Heartbreak is one of the hardest things to go through. It manifests itself emotionally and physically, the turmoil seemingly never-ending. As music lovers we turn to music to help us ease the heartache because songwriters also get their hearts broken or their egos bruised or have an all-consuming sadness that only music can exorcise, be it through self-wallowing rock or uplifting dance music (just because it’s got a beat doesn’t make it any less gut-wrenching). The following breakup albums were either inspired by a particular breakup, about relationships in general, or just have that sound that matches what we feel, putting despair or indignation into music that our own pain identifies with.bre
Defeated. Broken. Resigned. These are words to describe Beck’s Sea Change (2002). Imagine finding out your significant other cheated on you and then writing songs in the aftermath of this discovery and breakup. Instead of writing vitriolic diatribes and other anger-fueled accusations Beck wrote songs filled with such utter heartbreak there’s no room for anything else. We already knew that Beck was capable of a variety of music but for every folk-inspired tune there’s a funky banger with offbeat lyrics, making us wonder whether he could ever be revealing of himself. Sea Change proves that he could. The production is reminiscent of an Air album if the French duo had their hearts ripped out of their chests and incinerated, with the ashes scattered along desolate desert highways. It is sonically lush and engrosses you with Beck’s tired voice and lines like “it’s only lies that I’m living/it’s only tears that I’m crying/it’s only you that I’m losing” (“Guess I’m Doing Fine”). The helplessness expressed with “losing strength in every hand/they can’t hold you anymore/already dead to me now/already dead to me now/’cuz it feels like I’m watching something die” (“Already Dead”) makes you just want to give the guy a hug.
Taylor Swift, having endured fame’s pressures and her fair share of heartbreak, released Red in 2012, her follow-up to Speak Now. She demonstrates more mature songwriting in this album and we believe her when she talks about being tempted by bad relationships in “Treacherous” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” the ending of a serious romance in “The Last Time,” or longing for a lost love in “Sad Beautiful Tragic.” Red is the album for all those who ever went through a breakup and just want to drive around, windows down, loudly singing along to the radio; or for all those who, after spending days locked up in their room crying over an ex, walk out into the rest of the house feeling bruised but ready to open windows to breathe in fresh air. It’s hard to be blue when you’ve got epic rocker “State of Grace” opening the album or the pop perfection of “22,” in which Swift revels in and feels nostalgic about her own youth. But the absolute highlight is the breakup anthem, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Cue this album when you’re ready to burn your ex’s belongings in effigy.
You know the story: a sick Justin Vernon breaks up with his band and girlfriend, holes up in his dad’s hunting cabin during a Wisconsin winter and records one of the best folk albums to come out of 2007. The cover art says it all: the view outside is obscured by a frosted window, knowing all that’s out there is cold winter loneliness, the same as inside that cabin. For Emma, Forever Ago is both claustrophobic and wide open with Vernon’s experimental falsetto, rhythmic guitar strumming, and choral arrangements. The lyrical content is mostly abstract but as with the best songs, sometimes it’s not about singing along but how the overall sound makes you feel. We can find clues to Vernon’s state of mind in single “Skinny Love” and opening line “come on skinny love just last the year,” where he’s straining to keep alive a relationship that should best be ended. Or with the line “I was teased by your blouse/spit out by your mouth” (“Creature Fear”) Vernon talks of being focused on physical connection but is rejected. This rejection comes again in “For Emma” with an imagined dialogue between a man and woman where she says, “go find another lover/to bring a… to string along!” For those empty moments when there’s nothing but regret, For Emma helps fill the void.
Dance-away-the-blues songs are an age-old tradition because let’s face it, there’s only so much staring-at-the-ceiling-until-the-hurt-consumes-you one can take. Robyn’s Body Talk (2010) compiles some of the tracks off of her three mini-albums released earlier that year and adds additional ones creating an album that is pure dance-pop genius. It desperately needs a repress as the going prices for the 2xLP on Discogs are insane but if you have the money get on it. “Dancing On My Own” tells the familiar story of going out and seeing the one you want with someone else, highlighted by pulsing beats and Robyn’s smooth vocals. “Indestructible” describes how she hasn’t been lucky in love but that she’s going to give it her all this time like nothing can break her but then she wants to get on a DeLorean to go back in time and take back the words she said which drove away her partner in “Time Machine.” She warns people about love’s dangers in “Love Kills” and confesses how she’s afraid of love in “Hang With Me.” This gives way to electropop ballad “Call Your Girlfriend” where Robyn implores her new love to break up with an old girlfriend and to do so gently, implying she’s been on the other side of this kind of love triangle. If you like your synthpop dripping with emotional carnage you need this album in your life.
The Cure – Disintegration
No one makes romantic gloom more achingly beautiful than The Cure and with 1989’s Disintegration depressive wallowers everywhere rejoiced. Perfect for any introspective occasion it also happens to be the perfect breakup album. Hello, the album title! If there was a class called Album Openers 101, “Plainsong” would take up the first and last sections of the course. We relive the happy times captured in pictures (“Pictures of You”), experience the high of expressing one’s love and devotion (“Lovesong”) only to experience the sadness of impending heartache (“Last Dance”) and the nightmares that follow (“Lullaby”). There’s also anger and desperation in songs like “Fascination Street,” “Prayers for Rain,” and “The Same Deep Water as You” in which Smith laments “can’t you see I try?/swimming the same deep water as you is hard.” With the sounds of breaking glass the epic title track begins where Smith describes his own failings. “Homesick” has Smith begging for another “go” before walking away and the album closer (“Untitled”) has Smith sadly admitting that he’ll “never lose this pain/never dream of you again.” Full of shimmery guitars, synths, and emotional lyrics, the album creates a lush atmosphere of love and loss. Perfect for heartbreak in the dark.
