Roughly 92.7% of Western song lyricism is about either wanting to get laid or actually getting laid. But shit, let’s be honest, most of those lyrics are full of shit. The cartoonish version of sex and love they promote bears little relation to how either works in the real world — sure, sex can be fireworks and volcanoes erupting and tidal waves crashing on shore, but it can also be a lot of other things: hilarious, underwhelming, comforting, and a thousand other shades of human emotion. And sometimes, it can just be flat-out sad. A morning of listening to much-missed Scottish miserablists Arab Strap got me thinking about the latter, so apropos of nothing in particular, here’s a playlist of sad sex songs. Have fun out there.
Arab Strap — “Blood”
The undisputed kings of the sad sex song, so much so that you could pick pretty much any Arab Strap song and have it slip perfectly between the sheets of this list, paunchy and still wearing its socks. Still, this one is particularly bleak: it starts with the line “I wish it was someone else’s blood on the johnnie” (that’s a condom, if you’re not au fait with British slang) and ends with the forlorn confession, “I’m looking for a woman but I’ll settle for a shag.” Sigh.
Pulp — “Pencil Skirt”
Similarly, it’s really a case of “Pick your favorite Pulp song” here, but it’s hard to beat this twisted paean to screwing around with someone you loved but have grown to hate, and doing it just to spite them: “I only come here cause I know it makes you sad/ I only do it ‘cos I know you know it’s bad/ Oh, don’t you know, it’s ugly, and it shouldn’t be like that/ But it’s turning me on.”
Suede — “Pantomime Horse”
The British do these sorts of songs better than anyone, really. Suede also have a surfeit of sad sex songs, with the sex in question usually happening in faceless high rises or lightless basement flats, all hopeless romanticism and squalor. “Pantomime Horse” catalogs the life of one particularly dysfunctional protagonist, building to a climax (sorry) where Brett Anderson howls, “Have you ever tried it that way?” at an indifferent grey sky.
Los Campesinos! — “Straight In At 101”
Also particularly good as a source of sad sex songs: the world of indie pop. This song comes across like a sort of twee ancestor of Nick Cave’s “No Pussy Blues,” a song so sexually frustrated that it does everything except hump your leg. The gender politics are questionable — “Feels like the build-up takes forever but you never get me off,” for instance — but the sense of frustration and sadness that sex can leave in these circumstances is relatable for people of any gender.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — “I Let Love In”
Speaking of Cave, this list would be incomplete without him. Plenty of the songs from his piano ballad era would merit inclusion, but the best example comes from a little earlier in his career. The (almost) title track to Let Love In characterizes love as a sort of vampiric entity that has to be invited into your life… but woe betide you if you’re silly enough to do so.
Portishead — “Glory Box”
It takes a sample from Isaac Hayes, soul’s master of seduction, but “Glory Box” is more about the yearning to end a procession of unsatisfying one-night stands than it is about the pleasures of love. “I’m so tired of playing with this bow and arrow” is a pretty great allusion to Cupid, and also a declaration of exhaustion. “Give me a reason to love you,” implores Beth Gibbons “Give me a reason to be a woman.” It’s a pretty devastating conclusion to an album that’s all about alienation, loneliness, and the pitfalls of love.
The Weeknd — “High for This”
Not so much sad sex as really fucked-up sex, perhaps. But either way, if you’re telling your partner that she’s gonna want to be high for what’s to come, things have taken a turn for the worse.
Leonard Cohen — “I’m Your Man”
“A man never got a woman back/ Not by begging on his knees/ Or I’d crawl to you, baby, and I’d fall at your feet/ And I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat…” It’s no accident that Cohen’s saddest songs are his most overtly sexual ones — from “Master Song” right through to “Anyhow,” his lyrics have cast sex as much as a source of angst as a source of pleasure. The fact that it’s both, of course, only makes you yearn for it more.
Fiona Apple — “Carrion”
As the title suggests, despite its jazzy arrangement, this is no fun at all — it’s about being stuck in a relationship with someone you’re not attracted to anymore, but can’t quite summon up the courage (or energy) to leave. The imagery is singularly disconcerting: “My feel for you, boy, is decaying in front of me/ Like the carrion of a murdered prey/ And all I want is to save you, honey/ Or the strength to walk away.”
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone — “New Year’s Kiss”
For all that we build up sex to be the ultimate pleasure — how often do you hear “better than sex” cast about as a descriptor? — the reality of it can be, well, somewhat underwhelming, depending on the circumstances. A quickie up against the wall on New Year’s Eve definitely falls into the category of such circumstances, as does the reality of the morning after: “Woke up with fingers crossed/ In a boy’s bed with your pants off/ After polite declines of coffee and toast/ Walked home itching in last night’s clothes.” ‘Til next year.