Alone Again (Naturally)

Album: Back To Front (1972)
Charted: 3 1
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  • One of the most depressing songs ever written, "Alone Again (Naturally)" tells a rather sad tale of a lonely, suicidal man being left at the altar and then telling the listener about the death of his parents. The song connected with listeners on various levels: the downtrodden could commiserate with the singer, and the lucky ones who were not in this position were reminded of their good fortune.
  • This was Irish-born singer Gilbert O'Sullivan's only American #1. It sold 2 million copies, spent six weeks at the summit in America and earned him three Grammy Award nominations (Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year). It was the second best-selling single of the year in America behind Don McLean's "American Pie."
  • Gilbert O'Sullivan has denied that this song is autobiographical or about the death of his father when he was 11. O'Sullivan said: "Everyone wants to know if it's an autobiographical song, based on my father's early death. Well, the fact of the matter is, I didn't know my father very well, and he wasn't a good father anyway. He didn't treat my mother very well."
  • O'Sullivan charted in UK with "Nothing Rhymed" from his first album, but didn't make in impact in America until "Alone Again (Naturally)" was released as the first single from his second album. In the first half of the '70s, O'Sullivan enjoyed a succession of hits in the UK, including two #1s that show his considerable range as a songwriter. The first was "Clair," inspired by Clair Mills, the 3-year-old daughter of his manager Gordon Mills, whom O'Sullivan baby-sat. The second was "Get Down," which shows off his soulful side. O'Sullivan was the first Irish-born recording artist with two UK #1 hits.
  • In a Songfacts interview with O'Sullivan, he explained how this song came together. "'Alone Again' was written with two other songs in a writing period when I was 22 years of age. I had been a postal clerk in London, so I was only able to write after work in the evening. When Gordon Mills managed me – he managed Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck – when he took me on, he allowed me to quit my job and move into a bungalow that he owned where I could write every day. So, therefore, I was in a writing mode, and 'Alone Again' was just one of the songs I'd written. I was really pleased with it, happy with it, but I didn't see it as being any more special than other songs. Suffice it to say, I was happy."
  • Gilbert O'Sullivan said in 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh: "'Alone Again (Naturally)' has no comic purpose at all, and it is not a song that people can dismiss like 'Get Down' or 'Clair.' Because it means so much to some people, I will not allow it to be used for karaoke or commercials."
  • The guitar solo was performed by Big Jim Sullivan, one of the most prolific session guitarists in the UK. He used a guitar with nylon strings to get the distinctive sound.
  • At the end of the 1980s this was used as the opening theme song and "Get Down" the closing theme song of Masion Ikkoku, a Japanese animated series. They were used without authorization, which caused some controversy at the time. However the net result was that a new Japanese generation discovered Gilbert's music and his popularity grew in Japan. Some of his 1990s albums have only been released in Japan, where he has continued to enjoy some success.
  • In 1982 O'Sullivan took his former manager Gordon Mills to court over his original contract, ultimately winning back the master tapes to his recordings as well as the copyrights to his songs. Nine years later in 1991, O'Sullivan went to court again to sue the rapper Biz Markie, who used an unauthorized sample from this song in his track "Alone Again," which appeared on Markie's third album, I Need A Haircut. The judge made a landmark ruling in O'Sullivan's favor that the rapper's unauthorized sample was in fact theft. From this point on, artists had to clear samples or be subject to costly lawsuits.

    O'Sullivan talked about the case in 2010 at a screening for the movie Out On His Own: Gilbert O'Sullivan. He said Biz Markie's record company approached him about sampling the song, and O'Sullivan asked to hear it before granting permission. "Then we discovered that he was a comic rapper," said Gilbert. "And the one thing I am very guarded about is protecting songs and in particular I'll go to my grave in defending the song to make sure it is never used in the comic scenario which is offensive to those people who bought it for the right reasons. And so therefore we refused. But being the kind of people that they were, they decided to use it anyway so we had to go to court."
  • O'Sullivan won't let this song be used in commercials, but he often authorizes it for movies and TV shows, which typically use it for comic effect. Movies to use it include:

    Gloria Bell (2018)
    Napoleon Dynamite (2012)
    Skylab (2011)
    Megamind (2010)
    Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)
    Stuart Little 2 (2002)
    Osmosis Jones (2001)
    The Virgin Suicides (1999)

    And in these TV shows:

