Last month, the ATG team celebrated Valentine’s Day with a writer-by-writer exposé of the number one love song of all time. This month, our tenderness has turned, and we’re taking a look at the Wario of love songs, the breakup song. Which homage to heartbreak reigns supreme? How do the breakups break down? Check out our answers after the jump and let us know what we missed in the comments.
The Notwist – “Consequence”
I’d been a fan of The Notwist since “Neon Golden” came out in 2003, but the song “Consequence” burned itself into me half a decade later, during a surreal summer when I was nineteen, three years deep into a relationship, and realizing for the first time that good love wasn’t always hard evidence that a person was right for you.
It was July, I think, and I’d found myself on top of a verdant rooftop in Rome with strangers who played good music and gave me weed, and just as the sun began rising over the arches of the city I accidentally touched some pigeon shit and someone put on “Consequence.” In that slow, yearning beat, something clicked within me–the certainty of my smallness (“You’re not in this movie, you’re not in this song”) and the knowledge that something was about to change.
The song itself is formally sort of perfect. The chorus has a gorgeous, plain symmetry, the vocal melody climbing down by whole steps as the background piano mirrors it in reverse: a structure that maps perfectly onto the song’s content. “Consequence” puts uplift and melancholia in dialogue with each other in the same way a person’s mind might be divided in conversation when she’s mourning a past or future split. And if such a mind happened to be too literary, it might seem tremendous how many ways you can parse the refrain of the chorus, which is just five words: “Never / leave / me / paralyzed / love.”
Honorable Mentions: “DJ Ease My Mind” – Niki and the Dove; “No More” – 3LW; “For Real” – Okkervil River; “Everything Is Alright” – Motion City Soundtrack
Radiohead – “True Love Waits”
“Fuck you” break up songs never resonated much with me, because as much as you want to write them off altogether and forget they exist, you can’t. If you’ve really let someone in, they occupy a place in your life that can’t be filled with some fleeting cathartic release. Anger only conveys so much of the pit-of-your-stomach sadness you feel in that moment.
Sadder are the songs that really capture the gravity of your situation. This is a person you’ve invested in significantly, and for one reason or another they’re gone. There are the songs where you truly feel despair, as if everything is spiraling out of control and there is nothing you can do to make you feel any less confused, anxious and alone (cf. Joy Division’s “Disorder”). There are the songs where you beat yourself about your shortcomings and reflect on the future you’d imagined together that will never come to be (The Smith’s “I Know It’s Over,” but Jeff Buckley’s version is just as affecting). There are the particularly devastating songs where you try to reconcile being completely heartbroken but still want the other to find happiness, because you love them so much that you wish them well in life even if it doesn’t include you (Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” is a great example, but that song is wholly insufferable, so let’s go with Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”).
But saddest yet is that last quiet Hail Mary plea to make things work, even when you know they probably won’t. It’s that instant when you see the writing on the wall and you try everything you can to prolong the inevitable – far-fetched promises, flattery, sacrifices, humiliation, the whole lot – before eventually devolves into that one solitary, resigned plea – “just don’t leave.” Sure it may not help, but how can you give up when you know that there is a true love there?
Honorable Mentions: “Disorder” – Joy Division; “I Know It’s Over” – The Smiths; “Girl From the North Country” – Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash
Icona Pop x Captain Cuts – “Manners”
The other side of love is heartbreak and breaking up with someone can make you feel like your world is crumbling. Thankfully there’s always music to help build it back up. Listening to break up songs can help you suss out all the emotions you’re feeling whether it’s anger, resentment, despair, sadness or “just like, whatever he was a loser anyways.” The obvious thing to put here is any Taylor Swift song, but instead I’m going to go with Captain Cuts’ remix of swedish duo Icona Pop’s “Manners.” It’s an all-out girl power I-don’t-need-you-anyways-cause-I-got-it-like-that jam. Dwelling on the past and coulda shoulda woulda’s is so last season and being a strong empowered woman is in. If you were questioning your self-worth listen to this song and remember that there’s no one like you.
Honorable Mentions: Beyonce – Irreplaceable; Egyptian Lover – I Cry (Night After Night); Touch Tone – Make Believe (Chordashian Remix)
Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way”
Allow me to walk you through the twisted web of Fleetwood Mac circa 1977, the year they released the album that would solidify their place atop the billing of life. America’s Sweethearts Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham violently and publicly reconsidered their relationship, while life on the road convinced Christie McVie and John McVie to file for divorce. Meanwhile, Mick Fleetwood held his own as the Michael Bluth of the group, desperately trying to keep the band together. Just kidding! He had an affair with Stevie Nicks, then left his wife for Stevie’s gal pal Sara.
But here’s the thing–not only did they manage to channel this dysfunction into the masterpiece Rumours, but the band continued to function cohesively through money, drug, and health issues for TEN MORE YEARS. That’s a long time to keep making exceptional music with your ex-lover. And though these sour notes regularly transformed to sweet harmonies, only “Go Your Own Way” captures the dismissive indignation required to get over someone you can’t get away from. Also, you have to write a pretty good song to straight up call Stevie Nicks a hussy while she’s two feet from you and get America on board.
