
This song is a reply, or response to Simon & Garfunkel, one that is directly referenced in the lyrics (“two soft voices, blended in perfection”). Where Homeward Bound is a song of arrested direction, Homesick uses the same harmonic style as a frame to indicate loss, and of being lost.
“Every day there’s a boy in the mirror asking me what are you doing here
Finding all my previous motives growing increasingly unclear”
Working in a record shop, the character of this song has “travelled far and…burned all the bridges” before him to arrive at a destination that seems now more like a holding place. The character is not where or what they want to be, and has lost direction forwards as well as back. From this setting, the character turns to music, “searching” for something that will speak to his sense of purposelessness.
“A song for
Someone who needs somewhere
To long for”
This is a track about ennui, liminality and loss not just of past but also of future. The narrator is “homesick” because they “no longer know where home is”.
In Every Dream Home A Heartache – Roxy Music
What I love about this song is its slow-build, layer upon layer narrative style. Here, the theme of corrupted dreams is introduced immediately.
“Every step I take
Takes me further from heaven”
The cycling four-bar chord progression that carries these lyrics intensifies as the song goes on, as if to illustrate how the creation of home drives the narrator further and further away from what they seek. From “smart town apartment” to “cottage”, “mainhouse” or “penthouse”, abodes become just words, empty captions.
“Standards of living
They’re rising daily
But home, oh sweet home
It’s only a saying”
As the music gains energy and more instruments come into the mix, the narrative shifts away from the type of home – first to the gadgets and gizmos which “seem so essential” and then, with hardly a pause, to the “perfect companion”: a “mail order” “inflatable doll”.
From here, the tortuous relationship of dreams, dependency and consumerism becomes clear.
“Disposable darling, can’t throw you away now
Immortal and life size
My breath is inside you”
Two lines later, and the lyrics are eclipsed by a full on crescendo of guitars, drums, wailing and distortion. Such musical distortion, of course, emulates the distorted face of what ‘home’ is, or was.
As a bonus song, it’s interesting to see how Roxy Music’s great track Mother of Pearl starts from the other side of the coin. Beginning with a jarring medley of beats, riffs and chanting, the song – about a “holy grail” love interest – moves to a straightforward melody and finally ends simply with voice.
Another Time and Place – Dave Van Ronk
A sweet, gentle grief song, in which the singer is ‘homeless’ without his lover, who he used to “roam” the world with.
Now, as “each day becomes another day, each year another year”, he continues to wander.
“the miles flow on and I am gone to a wild an empty land
Time is like an empty room and space an empty hand”
Time and space are not the elements of home, but the person who he shared it with, and where they first met.
“We’ll meet again where hills are green in another time and place”
With heaven (itself a ‘home’) as one easy interpretation of what is being talked about, the song indicates the idea that home is a different space altogether. As “another time and place”, it is an other place: both eternal, past and yet to come. Home becomes a token of hope in the midst of loss.
Feels Like Home – Bonnie Raitt
Written by Randy Newman, this is a simple love song that hits on the mystery of seeing a person as home. The “something in your eyes”, and the “something in your voice” is almost a secret, a non-articulated ‘something’ that propels the singer “back” (not forwards) to where they “belong”. Home, the song says, is the only way to describe it.
June on the West Coast – Bright Eyes
To me, this song carries with it a sort of male microcosm of Joni Mitchell’s album Blue. Or at least, the spirit of it. It is a searching song, a passage of movement and travel, both geographic and emotional. Each verse acts as a vignette of a particular time and location.
The first verse, in which the landscape is the “sunlight of Winnetka, California”, sets such a scene. The singer, who has been “dreaming of some tired tranquil place” states that
“if all these years of searching finds one sympathetic face
it’s there I’ll plant these seeds and make my home”
The “sympathetic face” could be viewed as a search for pity, but I think the choice of wording here is more likely to mean finding a face that mirrors, that understands.
Next is a “week dreaming of dying in Mesa Arizona”. Bleak!
“I felt I was on fire with the things I could have told ya
I just assumed that eventually you’d ask
And I wouldn’t have to bring up my so badly broken heart
And all those months of just wanting to sleep”
In the “outskirts of Olympia” he returns to his childhood home, discussing family history with his brother “like a dream we were convinced of”. He revisits trauma, family complexity and conflict before ending in San Diego, on the beach with “one more potential lover”.
It is here where he comes to a realisation
“I know I can’t keep living in this dead or dying dream”
What dream? The one about the tired, tranquil place? Was it a place he needed after all?
“I thought about my true love the one I really need
With eyes that burn so bright they make me pure”
Blues Run The Game – Jackson C Frank
Jackson C Frank’s life-story is a sad one. And this song is sad too. It’s another one about a wanderer, who searches fruitlessly from place to place for something out of reach.
“Try another city baby, another town”
The problem is a well-known one. The search for a place to belong is actually a search to escape. But, to borrow a line from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself”.
Radio City Serenade – Mark Knopfler
In this song, New York is an iconic beacon of home, referencing the city’s famous landmarks as a “forever silhouette”. Personified as a woman, New York is where the singer will always be welcomed – somewhere he will always be able to return to.
“I stay out when I want to
Still she takes me back
Don’t know another girl, cut me so much slack”
The mournful Celtic backing instruments and melody conjure the image of another place, or home, while lyrically referencing this to whiskey (Irish Mist is a type of liqueur), which is presumably contributing to his emotional state…
“have I got you a river view, this one tops the list
Got a head full of you and Irish mist
I know I owe it to the lady by the sea
Who still looks after me”
New York, in this depiction, is perhaps a home for outsiders. Soul seekers, street sleepers and emigres “sitting on the sidewalk” with nothing. “You gotta have no credit cards to know how good it feels”, after all.
Two-Headed Boy Part 2 – Neutral Milk Hotel
NMH’s concept album ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ is anguish induced, abstract and complex. ‘Home’ is not the obvious narrative, but its absence is most certainly the seam. This is a record of trauma: outskirts, non-belonging, of being outside body and mind, time and space.
“The sun it is passed now it’s blacker than black
I can hear as you tap on your jar
I am listening to hear where you are”
The above lyrics come from track 4: Two Headed Boy. But this post is about a different song. The record ends with Two Headed Boy Part 2. This song is not just a ‘return’ to an earlier part of the album, it is also about the longing for return – in this case – to the singer’s childhood, his own beginning, “long ago, wrapped in sheets warm and wet”.
The running theme of ostracism, the loneliness of Mangum’s cosmic fascination with Anne Frank, and the shattered nature of a mind on the brink of collapse is beautifully encapsulated, I think – both lyrically and musically – in a single line.
“God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life”
The Long and Winding Road – The Beatles
“…that leads to your door
Will never disappear”