    The Simpsons ("The Wettest Stories Ever Told" - 2006)
    Ally McBeal ("Alone Again" - 1998)
  • O'Sullivan had an unusual image in the early '70s, performing in an outfit of pants and a flat cap. With his pudding-bowl haircut, he resembled a Depression-era street urchin. Around the time of the release of "Alone Again (Naturally)," he switched his outfit in favor of an endless series of collegiate-styled sweaters embossed with the letter "G."
  • Sugar Ray borrowed the line "my mother, god rest her soul" for their 1997 hit "Fly."
  • At least 100 artists have covered this song, including Anita Bryant, Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Mathis, Shirley Bassey and Neil Diamond. Pet Shop Boys did a version with Elton John, and Diana Krall and Michael Bublé recorded it together for Krall's 2015 album Wallflower.

Comments: 32

  • Mizuki from Phillippinesthis is a great song better to the song nowadays.
  • DianneWho wrote this article? You have more than captioned my feelings about this song with insight, thougtfulness, and humor.
  • Henry from Hayward, CaliforniaI love this song! Too bad it isn't played on the radio anymore. :(
  • AnonymousThis is such a beautiful song
  • Mark from LondonSome amazing thoughtful comments here, as an agnostic I would love to spend an evening with some of you guys
  • Bruce from San Jose, Calif.For years, I thought this was a Beatles Song....
  • Captain O from Planet EarthWolf has it right. I have buried my entire nuclear family, four children, and a spouse. Trust me, we come into this world alone and we'll leave it that way. I listened to this in High School in my Junior and Senior year. I have seen more life and death than most men ever will. Life is hard and then you die.
  • David Youngdahl from Cleveland, Tn Throwmeapillow . ComJohn from Irvine CA
    simply blown away by the first paragraph of your comment: "... But what keeps me hanging on to hope by my fingernails is..."
  • John from Irvine, CaWolf, I appreciate and understand your analysis of life. But I wonder if there's any little part of you that is open to the possibility that there is a way out of this existential prison. My natural tendency is to view life as "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing." But what keeps me hanging on to hope by my fingernails is the very credible manuscript evidence that at least ten close friends of Yeshua Josephson went to their painful deaths insisting that the Resurrection actually happened. This led me to notice that if a group of people were trying to start a religion for self-aggrandizement, the New Testament is a ridiculously lame, extremely unappealing attempt to accomplish that goal. This led me to notice that if a group of people were trying to start a religion for self-aggrandizement, the New Testament is a ridiculously lame, extremely unappealing attempt to proselytize anyone. Who would write a book as riddled with impossible demands, contradictions and dire predictions as that and expect anyone to come on board unless ... unless it were true? Especially coming from men as rigorously logical and erudite as Paul, Peter, James and John, etc. So, as much as it insults my human intelligence, I just can't rule out the possibility that it's true.

    As far as the song - which is one of my all-time favorites – is concerned, I think it taps into a relatively mild version of something we all experience to some degree if we slow down and confront the crushing absurdity of life. Which is the desperate loneliness expressed by the New Testament's lead character as he hung on the cross. Fast forward to Easter Sunday, and to paraphrase the lady sitting next to Meg Ryan in ‘When Harry met Sally’, all I can say is “I’ll have what he’s having!”

    You could be right about everything, although I hope not. But I would encourage you to explore the New Testament hypothesis and maybe consider – just consider –the merits of placing your bets on Jesus and getting out of life alive :- )

    Damn, I love that song!

    John, Los Angeles

  • Esskayess from Dallas, TxSorry Wolf, but I still think it's a Woe-is-me-Boo-hoo-hoo song.
  • Wolf from Upside Town, PaThis is not a "Woe is me! Boo-hoo-hoo" song. It's a song about the natural state of man. Alone we come into this world, and alone we shall leave it. In between, we have small pockets of togetherness with others, but even those moments are compromises, and temporary. Eventually, we go back to who we really are, and that uniqueness is a lonely state.

