Monica Heisey

Monica Heisey

The author of Really Good, Actually on Being Alive from the musical Company, by Stephen Sondheim

My favourite love song is maybe a little untraditional in that it’s not addressed to a specific love object. I’m sorry to say it is also a show tune, but at least it is a show tune from the best to ever do them, Stephen Sondheim. Being Alive, from the musical Company, is sung by Robert, a 35-year-old bachelor and romance sceptic, whose married friends have ambushed him on his birthday to insist he find a partner (rude). At first, Robert lists all the reasons love is annoying, scary, even tedious: “Someone to hold you too close, someone to hurt you too deep, someone to sit in your chair, to ruin your sleep…” His friends admit this is true, but think Robert is giving love short shrift. Yes, it can be inconvenient and invasive and exhausting, maybe all the first kisses and playlists and poems boil down to two people farting on each other in their sleep, but it’s more than that, too: it’s someone to experience life with, to help you understand yourself and the world, to teach you things and treat you gently and call you out and make you laugh – to vary your days, as Robert says. His list of complaints turns mid-song into a plea: “Somebody hold me too close, somebody hurt me too deep, somebody sit in my chair and ruin my sleep and make me aware of being alive.”

‘A show tune from the best to ever do them’: composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, 2000. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
Tom Crewe

Tom Crewe

The author of The New Life on I’m Still Here by Tom Waits

For a writer, I have a strange lack of interest in song lyrics. I can listen to a song for years without really knowing the words, happy in my ignorance, mumbling my own meanings. I’ve always thought that I’m Still Here by Tom Waits is incredibly romantic – but mainly because of the slow, tender piano; the shyly hesitant strings; and Waits’s voice, which can slouch and smirk and spit and roar, but here just sounds old, richened and sweetened by experience, a little frail as it lifts at the end. Now I listen to it properly, I realise it’s a song about a love that’s only being kept alive by one person, not two. But I’ve always imagined it as about a relationship that’s lasted, that’s lasting still. When Waits sings “You haven’t looked at me that way in years”, I don’t hear it as a melancholy statement of finality but as proof that a certain look, of love, has reappeared. And the fact that the song only lasts one minute 49 seconds means that, when it ends, the first thing to do is play it again. I’m still here, and so are you.

‘Here his voice just sounds old, richened and sweetened by experience’: Tom Waits. Photograph: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images
Meg Mason

Meg Mason

The author of Sorrow and Bliss on I Do It for Your Love by Paul Simon

Maybe it’s because “furniture shopping” doesn’t rhyme with anything that there are so few love songs written about long marriages. Or maybe it’s because Realistic Love Songs would be a hard-to-sell Spotify playlist. But Paul Simon’s I Do it for Your Love is truly an advertisement for the genre. Exquisitely beautiful, intimate, full of pathos, it’s an entire relationship in four verses, as per Simon’s gift: their register office wedding on a not especially nice day weather-wise, moving into a musty apartment with plumbing issues, and the lovers catching persistent colds off each other while they cling to each other through that long winter and for a while after. One day their secondhand rug will get rained on while they’re dragging it home from the shop, the colour will bleed and their relationship will begin to falter. “The sting of reason, the splash of tears… love emerges and it disappears.” As Simon’s final chorus, it’s sublime and heartbreaking, and so sobering for the long-married to think that, for all that commitment at the beginning, sometimes a furniture purchase and the logistics of getting it back to the flat can bring about the end.

‘An entire relationship in four verses’: Paul Simon, 1976. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images
Caleb Azumah Nelson.

Caleb Azumah Nelson

The author of Open Water and Small Worlds on Let’s Stay Together by Al Green

I first heard Let’s Stay Together about eight years ago when I was working at the Apple shop. There was a daily playlist and, when it came on one day, I was just very moved by it. There is a real earnestness to the lyrics. The first line, “I’m so in love with you”, is a very plain but beautiful declaration. I’d never heard it before and I asked around, “Does anyone know what this is?”, but before we could get a chance to figure it out, the song switched. The number of friends I hummed it to and they would have no idea. Then a couple of years ago I was in a taxi and it came on the radio. It was while I was writing Small Worlds and I was thinking a lot about music of that era, the 70s, music that my parents would have listened to. When I found out what the song was it made its way into the novel and I constantly return to it. It’s about wearing your heart on your sleeve – you know how you feel about someone and you aren’t afraid to say it. I am always so interested to hear how people express feelings of love. It’s difficult but the best singers manage it with even the simplest of lyrics. There’s something underneath the words, something in his voice that is so full of longing and you have to surrender to it.

‘Full of longing’: Al Green, c1973. Photograph: Alamy
Alice Winn.

