Last week, we covered our favorite songs, books, films, etc., about falling in love. But what about the other end of the spectrum? What are your favorite pieces of art about relationships coming apart, or people reacting to the end of a relationship?
Last year, I took the rare step of reading the big book of the season when it came out, instead of three years after everyone else read it: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which turned out to be an in-depth chronicle of one relationship in particular, from its awkward origins to its heyday to its trials to its gradual dissolution, as the central couple grow up, change, find other interests, and eventually find other lovers. It’s an admirably mature and detailed book about the reasons people get together in the first place, the reasons they stay together, and the reasons they might eventually let go. It’s rich in characterization as well as incident, and it’s one of the best books about relationships I’ve ever read. There’s nothing particularly mature about another favorite of mine, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking”: Her kiss-off to an unfaithful lover is all self-righteous attitude and aggression. But there’s something to be said for art about being confident and certain when a relationship comes apart, instead of clingy and miserable.
Really, most Leonard Cohen songs seem to be in some sense about falling out of love, but none more so—and none more tragic than—“Death Of A Ladies’ Man.” The song describes an intense romance that, like the very idea of romance in Cohen’s songs, is doomed to wither and die on the vine. “Ladies’ Man” stages the tension between the robust lyrical liveliness of “the great affair” and the ending fatalism. The closing lyrics are truly despairing: “So the great affair is over, but whoever would have guessed / it would leave us all so vacant and so deeply unimpressed? / It’s like our visit to the moon or to that other star / I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far.” Cohen seems to be asking whether romance exists in those moments of intense physicality, or in some grander, cosmic congress that we can never realize. The song seems to pine for the latter, and in doing so, it becomes not just another falling-out-of-love song, but a song about falling out with the idea of love. It isn’t only the lovers that lose their spark and potency, but love itself. (Cohen himself noted that the song is about “getting creamed” in his personal romantic relationships.) All this bleakness is packaged as an epic Phil Spector-produced ditty. The typically Spector-esque production on the Ladies’ Man record drew a lot of flak from some; it was kind of the equivalent of Dylan going electric. But the pairing of Cohen’s fractured crooning and Spector’s fulsome wall-of-sound production makes for one of the more haunting lonely-heart anthems ever cut.
I discovered Maxine Brown’s “We’ll Cry Together” years ago via the beautiful cover by reggae great Hortense Ellis. As tear-jerking as Ellis’ version is, though, Brown’s 1969 original is better. In fact, it happens to be the subtlest, most nuanced, delicately walloping heartbreak song I’ve ever heard. The setup is pretty conventional: Brown and her lover are parting ways. The understanding between them is that it’s a mutual breakup, but Brown soon makes it clear there’s another woman involved. Rather than railing against her two-timing man, she swallows her pride and writes him a blank check for her love, knowing full well how much it will eat her alive. “I know you gotta do what your heart tells you to,” she croons bitterly, “but if your heart makes a fool out of you / Don’t let her know, baby, don’t let her see / Hold back your tears ’til you get back to me / And we’ll cry, cry, cry together.” Yes, she’s actually willing to comfort his heartbroken ass if and when he comes crawling back to her. She’s no sucker, though; her quiet strength and nonviolent resolve in the face of betrayal render her saint-like. The tension between the tentative, descending melody of the verse and the chorus’ soaring yet steely twist is as painful as it is pleasurable. Brown’s self-mocking chuckle between the lines “Where did I fail you?” and “That’s the big question” is devastating. And the shades of resentment, regret, and devotion she milks out of every couplet is superhuman. Fuck. Listening to the song in a coffee shop while writing this, I’m choking back a sob.
To this day, I can’t watch The War Of The Roses. Maybe it’s because I come from a household that had a lot of marital tension, but when I saw the movie when it first came out, the nastiness between Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner was just too squirmingly dark and realistic for me to bear. You really do see a couple go from love to tolerance to tension to outright hatred in the span of almost two hours. In the final scene, the couple has fought to the point where the two of them are hanging off a chandelier, which falls, crushing them beneath it. Douglas tries to reach for his wife as a final sign of love, only to be swatted away as they both die. Even though it was a comedy, the ending left me with chills that reverberate more than 20 years later.
“Chesterfield King” is the Jawbreaker song you put on a mix-tape for your crush; “Sluttering (May 4th)” is the one you crank alone in the car after the relationship ends badly. Its searing bitterness would practically set off a Geiger counter. Lyrically, frontman Blake Schwarzenbach sort of alternates between the esoteric (“Gutters drain west, mud made a mess of us”) and pointedly direct (“If there’s a moral to this story, then I wish you’d show me”), but underneath it simmers a tension that erupts at the end: “I made a word / to give this state a name, this game a guess / I call it ‘sluttering’ / it means as little as your little test / you are your worst revenge / your very means, they have no ends / this is a story you won’t tell the kids we’ll never have.” The song ends with a caustic dismissal that, considering what came before it, makes “fuck you” sound friendly by comparison: Over a staccato rhythm, Schwarzenbach repeatedly howls “If you hear this song a hundred times, it still won’t be enough.” For those seeking catharsis after a bitter breakup, a hundred times won’t be enough, either.
