The subject of our Top 10 is a sensitive one. Suicide is a heavy theme to write songs about. Nevertheless, when we contemplate what circumstances might drive an individual to end their own life in such a dramatic way, it can lead us to question what it is that motivates poets to explore the topic. If we are to take the definition of a poet as anyone who writes verse, that would extend to a songwriter or lyricist who writes verse and subsequently constructs a musical composition around that poetic form to create a song. Sometimes, it works the other way, the music comes first, and the song lyrics are written after.
Therefore, this Top 10 puts the spotlight on the songwriter or composer of each song about suicide, and how the subject is approached artistically. The writers and composers featured in this list are also the original recording artist of their song, whether in a solo capacity or as a band member.
The definition of suicide, ‘the action or an act of taking one’s own life,’ is one to be mindful of as we consider the lyrics and familiarise ourselves with each of these songs.
#10 Ozzy Osbourne – Suicide Solution
GENRE: HEAVY METAL
Suicide Solution was released in 1980 by Ozzy Osbourne, and it is highly probable that songs about suicide, whether explicit or implied, do feature in his back catalog. Falling under the heavy metal genre, many of Osbourne’s songs, either as a solo artist or as a band member and the lead vocalist of Black Sabbath, take on a dark outlook.
Ozzy Osbourne is a high-profile figure in popular culture. As a songwriter, he is one that does not follow any rules of structure when he sets out to write. His lyrics do not follow any conventions with regard to the songwriter’s craft, yet Osbourne does have the unique ability to express his free-verse lyrics in his impressive singing style. Suicide Solution mirrors much of what dark metal songs look and feel like both topically and compositionally.
Trivia Fact: Osborne’s informal title of ‘Prince of Darkness’ has changed to the ‘Godfather of Metal’ in recent years.
#9 The Notorious B.I.G. – Suicidal Thoughts
The late American songwriter and rap artist Christopher Wallace, also known as ‘The Notorious B.I.G.’ or ‘Biggie Smalls’, takes the subject of suicide to another poetic plane in his song Suicidal Thoughts. A track from his debut studio album Ready to Die (1994).
The song opens with a caller dialing a number and when the line connects the phone starts ringing until a person picks up and it becomes immediately clear that it is the middle of the night. The receiver of the call appears a little disoriented, a little annoyed even, at being woken up. The caller is silent at first, but as the receiver’s mind clears, he is suddenly concerned for the caller and is nervous about the caller’s state of mind.
Then a tirade of negativity starts up from the caller, he curses about his hellish life, about his no-good activities and about feeling unloved. Then, using the energy and rhythm of the rapper’s beat, the suicidal thoughts he’s been experiencing and the many ways he’s considered doing the fateful deed spill out.
At the end of this short track, the receiver is shouting down the phone as he has become fearful for the caller and what he might do. But the caller falls silent, a gunshot follows, and a heartbeat is all that is heard as it slows to stop.
Suicidal Thoughts offers serious, impactful commentary about the state of mind of an individual who sees no good in anything and has nothing to live for.
Trivia Fact: On the website for the charity Befrienders Worldwide it states: ‘Most people who once thought about killing themselves are now glad to be alive. They say they didn’t want to end their lives – they just wanted to stop the pain’.
#8 Johnny Mandel (Composer) & Mike Altman (Lyrics) – Suicide is Painless
GENRE: MOVIE SOUNDTRACK
The film ‘M*A*S*H’ was released in 1970 and is based on a fictional novel about three army doctors serving in the US military during the mid-century Korean conflict. Directed by Robert Altman (1925-2006) with music composition by Johnny Mandel (1925 – 2020).
The film is categorized as a dark comedy, and in one scene a key character, Captain Waldowski, experiences a failed suicide. However awful his intention was, his suicide attempt is ultimately deemed to be over something trivial, silly or almost even laughable.
Given the tone of the scene, Altman felt that the lyrics of the accompanying song based needed a lighter touch and a different approach in this instance. His son, Michael (Mike) Altman, was invited to write the lyrics, and so together, Mike Altman and Mandel created the song Suicide is Painless.
It can be safely assumed that the lyrics are open to interpretation. However, this song does give the theme of suicide a poetic twist, as the lyrics are structured in four-lined verses with a couplet to end, and it also features rhyme and repetition. Meanwhile, the words address visions and realizations.
Suicide is Painless is a mellow tune, with a stringed instrument arrangement and percussion sounds. The singing voices of cast members intertwine with the musical harmonies of The Ron Hicklin Singers (a vocal group from L.A.).
Several instrumental versions of the song are featured in the long-running, and much-loved TV series ‘M*A*S*H’. There was also a reissue on 7″ vinyl in 1980.
This suicide song has seen cover versions by artists across musical genres. Permissions have also been granted for the song to appear in the work and promotional activities of several organizations over time.
Trivia Fact: Michael Altman was just fourteen years old when he was assigned to write the lyrics.