Alice Winn

The author of In Memoriam on Wouldn’t It Be Nice by the Beach Boys

Music gives me a headache. Evelyn Waugh once called music “physical torment” and I agree with him, although possibly Waugh was only pretending to hate music in order to hurt Stravinsky’s feelings at a dinner party. Still, I’m very grateful to the sparse selection of music that doesn’t make me want to shut myself in a quiet, darkened room: I think Rachmaninoff is the most wildly romantic composer, and I love him with my whole heart. As to outright love songs – I’m very fond of Wouldn’t It Be Nice by the Beach Boys. I distinctly remember, as a teenager, wondering how married people could behave so normally when they got to live with the person they loved, when they could sleep every night in the same bed! What bliss it seemed! To have the exquisite privilege of privacy and a person to share it with – nothing could be more wonderful. Wouldn’t It Be Nice reminds me of that feeling, and makes me appreciate what I have, and how badly I wanted it.

‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice makes me appreciate what I have’: the Beach Boys, 1967. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Bolu Babalola

Bolu Babalola

The author of Love in Colour and Honey & Spice on Nothing Even Matters by Lauryn Hill feat D’Angelo

For me, Nothing Even Matters really encapsulates being in love. I must have been a young teenager, about 14, when I discovered The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and this song from the album just made me stop and think about love, perhaps for the first time. It made me fantasise about how it might feel to be in love. The performances are like silk and honey, and the smoothness of their vocals, how tender they sound, makes the song sound like love feels. The lyrics add to that, and their interaction and chemistry as artists adds yet another layer. My favourite line is when D’Angelo sings, “I sometimes have a tendency to look at you religiously”, because it really homes in on the sacredness of love, which alongside the wooing and the flirtation is such an important part of the texture of this song. It’s just so beautiful, about being completely enveloped by the romance of it all and being in your own cocoon; building your own world that you feel safe in with another person. Whenever I listened to this song when I wasn’t in love, it gave me hope that I might find it. And now that I am in love, it gives me a space to explore those feelings.

‘This song made me stop and think about love, perhaps for the first time’: Lauryn Hill performing in 2023. Photograph: NY Daily News/Getty Images
Naoise Dolan

Naoise Dolan

The author of Exciting Times and The Happy Couple on Jolene by Dolly Parton

I tend to be cynical about romantic love, at least in its conventional monogamous iteration; as such, the song that best encapsulates it for me is Dolly Parton’s Jolene. With straightforward chords and melody, set in an anxious C-sharp minor, this Dolly classic has the speaker lengthily accuse another woman – the titular Jolene – of attempting to “take [her] man”. Jolene has done nothing, as far as we know. The speaker’s “man” is the one who’s muttering Jolene’s name in his sleep and waking up crying for her. Rather than take her partner’s sex dreams up with him, the speaker sees this as a Jolene problem. Love, to the speaker, is a zero-sum competition in which women fight for the ultimate prize: a man. Ironically, there’s richer textual evidence of the speaker’s fascination with Jolene – those auburn locks, that voice like summer rain! – than of any detailed attraction to her nondescript man. Of him (besides his strange nocturnal behaviours), we are told only that “I could never love again/ ’Cause he’s the only one for me”. Parton is too gifted a lyricist not to have realised how generic such declarations are, how mass-produced they sound compared with the speaker’s bespoke admiration of the putative other woman. I hope the speaker elopes with Jolene. Regardless, the song bitingly depicts a vision of romance that involves treating people like property.

‘Love, to the speaker, is a zero-sum competition in which women fight for the ultimate prize: a man’: Dolly Parton, 1977. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock
Laura Barnett

Laura Barnett

The author of This Beating Heart on Into My Arms by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

I met my husband, Andy, at the Edinburgh festival in 2008, when we were both in our mid-20s. Our first date was to see the Irish singer Camille O’Sullivan perform in a candlelit church somewhere in the city’s Old Town. Her version of this song by Nick Cave was the standout: intimate, emotive and about as romantic as anything I’d ever heard. A romance that seemed somehow more adult, more clear-sighted, than most – one in which a couple’s differences (Cave’s narrator observes that the loved one – possibly his own former partner PJ Harvey – believes in “an interventionist God”, while he does not) need not undermine the depth of their connection. It’s a message I might not have been ready to hear at 21, but I was at 26, with a couple of painful break-ups behind me. After the gig, Andy and I ran through the rain-soaked Edinburgh streets and shared a 4am kebab, this song mingling, in my head, with the sudden volt-charge of my feelings for this man I’d only just met. Inevitable, perhaps, with such a soundtrack, that we’d fall in love – and that, years later, after our son Caleb was born in 2020, I’d find myself listening to Cave’s song on repeat, finding it just as apposite in describing my layered, fierce, bone-deep love for the child I was holding in my arms.