I’m not exactly known for being a big Dave Matthews fan, but a major sentimental favorite in this category is his song “Say Goodbye.” In college, I had a major crush on a guy friend of mine, and I dithered over whether to make a move or keep the friendship. One night, we hooked up, and then—disaster—things were awkward for some time after. It was my worst-case scenario come to life. A friend of mine told me that even though I often mocked Matthews, I should listen to the song. It turned out to be about exactly what was tearing me up: two friends getting together romantically just for one night, and then the next day going back to being normal. (As if that’s so easy. Right, Dave?) This particular romantic situation hasn’t applied to my real life for a long, long time, but just listening to the song again now and looking back at the lyrics, I remember the sweet pang of that particular type of angst. I have to confess that now, musically, the song doesn’t do a thing for me, but that line “Just for tonight, one night… love you / and tomorrow say goodbye” still pretty much encapsulates that bittersweet dilemma.
The 1982 New Zealand film Smash Palace, directed and written by Roger Donaldson, stars Bruno Lawrence and Anna Jemison (later known as Anna Maria Monticelli) as a married couple with a 10-year-old daughter, living and running a car wrecking yard surrounded by wide-open nothingness. The movie opens at the point where the marriage is dead in the water but neither partner has yet made a move to end it. The movie’s special power comes from the way it convincingly depicts two likeable people who might once have made sense as a couple (when he was a race-car driver and she was a glamour girl) who now have no business being together, and the way it shows how decisions that were made out of a sense of commitment and that must have been intended to forge a lifelong bond have turned into a source of alienation and resentment. Its special horror comes from the insight that the one thing the two still share, the love they both feel for their daughter, has become the last, best thing they can use to hurt each other. Suggested soundtrack: another 1982 release, Shoot Out The Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson, a thrilling set of songs on which every breath underlines why these two people will never share a recording studio again.
In 1985, Prince was creating timeless music. Morris Day, childhood friend of the Purple One and bandleader of his funk recruits in The Time, had moved on to a solo career. Prince, in turn, focused his energies on new side project The Family, a fleeting engagement to the group’s vocalist, Susannah Melvoin (sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin and late Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin), and a song called “Nothing Compares 2 U” that was featured on The Family’s eponymous LP. Allegedly, it was inspired by Prince’s breakup with Susannah. It’s an odd, ethereal ballad that wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on This Mortal Coil’s debut a year prior. In 1990, a shorn-headed Irish singer named Sinéad O’Connor provided her interpretation of the song, cementing it as a definitive expression of how time can heal all but a broken heart.
I’ll probably get killed for picking this, but it’s the first thing that sprung to mind upon reading this week’s question. Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” was the second single off his 2002 debut album, but probably changed his career and Britney Spears’ more profoundly than anything in either artist’s catalog. Timberlake’s first single, “Like I Love You,” off the Justified album, saw him aping Michael Jackson’s looks and moves. But “Cry Me A River” saw Timberlake standing out as his own individual self, using Timbaland’s signature production style to lash out at his ex, Spears, in musical and visual form. While the song itself was enough to inspire gossip, the video for the track took things up a notch or seven. In the years that followed the release of this single, Timberlake ascended to pop heights few others could ever hope to achieve. Meanwhile, Spears ended up at the bottom of the heap, bald and wondering what the hell just happened. Everyone scorned Timberlake’s dreams of getting back at Spears in some form. With this song, he achieved exactly that. He didn’t have to say what he did. We already knew.
Is there a more delightful breakup movie than Annie Hall? I doubt it. From the opening scene of the movie, we know that Annie and Alvy won’t wind up together, yet watching the disintegration of their relationship has an oddly counterintuitive effect of making viewers believe in love. The final scene of the movie, in which Annie and Alvy run into each other post-breakup, sums it up more or less perfectly:
“We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout” goes the first line in “Jackson,” a country perennial popularized and perfected by the all-time genius couple of Johnny Cash and June Carter. The furious intensity of everything that follows conveys that the couple lived in a fever and broke the fuck up in a fever as well. “Jackson” is everything all at once. It’s a great falling-out-of-love song, but it’s also a great fuck-you song, and a great breakup song. “We’ve been talking ’bout Jackson ever since the fire went out” goes the line that follows but the sass June Carter brings to her performance and the righteous rage Johnny Cash brings to his suggests that the fire never went out: It merely alchemized into hate. Beautiful, beautiful hate.