    The first verse opens as an emotional lament, the suicidal threat of an emotional person who has suffered a great loss. But like most suicidal threats, it is a bluff. (A person serious about suicide doesn't warn or threaten. They just climb the tower and end it all. And what reasoning for suicide! "In an effort to, make it clear.... of what it's like when you're shattered." He's not dying to die; he's dying to prove a point, a point everyone already knows. How boring! No wonder what happens next is what happens next, presumptuous melodramatic twit!) And like all melodramatic twits, this one comes to his senses. The wedding guests leave, after losing interest in his loss and his bluff ("'My God! That's tough / She stood him up'" Hardly sympathetic words, "that's tough." The double meaning there being the somewhat more sympathetic "that's a shame" and the tough-love callousness of "oh well, life is tough; roll with it."). And the guests leave with "'We might as well go home'" (again, hardly sympathetic) and the "me" of the song follows with "As I did on my own." On his own, going home. "Home" is a theme here. It's ours. We build a house (or rent an apartment), but we live in a HOME, a place that is uniquely ours. Home is the most natural place for us to be, so when we are forced back into our natural state of alone-ness, we go home. And then... "Alone again, naturally." The adverb here is the tell-all. We are born to die alone. It's our natural state. Cry if you must, but then get up off your ass, leave the chapel, and just go home. There is probably another wedding waiting for yours to finish. We need the space, thank you very much.

    Now, the second verse.... "To think that only yesterday / I was cheerful, bright, and gay..." The key here is ONLY. It has that old double meaning we love so much. One is straight-forward, as in "Just yesterday I was happy! And now look at me! It all goes away so fast!" But the other, subtler meaning is in the brevity of pleasure. "Only yesterday" means here that the pleasure lasts about that long, a day's worth and no more. Life before yesterday sucked. Life was great yesterday. Today, life is bulls--t again. Just like those who ask, "Why worry about the afterlife, when you weren't here for the first 13 billion years, and you didn't seem to mind all that much." We'r alive for a brief instant of cosmic time; the rest is blackness. Love and happiness, the same. Life is mostly about dealing with alone-ness.

    "Looking forward to / -- who wouldn't do? -- / The role I was about to play" .... Here the caution is against looking beyond tomorrow. The togetherness does not last.

    Now, some real smooth touches. "But as if to knock me down / reality came around / and without so much, as a mere touch / cut me into little pieces." That "as if" is loaded. It reveals the ILLUSION of reality knocking you down. Reality doesn't knock you down, because WE ARE NEVER UP! "As if to knock me down" sounds its own warning against thinking you're being dragged down. You're not. Reality is that we live in the black hole. You're not being "knocked down;" you're being reminded that we don't get to play in the fields of the cheerful for very long. It's almost a "Where do you think you're going?" gesture. And the "mere touch" that's missing is the absence of any warning. Life doesn't warn, because reality never really does change. We just choose to fool ourselves into believing we have some silly level of control over circumstances.

    The whole "if God exists / why did he desert me?" nonsense is just that, the nonsensical bluster of the fooled. You can't be deserted when you were all alone in the first place.

    And then the brief bridge lyric, about unattended hearts never mending. "What do we do?" is followed not by an answer, but by a repeat of the question, because there is no answer. There is nothing to be done. Heartbreak never mends. We just move on and put make-up over the scars. But the make-up wears off from time to time, and we see the marks. They remain. Forever.

    And I want to say something about the acoustic bridge here. It is almost cheerful. O'Sullivan is Irish by birth, and the Irish have a way of embracing their misfortunes. I think the almost lilting little bridge here is too cheerful to allow the song to be as sad as people want to make it out to be. It's almost an invitation to sway and hum and feel better. It's catchy, in a way. And don;t forget, it ends with the title line, "Alone again, naturally." It's as if the writer is saying, "Here that little ditty of a tune? Cheer up! It's cool, we're alone.. again.. NATURALLY! :-)

    Now the final verse. "Never wishing to hide the tears" at his father's premature death is in keeping with the whole theme of the song. Why hide it? Why pretend anything is otherwise? Life sucks! People die, sometimes way too f--king young. Accept it, as he accepts his loss and cries over it, unashamed to let be, what be.

    And then, when he tries to console his mother, "encourage" even, she shuts down and dies silently of a broken heart. His encouragement, to embrace the life you have left, was rejected. And wen you reject the natural states of man -- life is lonely, and life is for the living -- you spend to much time desperately chasing bad love or die. It's that simple.

