Earlier in the week we celebrated the release of the new Dirty Three album by surveying a selection of artists who’ve been in two or more great bands simultaneously. But on a lighter note, as well as his membership of the Dirty Three, Grinderman, and the Bad Seeds, Warren Ellis is also known for his biblically foreboding facial hair. The untamed nature of Ellis’ beard — he once told our friends at the Quietus that beard trims were “incredibly dangerous” — is legendary, and worthy of awestruck respect. So to celebrate the arrival of Toward the Low Sun, here’s a brief selection of songs that celebrate the terrifying lows and dizzying highs of possessing facial hair.
The Beards — “You Should Consider Having Sex With a Bearded Man”
Like Ellis, The Beards are from Australia, and they’re best known for, yes, their beards. This song is a manifesto of sorts, and a hilarious one at that, sung with hirsute gusto and with tongue planted firmly in (bearded) cheek. And then, of course, there’s the glorious (and vaguely NSFW) “Smack My Bitch Up”-style video…
Devendra Banhart — “This Beard Is for Siobhan”
Well, it had to be for something, didn’t it?
Leonard Cohen — “Death of a Ladies’ Man”
In which Cohen narrates the slow, excruciating deconstruction of a lothario who may or may not be the singer himself. The roll call of failings culminates in the final crushing blow: “She mocked his female fashions and his working-class moustache.” Ouch.
Super Furry Animals — “Something for the Weekend”
A paean to the joys of getting really, really into ecstasy, this early SFA anthem was mildly controversial on its release (the band once hilariously tried to convince a hostile interviewer that the song was actually about wine tasting), but in 2012 it sounds positively breezy and innocent. Either way, we’ve always been amused by the way it describes facial hair as the inevitable consequence of taking way too many drugs: “Man I’m in heaven!/ And I’m growing my beard…”
The Beautiful South — “Have Fun”
Paul Heaton’s long been one of rock’s more acerbic songwriters (so much so that it’s basically impossible to believe that he used to be in a band with Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook, of all people). This song describes how people settle into relationships and stay as much out of fear of being alone as anything else. The beard appears in co-vocalist Jacqui Abbott’s verse, functioning as much as a symbol of comfort and familiarity as it does of her partner somehow letting himself go.
Gay Blades — “Why Can’t I Grow a Beard?”
Indeed, there seems to be a distinct lyrical trend toward the idea of a beard somehow representing emotional trauma and the idea of “letting yourself go.” This song adopts this idea, and also uses the beard as a symbol of maturity — after all, for men, becoming able to grow a beard is something of a rite of passage, marking the transition from childhood to adolescence and adulthood. The titular facial hair in this oh-so-emo breakup ballad is a symbol of something a way in which singer James Dean Wells can’t compete with his rival, and also of the despair that ensues from getting dumped.
Passion Pit — “Sleepyhead”
This song adopts a similar idea, equating beard growth with some sort of emotional stasis or hibernation. For all that this song got played to death and you’re probably sick of it, it still hides a surprisingly weighty lyric beneath its AnCo-lite exterior, and while its first verse certainly ties in with the well-worn story of Michael Angelakos making the debut Passion Pit EP as a Valentine’s Day present for his girlfriend, there’s something mildly sinister about the second (even before you get to the closing lines about “my beard [growing] down to the floor and out the doors of your eyes.”)
Wilco — “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard”
One more beard-as-emotional-breakdown song and then we’re done, we promise. This is worth inclusion just for the closing couplet “And things got weird/ And I started growing Bob Dylan’s beard.” Yes, in that case, it’s definitely time to get out of the house.
Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head — “Beard Lust”
It’s not all bad in beard land, though. Perennial contenders for the coveted Most Giggle-Inducing Band Name before they sadly acquiesced to the stern cease-and-desist request of Ms. Portman’s legal team, the band now known as Brite Futures recorded this track when they still went by the glorious moniker Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head. It’s a song about, well, beard lust — the joy of possessing luxurious facial hair and everything that comes with it. We’re not sure why The Beards haven’t covered this yet, actually.
Johnny Paycheck — “The Outlaw’s Prayer”
And finally, here’s a country classic, in which Johnny gets barred from the local church because of his beard and long hair, sits down on the stairs outside, and meditates on the hypocrisies of religion, pointing out the fact that, hey, Jesus had a beard and long hair too.