Breakup albums are universal -- everyone has their particular album or song that has helped them through a difficult time. The healing power of the breakup album is transference in action (And it doesn't involve sleeping with your therapist). But how do you know when you are fully healed? When can you love again? When will early, angry PJ Harvey or Helium stop seeming relevant?
After you've been dumped by your significant other, a magical thing occurs. Every single pop song is the story of your life, your tenuous emotional state-poignant and sad-realized in beautiful music.
Of course, the magic of music is the last thing on your mind during a breakup. Now I've broken off relationships in many locations: backstage at rock clubs, on the beach, in a restaurant, in Canada. As traumatic as those breakups were, (and try breaking up with somebody in a place as small as Boston. There are too many ghosts.) the worst one was my so-called First Boyfriend, who dumped me during a 3 a.m. walk on the Charles River Esplanade in a driving, pounding rain. It turned out for the best-I was a pawn standing between a love story of Dawson Leery and Joey Potter sized proportions, and the soul mates are still dating today. At the time, I was miserable and all I could see was that I was really hurt at being abruptly dumped with such a lack of finesse. In his defense, however, we were nineteen.
My feelings were so confused after that breakup. It left me in a prime position to fall madly in love with something. It's an inverse of that giddy lovestruck feeling at the start of a relationship when every John Cusack character acts as an indelible reminder of your love. Instead of being in love with love, now every song with misery, angst, and pain becomes a secret code into my inner life! There were no friends waiting to hug me when I had my first breakup; I ran into the open arms of music, looking for solace.
I found it in the serendipitous discovery of Spoon. As a struggling music writer, I had to keep my eye out for new bands and there were lots of articles in places like Magnet and Spin plugging Spoon and their new album, Girls Can Tell. My curiosity was piqued with the endless Elvis Costello comparisons and when I called my editor at the local alt-weekly to ask about the band, he said that the CD had just reached the offices that day.
Turns out that Spoon's new album was a total breakup album, and I was instantly smitten. Britt Daniel spends the whole album fuming bitterly and wistfully over some lost opportunity (the major label deal? his girl?) and the jumpy, poppy music laced with new wave keyboards adds an exciting level of god-what's-gonna-happen-next? tension.
Most importantly, though, in my super-sensitive state the album was clearly a lyrical attempt by Daniel to sing about my life. The first song's repeated, "I go to sleep and think that you're next to me", hit me right in my new empty bed. Even the most mundane lines worked for me with context of the seductive music and Daniel's sexy, raspy voice: "She eats right/ but hurts/ and says it could've been good by now". The regret and self-pity in the line is overcome by the feeling, the familiar "coulda shoulda woulda" idea that Daniel had felt and passed onto the listeners. I was in love with this album and found that it was perfectly sequenced, with a cathartic weeper as goodbye.
"Chicago at Night" has Daniel lingering on the visual of a lonely girl on a plane going to Chicago. She's gone away from him, maybe into a bright new future like that Liz Phair song "Stratford-on-guy". In Phair's song, the girl is "flying into Chicago at night", but the exuberant chorus realizes a kind of nonsensical Zen peace: "It took an hour/ maybe a day/ but once I really listened the noise/ just went away". Coming at the end of an archetypical college-girl breakup album, it's clear that everything will be alright with the zooming guitar and Phair's small glorious epiphanies about the nature of life.
The post-breakup mood gives music more emotional importance, something akin to the truth in that line that Jeff Magnum warbles, "sweet silly music is meaningful, magical". I invested so much of my break-up emotions in the Spoon album so that I could get over them. Emotions do shift, and my infatuation with Spoon lasted for the duration of a weepy month. Days passed, the sadness faded, and the album lost the luster of being a concept album about me. Eventually Girls Can Tell was just another excellent album in my collection.
Breakup albums can become a habit, a way to deal with pain (And do note that I mean breakup albums in relationship to the listener being "broken up", unlike the artist). It's very easy to trace your romantic history out in music. For me it goes something like Spoon, Fiona Apple, Veruca Salt, The Walkmen, and Lyle Lovett. Your mileage may vary-in a poll of my friends, I've found that there's usually a "bitter boy album" slot of the Elvis Costello variety or something that's emo if they're sensitive, the Dirty Three if their sensitivity transcends mere words, and many a girl has a mopey girl album in her collection, Joni Mitchell if she's annoying, Tori if she's loopy, and Fiona if she's smart.
In fact, Fiona Apple's When The Pawn... may be the best breakup album that's been released in the last five years. Apple's husky voice gives a real poignancy to her well-written songs that detail the regret of relationships through lots of piano and typical Jon Brion production, which utilizes a variety of oddball instrumentation. "I'll Know" portrays love through magician metaphors, "Love Ridden" gracefully pinpoints the loss of intimacy between two people (a hug, a kiss, until a wave), and "Fast As You Can" is a great "I'm too crazy and deep for you, boy" song where Apple's riding the beat like it's Outkast's "Bombs Over Baghdad". (Even better? Her song predates that classic.)
It's an act of utter cruelty to the recently dumped girls of America that Apple's long-awaited Extraordinary Machine hasn't been released yet. As a recently dumped girl, I know that right now I need a breakup album of epic proportions. In May I went through a wrenching split, the slow fizzling out of three years. It's been a terrible couple of months. He stomped upon my heart and all I have to show for it are jangly nerves and mercurial behavior, and this façade is all a front for how I feel vulnerable and emotionally bereft.
After three years with someone, you create a lot of memories together. Some memories are inextricably intertwined with music, like it's the soundtrack to the film of your relationship. I can't listen to Iron and Wine (I'd buy him those cds!) or The Shins (he had an endearing boy-crush on James Mercer!).
