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8 1/2 Songs About Forgiveness

from our Optimisticles blog series

By Wes Kilgore, Well Beings

It’s hard to beat Alexander Pope’s “to err is human, to forgive divine” when it comes to famous quotes about forgiveness. Or, maybe the immortal words of Hannah Montana’s “Nobody’s Perfect” are more to your liking: “Everybody makes mistakes/ Everybody has those days.” Whatever the case, in this week’s Optimisticle, we’ve put together a list of artists who have tackled the difficult task of writing about mistakes and forgiveness — whether they are forgiving others, or practicing a little self-care and forgiving themselves (like Ms. Montana).

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Chloe x Halle – Forgive Me

“Forgive Me,” from Chloe x Halle’s second studio album, Ungodly Hour, follows in the path of the duo’s label CEO and mentor Beyoncé’s defiantly unapologetic song, “Sorry.” In this song about self-empowerment, the sisters “apologize” for not falling apart over a relationship that has turned sour. With lines like “So forgive me ’cause I’m not teary/ Best believe I’ll move onto better things/ Oh, you lie, oh, you lie/ Give me back all my time/ So forgive me, no, not really,” Beyoncé’s “Sorry (I ain’t sorry)” blueprint is all over this one.

Esthero – Melancholy Melody 

After releasing a couple of widely-influential trip-hop-ish albums in the late 90s and mid-aughts, Canadian singer Esthero split with her label and went on to write and perform on three songs on Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak.” In 2019 she came up with a clever way to protest the low streaming royalties that artists are paid by uploading a new single to Spotify with a message in the middle of the song that urged her fans to go to her website to hear the song uninterrupted. She received tons of praise for the bold move, but her career has seemed to be in decline since the Kanye collaborations. Like all of us, Esthero has had some down days, and she beautifully captures one of them in her song “Melancholy Melody.”

Feist – So Sorry

Major Lazer Get Free Album Cover

“So Sorry,” the lead track on Canadian songbird Feist’s third full-length album, The Reminder, is a lovely, straightforward song about some apologies being too little too late. In it, Feist sings, “I’m sorry/ Two words I always think/ After you’re gone/ When I realize, I was acting all wrong.” She goes on to sing about selfishness, impulsiveness, and helplessness – three very big feelings when it comes to apologizing, or whatever created the need to apologize in the first place.

Donny Hathaway – Jealous Guy (live)

Elbow Asleep In The Back Album Art

If you watched Peter Jackson’s excellent new documentary series, “The Beatles: Get Back” on Apple TV+, you may have seen the episode where John Lennon starts strumming a song about being “On the Road to Marrakesh.” Undoubtedly inspired by The Beatles’ time in an ashram in India, the song eventually morphed into one of Lennon’s most memorable solo tunes, “Jealous Guy.” In a 1980 interview, Lennon said, “The lyrics explain themselves clearly: I was a very jealous, possessive guy… A very insecure male.” In this version, recorded exclusively for his 1973 live album, Donny Hathaway adds honkytonk piano to the tune and takes it places John Lennon probably never imagined it could go.

Ani DiFranco – Angry Anymore

Corinne Bailey Rae The Love EP Album Cover

You’d be hard-pressed to find any musicians whose songs are more self-reflective than Ani DiFranco’s. By most accounts, she spent some tough years busking on the streets of Buffalo on her way to indie folk fame. In this song, she unpacks some of the apparent familial dysfunction that led to her becoming an emancipated minor at age 15. In it, she sings, “I just want you to understand / That I know what all the fighting was for / And I just want you to understand / That I’m not angry anymore.

Charli XCX (feat. Clairo and Yaeji) – February 2017

The Beatles Abbey Road Album Cover

On the very specifically titled “February 2017,” Charli XCX teams up with fellow electropop darling, Clairo, and Korean-American DJ, Yeaji, to apologize to her current boyfriend, Huck Kwong, in song. According to Charli’s fan wiki, the date in the title is a reference to something that she did to Kwong on Grammy night in 2017. Neither the song nor the wiki get into specifics, but apparently, whatever it was required a multilingual apology. Yaeji was happy to pitch in with a Korean verse that translates to, “That one word I said so timidly/ Isn’t it too late to want to apologize for saying that I’m sorry?

Ms. Lauryn Hill – Forgive Them Father

Dionne Farris Wild See - Wild Flower Album Art

Recorded at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Studios, “Forgive Them Father” from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill borrows heavily from Marley’s “Concrete Jungle.” A healthy dose of spirituality and biblically-inspired verse runs through the album, and this song is no exception. In it, Hill is asking God to forgive the people who have wronged her in life, while simultaneously using the song as a cautionary tale and a vowing to not be taken advantage of again: “Beware the false motives of others/ Be careful of those who pretend to be brothers.”

Nirvana – All Apologies

Electric Light Orchestra Out of the Blue Album Art

To say Nirvana’s “All Apologies” is a complicated song would be an understatement. It is the last track on the band’s final album, In Utero — and could be considered a coda to the tragic and abrupt life of Curt Cobain. Along with “Dumb,” the song stands as one of the few mellow songs (complete with cellos) to make it onto a Nirvana disc. Some interpret its cryptic lyrics as kind of a middle finger from Cobain to the world for the intense scrutiny that comes with fame. But Cobain described the song’s mood as “peaceful, happy, comfort – just happy happiness” and dedicated it to his wife, Courtney Love, and their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, at the Reading Festival in 1992.

About the Author

ee Dunning, author & psychotherapist providing crisis intervention

Wes Kilgore is a writer, musician and bon vivant based in the Washington, DC area, and the proud parent of two disturbingly well-adjusted young women and two borderline sociopathic Corgis.

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