Honorable Mentions: The Strokes – “Someday”; Phil Collins, “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)”; Bob Dylan – “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”; Soft Cell – “Tainted Love”; Rod Stewart – “Maggie May”
Patterson Hood – “Come Back Little Star”
Like all good breakup songs, you’re never quite sure if Patterson Hood’s 2012 ode, “Come Back Little Star,” is a song about the death of a relationship or a literal death. All you know is that Hood, a founding member of Drive By Truckers, really fucking misses someone.
Over a lilting piano and mournful cello, Hood’s falsetto warbles, asking the girl who’s left him to come back and take him away, wherever doesn’t matter. Drunk and petulant, the speaker explains: “I’m not really mad, I’m just trying hard to understand. / We both have these dreams too long, to let them slip through your hards.” Sounds like a rough day, bud. This one’s on us.”
Honorable Mentions: “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” – Beck; “Angeles” – Elliott Smith; “Third Planet” – Modest Mouse; “All for the Best” – Thom Yorke
Jens Lekman – “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”
I’m usually the guy who arbitrarily ends things before they get too serious, so I don’t often rally around breakup songs. But when I heard Jens Lekman describe writing this song for the person(s) that have to break someone else’s heart, it felt more appropriate. Now, symbolism and facts about my personal life aside, this song is one of my favorites. It’s got a warm guitar/piano groove that sounds like it was recorded next to a fireplace, a light drizzle of swirling flutes, and just the right amount of that twee bullshit to get you through the sad times. Take a listen.
Honorable Mentions: “Unfinished Business (White Lies Cover)” – Mumford and Sons
No Doubt – “Don’t Speak”
It’s a classic break-up song whose sadness and awkwardness is compounded by the fact that Gwen wrote it about Tony and they perform it together ALL THE TIME. WTFSOAWKWARD.
Honorable Mentions: “Cute Without The E” – Taking Back Sunday; “Cry Me A River” – Justin Timberlake; “The Best Deceptions”/”Screaming Infidelities” – Dashboard Confessional; “My Own Worst Enemy” – Lit
The Helio Sequence – “Lately”
The best thing—actually, as far as I can tell, the only non-soul-crushing thing—about a breakup is when you realize you’re truly, finally, over it. This won’t happen miraculously one morning as you wake to church bells chiming and chipmunks whisking open your curtains to reveal a glorious ex-free day. It won’t happen the moment you walk into a bar and see him snuzzling into some undeserving girl’s neck, the way you wish it could; it won’t even happen the first time you snuzzle into some undeserving guy’s neck, the way you wish it would. The progression will be so slight that you probably won’t even realize you’re over it until you notice your friends have stopped referring to him as Voldemort, or you aren’t upset that you can’t remember the last time he kissed you. It’ll happen when you aren’t thinking about it precisely because you aren’t thinking about it, but when you do realize that you’re finally, totally, really over it, crank up “Lately” to level 11 and fling open your own curtains to reveal this (and every other from now on) glorious day.
Honorable Mentions: “Sweet Dreams (Of You)” – Patsy Cline; “She’s Got You” – Cat Power (also originally by Patsy Cline, but she’s the Queen of Breakups and Cat Power’s version really does her justice); “Heartbreaker” – Girls; “Best Thing I Never Had” – Beyoncé
The Good Life – “Album Of The Year”
This is the only song I think of when I think of breakups. Maybe because it was what I happened to be listening to during my first real painful heartbreak, but I think the song itself has something to do with it, too. The Good Life is Tim Kasher stripped down to pure emotion, and the way he describes a relationship from first accidental meeting through each bit of nonsensical adoration rings so painfully true. As the song progresses he remembers love, tries to vehemently convince himself that he was loved, and finally accepts that his love is over with a screaming, “We started laughing till it didn’t hurt.” Which is one of the truest lines in music history.
Usher – “Climax”
Love totally sucks sometimes, but Usher is here to make it all better. No, he’s not going to save your relationship (though I’m pretty sure every ex I’ve ever had wouldn’t have minded trading me in for Ursher), but he’s here to let you know that it’s time. You may not want to break up, and you may not be ready to move on, but Mr. Raymond wants you to see the writing on the wall. It’s a shame you’re too busy shrieking “NOOOOWHERE FAST” in falsetto to acknowledge the message.
Honorable Mentions: “Ms” – Alt-J; “A Case Of You” – Joni Mitchell; “Start A War” – The National; “Knife” – Grizzly Bear; “Cry Me a River” – Justin Timberlake
Frightened Rabbit – “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms”
There’s a famous Seinfeld episode where Jerry claims to have been a part of a “completely mutual breakup” Unfortunately, in the world outside of classic 90’s sitcoms, that kind of thing is an impossibility. Even when we might have been the breaker-upper, there are lingering feelings, possessive insecurities, and irrational rationalizations.
