Songs That Are Definitely About Something, But It's Sure Not Love
from public transit to kidnapped wizards, a playlist of songs about other stuff besides relationships
Has anyone ever told you: “Don’t think about a purple elephant?” Of course, as soon as someone says that, you immediately start thinking about purple elephants. You can’t try to resist a thought without paying even more attention to it.
So when I started thinking about songs that were, as the challenge called for, “pro-single” and “anti-mushy,” it occurred to me that perhaps I was going about this the wrong way. Instead of looking at songs about relationships and singleness and rejecting the whole Valentine’s Day thing, I looked for songs that have absolutely nothing to do with the topic.
Sometimes you just don’t want to think about relationships at all - no love songs, no breakup songs, no single-and-loving-it songs. Don’t people find other things to sing about besides relationships and all the various emotions they bring up?
Of course they do! Here are some of my favorite songs that tell stories, capture moments, and conjure characters that have nothing to do with anything Valentine-y.
The Beatles - "Octopus’s Garden"
If you’re looking for songs that are about something so weirdly specific that you’re certain there has to be a deeper meaning, look no further than the Fab Four. Rumors about the inspirations behind their songs abound - for example, fans often theorize that the song “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is about LSD, but John Lennon insists that it’s about a drawing his son made.
In fact, The Beatles got so fed up with people seeking out hidden messages in their songs that they started releasing songs with intentional gibberish, like “I Am The Walrus,” or songs with real hidden messages, like John speaking backwards at the end of “Rain.”
But “Octopus’s Garden” is a relatively uncontroversial song. Perhaps because it was written by the most low-key Beatle, Ringo Starr, or because it has a pretty mundane origin story, Octopus’s Garden has never inspired any conspiracy theories. It’s just a fun song about living in a communal garden run by an octopus.
Satellite High - “The Bus Is Late (Waiting For The Bus In The Rain)”
This song was featured in one of the very first episodes of the hit podcast Welcome To Night Vale, so longtime Night Vale fans hold this weird song close to their hearts.
I’ve discovered a number of excellent songs from the Welcome To Night Vale podcast’s “Weather” section, which showcases a lesser known musical artist whose work fits in with the show’s cozily bizarre aesthetic.
Like many of the songs on this list, “The Bus Is Late (Waiting For The Bus In The Rain)” is about exactly what the title describes. If you’ve ever waited for a bus in the rain, you’ll relate to the aggravated but resigned lyrics delivered with deadpan vocals. Over a catchy electronic mix, this song becomes an ode to those pedestrian moments that make up much of our lives.
The Mountain Goats - "Clemency For The Wizard King"
“Clemency For The Wizard King” is a track from the album In League With Dragons, a 2019 release from the famously prolific Mountain Goats. The album was initially described as a concept album about Dungeons and Dragons, a hobby the band’s frontman has long been involved in and which is enjoying a pop culture resurgence.
Not all the songs on In League With Dragons fit the fantasy theme - for example, “Passaic 1975” is about Ozzy Osbourne’s drug use at the height of his musical career, and “Possum By Night” is about a possum at night. But “Clemency For The Wizard King” conjures a whole story set in the knights-and-wizards fantasy world of the album, where disciples of a well-loved wizard plead with an unknown enemy to spare their captured leader.
When I saw The Mountain Goats live during the tour for this album, frontman John Darnielle explained to the crowd that he hates when musicians go off on tangents giving the audience life advice, but if he was going to give us any advice, it would be that if our wizard king ever gets taken, we should go fight for him as this song describes. If you want to feel inspired by the courage and loyalty of some fictional cultists, or you just want a bunch of songs about all sorts of things, check out The Mountain Goats.
AJR - "Don’t Throw out My Legos"
AJR is a band made up of three brothers and named after their first initials. It’s a cutesy conceit for the band, and most of their music leans heavily into this. Listening to an AJR song, or even looking at their album art, feels like hanging out at some other kid’s house while his mom brings you snacks and his older brother shows you how to beat a level in Spyro.
“Don’t Throw Out My Legos” is a song about leaving the nest for the first time as a young person. In it, the narrator expresses ambivalence about growing up and asks his mom to hold onto his legos for him, since he’s not so sure about letting go of childhood just yet.
It’s not subtle - the song, like most AJR songs, is completely guileless, saying what it means and meaning what it says. Addressing the narrator’s mom directly, the lyrics in “Don’t Throw Out My Legos” spell out exactly what he’s feeling.
If you’re looking for more songs about experiences specific to the experiences of these three brothers, but which might be pretty relatable anyway, you could do worse than a sweet, poppy AJR album.
Cosmo Sheldrake - "The Moss"
Combining the jauntiness of British folk songs with an edge of Hozier-like otherworldliness, Cosmo Sheldrake sings about well known fairy tale characters, scientific facts, and literary references all woven together to tell a story about storytelling itself.
In “The Moss,” Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky makes an appearance, as do various characters from nursery rhymes. We get references to genuine medical conditions and a poet's take on the phenomenon of photosynthesis.
You could take this song as a playful pastiche of a number of English traditions, catnip for literature majors and just a lyricist flexing his creative muscles. Or, you could read it as a modern fable extolling the virtues of folk wisdom. Either way, “The Moss” is about a whole bunch of things, and absolutely none of them are romance or relationships.
The Saw Doctors - "Hay Wrap"
When I was a tween, my grandma took me on a trip to Ireland. While on the plane over to the Emerald Isle, I discovered a band called The Saw Doctors. They’d just released their Live In Galway! album, so the in-flight music options included a promotional sample of their music.
I fell in love with their Irish rock sound, and once I got back to the states, ran straight to Zia Records to buy all their albums. My very first concert was seeing The Saw Doctors at a tiny club (they're not that big in America!), and nearly ten years later I got to meet their frontman, Leo Moran, at a music festival in Dublin.
The Saw Doctors have plenty of super fun songs about things that have nothing to do with love, like one about the highway that runs through western Ireland, or a local ceili band. Even their songs that are about relationships are often cheeky and humorous.
This song, “Hay Wrap,” is about Irish farmers baling hay. Rather than have one single narrator, the lyrics literally capture the various snippets of gossip, conversation, and complaint that one might hear while out in the Irish countryside during a hay wrap.