#7 Mikael Akerfeldt – Isolation Years
GENRE: PROGRESSIVE METAL
This Opeth song was written by the band’s frontman, Mikael Akerfeldt, who is one of the most imaginative and talented songwriters in the business. Isolation Years is a track from the band’s album Ghost Reveries (2005).
The lyrics are indirect with regard to this being a song about suicide but, like many of Akerfeldt’s folk-style ballads, it is dramatically poetic with a stunning musical arrangement to match.
Written from the narrator’s first-person perspective, the second line of the first verse says, ‘As I read Rosemary’s letter’. In Rosemary’s letter, she talks of her loneliness after losing someone close to her. The narrator mulls over the content of the letter; reflecting over her sad demise because Rosemary has passed away. Rosemary predicted that she would ‘…die alone’ and the reader knows that she would have been ‘aching’ when she died. Both of these phrases are strong indications that Rosemary was so desperately lonely that she eventually, shortly after writing the letter, took her own life.
Trivia Fact: Mikael Akerfeldt shares his eclectic choices in a YouTube series called What’s In My Bag? Where artists tell of their favorite records and the music that has inspired them.
#6 James Taylor – Fire and Rain
Sometimes a song may appear in more than one of our Top Ten lists. Fire and Rain is number #5 in our list of best songs about fire best Songs About Fire.
James Taylor incorporates his soft and often melancholy storytelling in gentle, acoustic guitar numbers. Fire and Rain is deeply personal to Taylor. The lyrics describe the loss of a close friend, Suzanne, to suicide. The aftershock of which, along with other struggles, threw him into a deep depression.
Fire and Rain is an example of Taylor’s capability as a singer-songwriter to touch on such a sensitive subject as a friend’s suicide, and express his reaction to it so compellingly.
Despite the song’s painful subject, Fire and Rain continues to be referenced for its many qualities, both artistic and emotional.
Trivia Fact: In May this year (2022) James Taylor received the honorary degree – Doctor of Music at the New England Conservatory of Musics graduation ceremony.
#5 Logic ft. Alessia Cara and Khalid – 1-800-273-8255
GENRE: HIP HOP
In 2017, in something of a similar vein to the exploration of suicide in B.I.G.’s rap song (appearing as number #9 on this list), the artist and record producer known as Logic achieved international success with his single 1-800-273-8255. As with B.I.G.’s track, the protagonist is deeply depressed and has been having suicidal thoughts. So much so that he declares in the chorus: ‘I don’t wanna be alive,’ and asks, ‘who can relate?’
While 1-800-273-8255 is a match for any included in this list, lyrically, it is the most contemporary and the most multi-layered song. It features vocal contributions from Canadian singer-songwriter Alessia Cara and from American singer Khalid.
1-800-273-8255 is honest and has a powerful sentiment. When the narrator is overcome with emotion at the end, there is a sliver of hope and sudden realization emerging from the darkness. Coupled with the rise in dynamics of the music, the narrator suddenly has a change of heart: ‘I don’t want to die anymore’. This is a song that is extremely sad and poignant, yet at the same time, life-affirming.
Trivia Fact: Logic’s real name is Sir Robert Bryson Hall II. The ‘Sir’ is actually part of his birth name, not a mark of having received any honorary decree.
#4 Roger Waters – Goodbye Cruel World
GENRE: PROGRESSIVE ROCK
Goodbye Cruel World is the final track of side 2 of 4 from Pink Floyd’s double album The Wall (1979).
The lyrics of Goodbye Cruel World are as follows:
Goodbye cruel world
I’m leaving you today
Goodbye all you people
There’s nothing you can say
To make me change
Arranged in just two verses with continuous repetition of the word ‘Goodbye’, it could be agreed that these lyrics, written down, would not look out of place in any poetry anthology.
No further explanation is required to describe the action that is implied in the lyrics.
Trivia Fact: The Wall is a Rock Opera and, as a concept album it is also a fine example of an album where all tracks, including Goodbye Cruel World, work collectively to tell one story.
#3 Don McLean – Vincent
American singer-songwriter and guitarist, Don McLean, encompasses the beauty of music, poetry and art in this biographical song-piece about the life and death, of the Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890).
Vincent Van Gogh is known to have taken his own life. There is much for a poet like McLean to communicate about Vincent’s story in song form. McLean, however, managed to create his own masterpiece very well. Vincent was a release from McLean’s album, American Pie (1971) and a worldwide hit in 1972.
So, how was this ballad constructed around Vincent’s tragic story? Firstly, we assume the song’s narrator is Vincent’s brother, Theo, because he was the recipient of many letters from Vincent in which he shared his news, thoughts, frustrations and anxieties. Theo was also with Vincent at the end.
The phrase ‘Starry, Starry Night’ is a form of repetition which appears in the song’s lyrics four times and serves as a constant on which McLean sets his melody and frames the story. This song phrase is also a reimagining of the title of Vincent’s famous painting ‘The Starry Night’.