    And, by the end, he is alone again, naturally, as we all are. He accepts it, and puts off all idiotic talk of suicide, realizing that to be alone is natural. Uncomfortable, perhaps, but not as sad as we humans make it out to be.
  • Colin from Glen Rock, NjThis song is simply heart-breaking. I think the somewhat upbeat melody of the song only adds to the sadness.
  • Esskayess from Dallas, TxSad song, but it lays the "pity me" bit on a little too much. I kept picturing him sitting and crying at the altar after being stood up and a dog happening by and peeing on him.
  • Camille from Toronto, OhPopular when I was about 14 and could feel all the sadness in the song. I was growing up in a dysfunctional family; parents dealing with alcoholism and mental illness at a time when these things were not discussed. So I felt alone, even in a family of nine people. The song hit a chord with the words "Alone again, naturally". And who of us haven't felt 'alone' like that. It's the word 'naturally' that lifts this song to a place where the masses can relate to it, because sometimes you just feel like, oh, I'm not surprised, here I am again by myself. I agree with Von from the UK, the lyrics are searingly honest. The Irish accent of Gilbert O'Sullivan adds an innocent quality to the song that adds to the heartbreak of the wods.
  • Steve from Whittier, CaIt does sound like the Beatles's McCarney..the song was used in Ally McBeal and the latest installment of Ice Age with that silly squirell Scrat.
  • Tony from Vienna, WvI think this song speaks volumes to those that have lost and do not understand. Many of us are alone, for whatever reason and we don't know what we have done to bring that on and what we need to do to fix the problem. So many songs are just words, this one is meaning....
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyAs already stated this song hit #1 then dropped out but came back to regain the top spot. On July 29th, 1972 it reached #1 & stayed there for 4 weeks. Then "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" by Looking Glass bumped it for one week but it retook #1 for two more weeks!!!
  • Michael from Oakland, Ca"Without You" is a Badfinger song, Nilsson just covered it
  • Rich from Bellevue, WaThis song has a surprisingly and unbelievably complex chord progression. If you're a guitarist or pianist, sit down and try to work out the chords sometime. Starts out simple enough, and you're thinking "No big deal..." but pretty soon it's become "Wait a minute, where on *earth* is he going?!?" And yet, for being all over the map with the chords, it still manages to sound smooth and right and never jarring. A fantastic bit of composition.
  • Alan from Durham City, EnglandGuitar break by Big Jim Sullivan
  • Von from Aberdeen, United KingdomThis is my fave song just now, I did remember it from Ally McBeal too and it was used then for the perfect purpose of showing how Ally was always left looking for the love of her life. It is a searingly honest song and i def rate it as a classic.
  • Ret from Bristol, United KingdomI never thought about the vocal resemblance to McCartney. In a way the construction of the song is reminiscent of Macca, especially the lyrics: an almost randomly chosen theme of the most desperate of human conditions / circumstances portrayed in an almost suspiciously objective metre and rhyme scheme, sort of "too tidy" I suppose. "I cried and cried all day" at the end of the song is possibly a break away from all the cleverness and finally an honest expression about the whole business.
  • Ann from Peabody, MaIt reminded me of my own mother and father. I still know all the words. It should be re-released. It is a very touching song.
  • John from London, United KingdomUndoubtedly his best song. It has the rare distinction of dropping off the US #1 slot and then returning to the top a week later. How many songs can this be said of, either side of the pond?
  • Esteban from ., --this song appears on the simpsons
  • Steve from Las Vegas, NvThis song was covered by Vonda Shepard on the television series "Ally McBeal." Her version was released on the soundtrack album "Ally McBeal For Once In My Life," and was released in 2001. This song is one of my favorites, and it instantly hooked me from the first time that I heard it.
  • David Fowler from Rochester, NhIknew this was a #1 song the first time i heard it. I love it still.
  • Barry from Greenville, NcThis song and Gilbert's voice remind me very much of Paul McCartney.
  • Josemiguel from Madrid, SpainVonda Shepard Cover?
  • Kristopher from Trieste, ItalyWhen I was first taking dance classes, I didn't have a partner. Whenever the classes ended, I would see all these couples walking away from the class arm in arm, and I always walk home alone listening to this song.
  • Ben from Chelsea, MeI rank this song as in the same vein as Harry Nilsson's "Without You," which is also excellent, and I like them both for the same reasons.
  • Guy from Woodinville, WaLOVE this song! Despite O'Sullivan's statement above that this song "has no comic purpose," I have always found it to be tongue-in-cheek, wallowing in misery, "poor poor pitiful me" type of song.
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