I've been stuck on The Walkmen's Bows and Arrows for the last three months precisely because it's didn't remind me of him. In fact, The Walkmen's Boston show last February was really a marker for the beginning of the end of the affair.
The moodiness of Bows and ArrowsL works well as an album leading to the end. The Walkmen improve upon the potential of their debut by becoming atmospheric where they once were ambling, aggressive where they once were pouting. Somehow, Bows and Arrows is stranger than the debut and in its strangeness it is both epic and grand.
There's an essential paradox to The Walkmen that makes them work: they're passionate and they're chilly. It's best embodied by Hamilton Leithauser, an intense vein-popping vocalist whose songs are mostly about alienation and urban ennui. The most affecting part of "The Rat" comes when the guitar's rattling slows down and Leithauser confesses, "When I used to go out I would know everyone that I saw/ Now I go out alone if I go out at all". Later in the album, the Christmas bells of "New Year's Eve" leads into the near-chant of "The music's loud/ in your room/ turn it down". It's an inherently anti-rocking sentiment (can you see, say, The Hives asking you to be quiet?) but the lyric works because it's a common city sentiment, familiar within their milleu.
In The Walkmen's milleu, they fret over the city and the mores of young men. When they do sing about girls, like in the lovely "Hang On Siobhan", she's "a mystery" to him. Leithauser is tender, even vulnerable, but as a vocalist he will never bleed for the girl, unlike Jeff Buckley.
Leithauser's vocals provide a strong contrast for the gorgeous music. The Walkmen are one of the tightest bands around, with ratatat drumming and the circus screech of well-placed organ sounds balancing out the aggressive and pretty guitars. The music pushes and pulls against the interior frustration of the lyrical content.
Bows and Arrows worked for me when I was alienated and numb. However, I soon realized that The Walkmen's anger and alienation morphs into utter melancholy when I'm drunk. I couldn't deal with that existential terror, so I decided to move onto a breakup album that had more to say about men and women and the damage they do. I went onwards to Lyle Lovett's The Road To Ensenada, his 1996 album that was released after his divorce from Julia Roberts.
Now don't stop reading here-Lovett is a terrifically underrated artist, along the lines of Randy Newman when he was awesome, and he's not really a country singer, he's more along the lines of a Lucinda Williams, a country iconoclast. Country may be his genre, but he's certainly not hindered by Nashville limitations. Ensenada is the first album that I've cited that can be considered an artists' breakup album, along the lines of Beck's Sea Change or Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, where every track is colored by the failure of a relationship.
Please note that Lovett's last album before Ensenada was a saccharine collection of odds n' sods called I Love Everybody, which is particularly notable for Roberts' caterwauling as a backup singer. It received the worst reviews of his career.
Two years later, he released The Road To Ensenada, a great album where his songwriting chops-wry, dark, and hooky-were back in full force. And the album's subtext can boil down to "Julia, you bitch!" because he's got it in lyrically for a girl from Georgia. The western swing of "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)" was jaunty enough to be used in a Texas tourism ad, but in the verses he leaves his Georgia girl on the side of the highway for asking, "How come you're always/ going on about that Lone Star State?" It's funny, but it's a harbinger for the darker, sadder songs to come. Other songs have refrains like "I can't love you anymore", while other songs feature lonely and suspicious narrators who spend Christmas alone and figure that everyone's making fun of them: "But hey what could she mean by that/ perhaps I'm the fool she takes me for/ not anything more".
In the title track, Lovett's narrator is "sick and broken" in Mexico, with only the nuns to take care of him, and the sparse acoustic guitar to back him up, but his girl's not there, and they "ain't no friend to me". The refrain is utterly damming, and it's clear that someone has stomped upon his heart.
The narratives are rich and emotionally complicated. Lovett is a great writer of empathy, and he places you within these character's vivid lives. Although the mood is one that mixes a strange cocktail of sadness and wry humor, it's clear that Lovett's going to be okay in the end. Particularly since this album is his best album, with affecting songs that use his singular combination of twang, blues, and swing to tell the stories of sad-eyed strivers.
Because if Lyle Lovett can get over Julia Roberts (and talk about ghosts-if your ex was the world's most famous actress, it's near to impossible to hide from her image!), and Bob Dylan can get over pretty models, and Spoon (and a host of other bands) can get over being fucked around by a major label, then you too can survive your breakup. Breakup albums are universal-everyone has their particular album or song that has helped them through a difficult time. I would argue that it's pretty difficult to make Awesome Breakup Mix #12 (and if you've proved me wrong, well, send it my way!).
The healing power of the breakup album is transference in action (And it doesn't involve sleeping with your therapist). But how do you know when you are fully healed? When can you love again? When will early, angry PJ Harvey or Helium stop seeming relevant?
For me, the clearest sign that I was ready to love again happened after my Spoon obsession. My bruises healed and I was far less world weary than when I was in mourning. And again, there was a song: Coldplay's "Shiver".
One day, in a coffee shop, a song with the most spectacular guitar line came on. It sounded Middle Eastern, vaguely cribbed from the Led Zepplin-isms of Jeff Buckley's Grace. Over the guitar, this falsetto is claiming, "Don't you shiver/ Don't you shiver/ Sing it loud and clear/ I'll always be waiting for you". It sounded like a photocopy of a photocopy of a Jeff Buckley song, and it was majestic.
I don't like Coldplay, (again, it's the photocopy of a photocopy thing) but I searched out a listening station that held Parachutes and every day, I went over to Borders and listened to "Shiver". It was spectacular. Chris Martin was declaring his love and fidelity and he was so sincere about it. If Chris Martin could love me, then maybe, someday, I could love again. And so it goes, we breakup and we makeup and somewhere, somebody's singing a song about it.