The second verse of McLean’s song is a quatrain with the first three of the four lines ending in rhyming words: hills, daffodils, winter chills. Each word represents a recurring theme in Vincent’s many paintings: landscapes (hills), flowers (daffodils) and the seasons(winter chills). Names of colors and shapes feature too, and recurring lyrics relate to paintings and the artists’ craft.
Vincent’s life was largely fraught with mental health issues. The romanticization of the life of an artist can often mask the harsh realities. McLean demonstrates his empathy for Vincent’s struggles. Never more so than the last two lines of verse 7 and the whole of verse 8 when he deals with the sensitivity of Vincent’s suicide:
‘And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do
But I could have told you, Vincent
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you.’
Toward the end of his life, Vincent had feared what the future might hold for him and so he took a revolver and shot himself in the chest, in a field in Northern France. This act of suicide was declared as the cause of his death two days later.
Through this song, McLean created something very touching, both lyrically and musically. He created a beautiful, folk song that has many elements of a classical poem: love, beauty, color and bittersweet tragedy.
Covers of the song have been released by artists Lianne La Havas and Ellie Goulding, as well as a notable piano-based version by James Blake (Christmas 2017).
Trivia Fact: It is understood that the original, handwritten lyrics of Vincent went up for sale for $1.5 million in 2020.
#2 Lou Reed – The Bed
GENRE: ROCK BALLAD/GLAM ROCK
The Bed, written and composed by American singer/songwriter, Lou Reed (1942-2013), was a song from his solo album Berlin released in 1973. Berlin was released following Reed’s involvement with the band The Velvet Underground and also after the release date of his solo-album Transformer (1972).
Reed was one of just a handful of songwriters who presented a side of life that was less romantic but somehow was able to capture these experiences in an artistic way at the same time. His stories are strangely haunting, yet starkly truthful. The true poet that Reed was, he saw a raw beauty and an exposed reality in people and circumstances. No subject was out of bounds. Reed had a knack for writing lyrics that would often fall under censorship, but was also a wonderfully skilled narrator, able to get into the nitty, gritty details.
No surprise then that Reed would write a song about suicide. The song is a first-person narrative of a man recalling a ‘strange and fateful night’ when his wife, while in bed, cut her wrists with a razor. It’s a bold undertaking to write such a song. Reed centers his story around an object of every day, the marital bed, which once held lots of memories for the narrator of the story, but later becomes entangled in this awful event, overriding any good memories and numbing his feelings.
It is implied that the narrator’s wife committed suicide because of something he ‘the narrator’ would not stop.
This song is hypnotic and one can almost fall into a dreamy state while listening. The Bed is nicely structured; it has an acoustic guitar introduction, first verse, chorus, and then a brief interlude break. Verse two is followed by the repeat of the chorus. A bridge then allows a change of tempo, with the final verse with the chorus repeating at the end. The steady strumming of guitar chords continues throughout.
Reed’s style of spoken-sung phrasing sets the slow pace and rhythm of the storytelling. The song dynamic culminates in something that feels almost religious toward the end, with the singing of a church choir slightly distorted for maximum effect.
A cover version of The Bed was a song on the album Ballads for Little Hyenas by Italian rock band Afterhours ft. Greg Dulli.
Trivia Fact: Reed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Velvet Underground in 1996, and later, as a solo performer in 2015.
#1 R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts
GENRE: ALTERNATIVE ROCK
Everybody Hurts was released as a single in 1993 as a track from the studio album Automatic for the People by American, alternative rock band R.E.M..
Everybody Hurts is a very powerful and effective call-to-action; a plea for one to ‘hold on’ to life. It can feel very personal when writers of emotive and sensitive topics use a second-person perspective, speaking to ‘you,’ the listener. This is another example of a highly poetic song, in which the songwriters are able to convey strong feelings and deep emotions. The lyrics of this song appear to acknowledge and empathize with ‘your’ hurt and understand ‘your’ pain. It is a clever and effective technique.
The narrative of the song adheres to the notion that desperation is felt by everyone. That anyone can reach rock bottom, not only the grief-stricken, but also the defeated, the wronged, and even ‘you’. Of course, not everyone would consider committing suicide, but as the narrator reminds us many times throughout the song, ‘everybody hurts sometimes’ and yet ‘you are not alone’, so the song acts as comfort in that regard.
The song is constructed in a way that uses minor chords to produce sadness in the music. The dynamic is strong at times, it is, after all, a rock ballad. The energy builds and drops and where the lyrics provide motivational encouragement the sound really cuts through to the core.
There is evidence to be seen that Everybody Hurts has been a great source of inspiration, a great help and a healer for many; it is an important song.
Everybody Hurts has been covered by many artists, too numerous in numbers to mention in this short profile.
Trivia Fact: Everybody Hurts was written by R.E.M.’s drummer, William ‘Bill’ Thomas Berry, but the song is accredited to the band R.E.M. as a whole.
As this list demonstrates, the subject of suicide is explored in many ways by creatives who are able to convey empathy and understanding using creative writing skills; all are poets in fact, and all in our list are unique performing artists.