Widely thought to be inspired by frontman Jason Pierce’s breakup with fellow bandmember-at-the-time Kate Radley, 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is that album you listen to when the only thing you can do (or want to do) is sit there and leave yourself. Combining psychedelic space rock with gospel and noisy shoegaze influences, along with the expected drug references, it is one heavy album. The opening title track has layers of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” with the Pachelbel giving both a wedding and funereal tone. When Pierce says, “we’ll float in space, just you and I/and I will love you until I die,” the declaration of endless love is coupled with the imagery of the coldness of space. Other highlights among the broken-hearted fare are “All Of My Thoughts,” the aptly titled “Broken Heart,” and “Cool Waves” where Pierce seemingly lets go singing, “baby if you lose your love, don’t take me by surprise/don’t think you’re crying but there’s teardrops in your eyes/if you gotta leave, you gotta leave” then he is cleansed with cool waves, a gospel choir helping him get there. The pain isn’t altogether gone, however, because the album closes with the lines, “desert is any place without you dear/and I will love you/and I will love you…” Bleak stuff.
If you like biting lyrics with your breakup albums look no further than Liz Phair’s debut album, Exile in Guyville (1993). With a stripped down sound and dry delivery Phair burst onto the early ‘90s alternative scene giving the woman’s viewpoint in the aftermath of various relationships and doing so in a frank and sometimes explicit manner (“Flowers”). From the rocking opener “6’1”” where she dresses down an ex to the unexpectedly positive closer in “Strange Loops,” Phair takes us on a journey of past lovers and guys she’s wanted and situations where she’s either criticizing their mistakes or her own. “Help Me Mary” is a harsh look at being in a music scene dominated by ‘guys’ disguised in a story of a crappy roommate and his crappy friends. She learns to stand strong in an unhealthy relationship in “Canary,” feels regretful after a one-night stand in “Fuck and Run,” and in the almost poppy “Divorce Song” she sings about the ending of a relationship. Phair has said these songs were not really about things that happened to her but whether or not that’s true is not really important. The point is that it’s so identifiable: all the anger and loss over failed relationships, the fantasies about someone that’s not interested, or the fire that builds inside a person when they’re not taken seriously, Phair sings these stories and we nod in recognition.
Tell a music-loving friend that you and your love just broke up and you might find a copy of this on your table along with a bottle of whiskey. Ryan Adams released Heartbreaker (2000), his first solo effort, after a bad breakup and the demise of his band Whiskeytown. But this isn’t one of the best breakup albums because every track is a stare-into-your-drink-until-the-tears-fill-your-glass kind of album. Well, it is that. But it’s also one of the best breakup albums because when it’s time to move on the things we tend to focus on are nostalgia and change and Adams expresses these themes to perfection on Heartbreaker. After the raucous number “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)”, “My Winding Wheel” has the singer feeling lost, wanting to be with a woman with a wandering eye. In “AMY” he declares his love and wants to know if she feels the same. He wanders the country in “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” a beautiful ballad sung with music legend Emmylou Harris, implores his love to call in “Call Me On Your Way Back Home,” and begs to be taken advantage of in “Come Pick Me Up.” In these songs you will feel Adams’ longing for the good and bad times because sometimes looking ahead to the unknown is even worse.
Marvin Gaye, known for such hits as “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “Let’s Get It On” made a breakup album called Here, My Dear in 1978. Gaye was going through a contentious divorce prior to recording, owing palimony, and as part of agreed-upon terms he promised his wife a certain percentage of the royalties from his next album. He headed into the studio reluctant to try his best but ended up pouring his heart out in songs about love and loss and the pain of divorce. Check out the album art. The cover shows a burning temple with the words ‘Love and Marriage’ engraved on it. Inside the gatefold there’s a hand holding out a record to another outstretched hand… the album is literally for her. A commercial and critical failure at the time of release, it has since become a highly-regarded album. The style ranges from R&B soul to funk to disco and traditional song structures give way to the more experimental. In “I Met A Little Girl” Gaye sings of the past in an almost doo-wop song taking us back to that happier time, wondering how things changed, and in “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” you know you’re in for some bitter ramblings when the song starts with, “You know, when you say your marriage vows they’re supposed to be for real.” A double-album of autobiographical heartache from Marvin Gaye? Yes, please.
13 (1999) was Blur’s sixth studio album, coming on the heels of the successful Blur, eschewing ‘90s Britpop once and for all and creating something raw and abrasive. Lyrically inspired by lead-singer Damon Albarn’s breakup with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, 13 is also a musical document of a band being pulled apart by Albarn’s more experimental tendencies and guitarist Graham Coxon’s rocker leanings and struggles with alcoholism. Emotional and self-destructive, it’s an album about dealing with losing a part of you forever. “Tender” is a crushing opener where Albarn, along with the London Community Gospel Choir, is willing himself to “come on, come on, come on, get through it.” Albarn barely croons “I’ve gotta get over/I’ve got to get better/I’ll love you forever” in “Caramel” until the song builds with tumultuous beats and dissonant guitars and then crashes to the mellower “Trimm Trabb,” where the refrain “I sleep alone” punches you in the gut. The real kicker is “No Distance Left to Run,” the lyrical closer of the album. With lines like, “I won’t kill myself trying to stay in your life/I got no distance left to run,” it is the ultimate breakup song, when the heart is cried out empty and all you can do is acknowledge they’re not coming back. Cathartic, pure and simple.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.
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