‘Inevitable, perhaps, with such a soundtrack, that we’d fall in love’: Nick Cave, 2016. Photograph: Alamy
Stephen Buoro

Stephen Buoro

The author of The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa on Olufunmi by Styl-Plus

My favourite love songs are about heartbreak. They never fail to be gripping, affecting, even beneficial narratives. In these songs, decisions are foregrounded; humans are shown as flawed and contradictory; the essence and import of love is reaffirmed. The R&B song Olufunmi by the Nigerian group Styl-Plus readily comes to mind. I first heard it in 2004 when I was 11. It was played everywhere in Kontagora where I lived, and across Nigeria: at barbers, markets, even church events. Olufunmi is about break up – the loss of a lover’s radiance, the ache for their body, the coagulating feeling of dismemberment. At the time in 2004, I preferred other hits such as the more refined and pulsating Oruka by Sunny Neji or the more thematically significant African Queen by 2Baba. African Queen, for example, disavows colonial/western aesthetics and celebrates the Black African skin. But over the years, Olufunmi has been one of my key ear worms. Its supreme quality is its emotional geometry, Styl-Plus’s soulful, serrated, shattering delivery that scrapes and stings you when you listen to it. Like great heartbreak songs, it reinvigorates you over time, perennially reinforcing heart and soul, unlike the transient highs other kinds of love songs tend to provide.

‘Shattering delivery that scrapes and stings you when you listen to it’: Styl-Plus.
Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris

The author of Chocolat and Broken Light on The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack

For me, the ultimate love song is Roberta Flack’s recording of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. I first heard it as a teenager in the early 80s – it was on a mixtape made for me by my boyfriend (later to become my husband), and I was struck by the sweetness of the vocal, its tenderness and sincerity. It’s a strange recording: at the same time deceptively simple and almost painfully slow and sustained, which gives it a kind of tension. With its breathing cadence, it evokes the shifting rhythms of light sleep or the afterglow of lovemaking. There are many versions – the Johnny Cash version, from his final album, is charged with so much grief that I find it almost impossible to listen to. But to me, Flack’s version is the ultimate expression of youthful, hopeful, romantic love; a love that is wholly trusting and completely vulnerable. I’ve carried that feeling with me ever since I first heard it, and it remains one of my favourite songs, untouched by time and still as fresh and surprising as when it was first released in 1972. It reminds me that not everything has to change, that love can still be revealing, and that memories need never die.

‘The ultimate expression of youthful, hopeful, romantic love’: Roberta Flack performing at Ronnie Scott’s, Soho, London, 1972. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images
Louise Kennedy

Louise Kennedy

The author of Trespasses on King of Hearts by Lucinda Williams

My dislike of love songs began at school discos, when the “slow set” – a mortified arms-length shuffle with a boy around a freezing Gaelic Athletic Association hall to the strains of Classic by Adrian Gurvitz and Honey by Bobby Goldsboro – made me want to rip my own face off. Love, I (who had never had a boyfriend) believed, should be unhappy, unsatisfying or, ideally, unrequited. I am still partial to songs of elusive love, and nobody writes them like Lucinda Williams. King of Hearts is from her 1980 album Happy Woman Blues, written when she was reeling from the suicide of the poet Frank Stanford; apparently several other women, including his wife, were reeling, too. The track opens with plaintive strings and the lines “Can you relieve me, baby/ Take your heart from your sleeve”. From anyone else, these lyrics would be pitiful, but when sung in a voice that Emmylou Harris said could peel the chrome off a trailer hitch, they are devastating. Williams offers her lover silver and gold, promises to never deny him, but you get the feeling it’ll make no difference. “Whoever’s holding the cards, please deal me the King of Hearts” she cries, as the song builds to its close. That Williams ain’t too proud to beg destroys me every time.

‘A voice that could peel the chrome off a trailer hitch’: Lucinda Williams, 1999. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
K Patrick

K Patrick

The author of Mrs S on Love Is Overtaking Me by Arthur Russell

I love love songs. I’m the annoying friend who always knows exactly what they’re going to sing at karaoke. In the end, it has to be Love Is Overtaking Me by Arthur Russell, from the album of the same title. It really takes the temperature of love. There are the highs of a new romance managing to overtake the lows and he sings himself in and out of self-doubt: “Is it so different now?/ Or is it just the way I feel?” You’re in the renewed landscape with him, just about frolicking because the melody is that good. Blood pumping in the reverberations of the tune, the whole song surges forward. The lyrics have all the intense commitment of a teenage crush, but with a retrospect, like we never really learned any better and it’s OK. He’s so gorgeous and accidentally defiant on the album cover, too, in his white cowboy hat. “And it’s waking my heart up/ And it’s breaking my heart/ And mostly taking it over/ like the sun shines gloriously through the sky.” Stuck in what seems like an everlasting winter, I have this on repeat, keeping me giddy through the wind and rain.

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