I don’t think anyone writes about romance in all its quotidian detail as well as Billy Bragg, capturing the intensity of love and heartbreak as well as the way it’s expressed in small moments more often than grand gestures. My first thought for this AVQ&A was Bragg’s “Valentine’s Day Is Over,” a pungent kiss-off from an abused woman that climaxes with the immortal lines, “Thank you for the things you bought me / Thank you for the card / Thank you for the things you taught me / when you hit me hard / that love between two people must be based on understanding / Until that’s true, you’ll find your things all stacked out on the landing.” (I’m tempted to quote further, but really, just listen to the damn thing.) But my own experience is much closer to the slow ebb of “St. Swithin’s Day,” which charts the way a broken romance trickles away even when part of you wants it to stay. Even after a relationship ends, you’re still bound to the other person by your (hopefully) mutual grief, which connects you even as it salts the wound. Eventually, that goes too, or as Bragg puts it, “The Polaroids that hold us together / will surely fade away / like the love that we spoke of forever.” Love dies so we can live on, but it takes a part of us that we never get back.
I can’t say for sure that it’s my favorite falling-out-of-love story, but it certainly fits the general description (and gets stuck in my head for days on end): “Falling Out Of Love With You” by The 6ths. The “band” was really just Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields paired with various indie singers of the day (the day being 1995). Merritt wrote and performed all the music and lyrics, then got folks like Lou Barlow and Georgia Hubley to sing. The best song on Wasps’ Nest is sung by Luna’s Dean Wareham: “Falling Out Of Love With You” is a sort of wry anti-love song that simply flips the usual love-song conventions. “You just bore me more and more / I’m falling out of love with you.” Naturally (?), the song appeared on an episode of Pete And Pete.
My favorite falling-out-of-love song—one of my favorite songs, period—is “Days” by The Kinks, a bittersweet appreciation of a love that didn’t last, but still left the singer better off than before. “Although you’re gone, you’re with me every day, believe me,” Davies sings, adding later “now I’m not frightened of this world.” It’s more considered elegy than kiss-off. Would that all goodbyes could be so evenhanded, even joyous, and that all lost love could be so fondly remembered.
When I think “falling-out-of-love stories,” I think of sad songs, and when I think of sad songs, there are so damned many that it’s hard to pick the one that hits home the hardest. The one that leaps to mind first, though, is a sadly beautiful track called “I Don’t Mind At All,” by a sadly underrated band called Bourgeois Tagg. Produced by Todd Rundgren, it’s a gorgeous bit of baroque pop where frontman Brent Bourgeois sets the stage for a farewell by singing, “The time for talking’s over now / I guess it’s time to let you go.” When he claims he doesn’t mind at all, it sounds like he’s kidding himself—hell, even he admits, “It’s getting so you never know when things are better left alone.” But the truth quickly comes out: He’s miserable, he’s been keeping the relationship going less for love than for sentimental reasons, and when it comes right down to it, he’s “smart enough to know that I have to let you go.” Two moments in the song always hit home for me. The first is when he sings, “It’s important to me that I don’t see you laughing at me,” because face it, nobody wants to find out that your ex has said of your relationship, “I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.” But the final lines of the song have always felt most honest to me: “Several years ago, I said goodbye to my own sanity / But I don’t mind at all.” So basically, you know you were crazy to ever get involved in the first place, but you did anyway, and even though it didn’t last, you don’t really have any regrets. Yeah, I can get behind that.
The doomed marriage at the center of The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee is ultimately doomed to last (hence all the vampire imagery in John Darnielle’s lyrics) but the record’s centerpiece, “No Children,” paints a picture of a fiery, cathartic end for the so-called “Alpha Couple.” Darnielle is frequently praised as a songwriter first and a performer second, but he throws himself into the role of the alpha male with tremendous gusto on “No Children,” furiously strumming an acoustic guitar and yelping the refrain “I hope you die / I hope we both die” in a manner that’s simultaneously ugly and sing-along-worthy. It’s a bold, unsettling, insanely catchy statement about a love that isn’t worth saving—one that, in fact, is best left to be bled dry and incinerated.
Seven years before Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together made its own argument for the essentiality of a doomed relationship, capturing the push-and-pull of a couple that fundamentally doesn’t work together, but can’t fully sever ties. More bitter than sweet, the film takes place in a gorgeously romanticized Argentina where Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung are locked into a passive-aggressive cycle made all the more suffocating by their one-room Buenos Aires apartment. But Wong being Wong, the film isn’t a dirge, it’s a raw, expressive, deeply romantic vision of lovers who may be at odds with each other, but are still capable of creating memories.