I’ve struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember.
Admitting it makes me want to make light of this fact with a joke about how terrible my memory is. The anxiety, couched, often, in a sheen of constant critical inner dialogue, leaves me speechless, unable to find the right words to describe what I want to say. (If you knew how long it took me to type that sentence it might bring you a little bit closer to understanding.)
I am always looking to novels, memoirs, movies, documentaries, and especially music to help me move through all manner of struggle. We all do this, I imagine. To help us get past breakups, to help celebrate triumphs, to make us feel less alone.
There aren’t many songs out there that directly address anxiety, not by name at least. I know, I did a bunch of research. I created a playlist on Spotify of songs that include the words anxiety, anxious, nervous. There are a lot more out there about depression but I decided not to include those because, although the two often go together, I wanted to focus on anxiety.
A couple songs that came to mind, even before my Spotify search, were Pat Benatar’s “Anxiety (Get Nervous),” and The Ramones’ “Anxiety.” Both fantastic songs and both are worthy of a more careful dissection in a blog post, but there’s a boppy energy to these two 80s gems that seems incongruous to what anxiety actually feels like. Sure it can be speedy and manic, but, at least for me, anxiety is psychologically paralyzing. The brain so wracked with a combination of indecision, doubt, second-guessing (and third, fourth…), and self-consciousness that even basic human interactions are exhausting.
I hadn’t seen this side of anxiety captured in song, until Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit released their excellent 2017 album, The Nashville Sound. At almost 7 minutes, and tucked away in the middle of the album, “Anxiety” is a hidden epic on an album filled with epics. Isbell can capture emotional truths better than just about anyone making music today. His songs are direct and heartbreaking but also subtle and poetic. They’re crafted without ever sounding overworked.
I listen to this song and I can feel that Jason (or the protagonist — he often writes songs from the POV of other people) struggles mightily with anxiety. He captures, so perfectly, so simply, how hard it can be to deal with the often misunderstood mental illness.
(the shorter, solo-acoustic version of the song — just as good if not better than the album version.)
How do you always get the best of me?
I’m out here living in a fantasy
I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing
Why am I never where I am supposed to be?
Even with my lover sleeping close to me
I’m wide awake and I’m in pain
This is the chorus, which also starts the song, breaking the usual verse/chorus structure because he needs to get it out right away, say what he wants to express before it gets bottled up again. But it’s the second verse that really resonates for me, a description of anxiousness that I’ve never seen described in a book, let alone a song.
It’s the weight of the world
But it’s nothing at all
Light as a prayer, and then I feel myself fall
You got to give me a minute
Because I’m way down in it
And I can’t breathe so I can’t speak
I want to be strong and steady, always ready
Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak
It’s that bared-soul quality to this song, and really, every Jason Isbell-penned tune, that sticks to, not just the ribs, but the entire body, the bones, the muscles, the tendons, the guts. I want to hate him for being so talented and so unafraid to speak about topics often considered taboo, struggles that society tells us to keep to ourselves. Don’t air your pain for others to see. But Jason doesn’t care. He doesn’t censor himself or hide behind phony masks.
Jason Isbell gets lumped into the country genre, but to me what he writes is simply music. Sure he’s got a thick, Alabama accent and plays the gee-tar, but those are just surface level traits. When you take those traits and mix them with honest song-writing chops, what you get are songs that dig deeper beneath the surface upon every listen.