“I decided this decision this decision some six months ago/so I’ll stick to my guns, but from now on it’s war/I am armed with the past and the will and a brick/I might not want you back, but I want to kill him.”
These four lines articulate everything I never want to admit I’ve felt when going through the grieving process of a bad breakup. There’s such a thin line between stubbornness and determination, and love has a knack for truly nitpicking those hairline differences. Throw in the fact that their crooned by Scott Hutchinson’s expressive Scottish accent, and you have a song that’s a tear-jerking admission of honest introspection and one mighty powerful breakup song.
Honorable Mentions: “Hold Me Down” – Motion City Soundtrack; “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” – Beck; “Album of the Year” – The Good Life; “Baby Blue Sedan” – Modest Mouse
Gwen Stefani – “COOL”
I have an abiding and thoroughly unironic love for this shameless electropop ballad, featured on ultimate nineties babe Gwen Stefani’s 2004 comeback album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. The dreamy, saccharine arrangement harkens back to the synthetic disco golden age of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, and the lyrics never fail to bring out my inner emotionalbro (“Remember Harbor Boulevard/The dreaming days where the mess was made. Look how all the kids have grown up/We have changed but we’re still the same”). I may or may not know how to play this on the guitar.
That said, in the end it’s really a tie between this and all my “honorable mention” picks. “Up The Junction,” a 1979 hit from New Wave giants Squeeze, is a powerfully honest breakup song and also one of my favorite songs period. Every note of “Bell Bottom Blues,” a musical love letter from Eric Clapton to George Harrison’s wife, oozes with shiver-inducing raw emotion. Seventies yacht rock classic “What a Fool Believes” could lay serious claim to the “smoothest breakup song of all time” title. Clive Tanaka’s transcendent minimal remix of “Once And For All” by Clock Opera is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful reflection on growing apart and loss of innocence. And “Bizarre Love Triangle” is “Bizarre Love Triangle.” But, there can only be one, and Gwen it is.
Honorable Mentions: Squeeze – “Up the Junction”; Derek & The Dominos – “Bell Bottom Blues”; The Doobie Brothers – “What A Fool Believes”; Clock Opera – “Once And For All (Clive Tanaka Remix)”; New Order – “Bizarre Love Triangle”
Modest Mouse – “Float On”
Heartbreak: a topsy-turvy subject that varies in scale and depends on different variables. It can tear you to pieces mentally, leaving scars that may never heal quite right that serve as reminders of past wrongdoings. The shit makes it impossible to jump back into a new relationship–fear strikes at the first thought of it. What could happen down the line? What if this? What if that? All sorts of questions begin to percolate through the brain. Fortunately, there are beautiful works of art that remind us that none of that really matters. Those old wounds are just learning experiences to be built on, not dwelt on.
In 2004, Modest Mouse released their fourth LP, “Good News for People Who Love Bad News.” Prior to its release, my musical taste was strongly rooted in classic punk rock, reggae, and ska. I never deviated too far from those realms, until I got my hands on that album. The weekend I decided to give it a serious listen, I was in Lake Conroe, Texas, at a friend’s house. There were a handful of friends, my friend’s parents, his cousin, and her boyfriend. To cut to the chase, I had a huge crush on/fell in love with–take your pick–my friend’s cousin. She was a. beautiful and b. loved good music, so naturally, as any young, music obsessed middle-school grad, I was hooked. But I knew it would never happen. She had a good eight or so years on me and already had a man. Unrequited love to the max, yo. It wasn’t a legitimate break up, but, to my fourteen year old heart, the end of that weekend was one of the worst things to ever have happened to me. Thankfully, I had this record to soothe my woes.
The album opens with horns blowing powerfully, full of sorrow and hope, setting you up for the upcoming ride. “The World at Large” begins, somber, sedate, aware of everything, depicting the story of a man drifting along in search of something or someplace that resonates within him. You think you have your finger on it, but then it slips away leaving you alone and destitute. As the song goes on, different instruments and elements are layered on, building in intensity, drifting you further out, until finally a gentle wave of emotion brings you back to shore. Out of nowhere, a snare drum cracks, commanding the darkness to leave, beckoning the blue skies. “Float On” has begun.
The chorus line says it best, “We’ll all float on, okay.” Shit happens and then it passes. You will survive and live to tell the tale. This song is the best pick-me-up after a swift kick in the balls like a break up. Everything will be fine in the end; life continues its course and so should you. You’ve had your wallow in sorrow with “World at Large,” now it is time to move onward with your life and live it to the steady beat of “Float On.”
The combination of “World at Large” and “Float On,” encapsulates the roller coaster of emotion that comes with any sort of break up. You’ve got your downers and you’ve got your uppers, and eventually you’ll arrive back at center, finding yourself at even keel again.
Honorable Mentions: Mariah Carey – “Heartbreaker”; Blondie – “Heart of Glass”; Ratatat – “Breaking Away”; Mogwai – “Golden Porsche”; Katy Perry – “The One that Got Away (Plastic Plates remix)”