This week’s question comes from A.V. Club assistant editor Danette Chavez:
What’s your favorite breakup album?
I spent a year or so in the mid-’00s in a miserable limbo state, with one long relationship dissolving and another refusing to cohere. Breakup albums had always seemed like something “other people” attach themselves to, until, in this swamp of half-hearted dates and whole-hearted inebriation, I came around on The Wrens’ devastating The Meadowlands. The band spent half a decade on the record, and its 13 tracks sound like it, monuments to heartache that sound like they could withstand a hurricane. It’s got a plain, flat-lit production ethos, which puts all the focus on the cathartic climaxes necessary for Charles Bissell’s tales of unsatisfying hook-ups and queasy, heart-sick hangovers. The album peaks early with the one-two punch of “Happy,” the title of which serves as an ugly knife twist in the context of the song, and “She Sends Kisses,” which plays like a howl from the depths of a post-breakup catch-up date. Fifteen years later, the band promises it’s still working on a follow-up, which I can only pray I won’t need like I did The Meadowlands.
Has Beck ever really come back from Sea Change? I tend to think of the alt-rocker’s achingly beautiful eighth album as a demarcation line: There’s everything before he got his heart broken and made this record, and then everything after. Yanked from the rubble of a collapsed nine-year relationship, the songs on Sea Change are delicate, wounded things, the anguished whispers of a pop star baring his shattered soul. That they’re plenty catchy, in their own minimalist acoustic way, somehow makes them even more crushing—it’s as if Beck is using his songcraft as another form of denial, the musical-arrangement equivalent of the lyrics on “Guess I’m Doing Fine.” The album’s melancholy has followed Beck like a ghost: The supposed “party jams” on last year’s Colors, for example, sound like the smile you might plaster on before veering into oncoming traffic, and his live show—once celebrated for its off-the-wall personality—now comes across like a deeply bummed-out dude putting on a happy face for our sake. Then again, maybe the record is just so powerfully moving that it’s been impossible for me to hear him the same way afterwards—to ever again really buy his funky-white-boy, two-turntables-and-a-microphone act. Every great breakup record is about loss. On Sea Change, Beck mourns his big one, while making us say our own goodbyes to the irreverent goofball that died with his romance.
I lost the first real love of my life to death, not heartbreak, and so it might not be entirely surprising that I sometimes have trouble delineating the line between breakup albums and those about grief. Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell
arrived when I was still just barely keeping my head above the wave of those feelings, and, like all the best albums about loss, it soothed and agonized me in equal measures. Stevens was writing about the death of his estranged mother, but the sentiments he expresses—“Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow”—will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had a door suddenly slammed shut on a connection that’s grown to feel like a fundamental part of themselves. The album’s songs—as beautiful and gentle as anything the Illinois artist has ever produced—nevertheless slam away with a quiet fury at the dividing line between the happy “then” and the paralytic, unthinkable “now,” a feeling that anyone who’s found themselves on the far side of that cruel divide, for whatever reason, can probably find themselves in.
An acrimonious, soul-sapping, depression-inducing breakup detonated over my life when I was 24. For catharsis, I had a bunch of go-to songs, not really an album, until I met someone else a few months later. A Death Cab For Cutie superfan, she played the recently released We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes constantly, and it became the soundtrack to my intensely ambivalent “still crushed, but sort of moving on” phase. I felt the unease of “Title Track” with her, and the gut-wrenching “Company Calls (Epilogue)” spoke to the regret I had about my ex. All of these years later, I don’t know if We Have The Facts helped me feel better or worse. But I listened the shit out of it.
A friend of mine gave me a burned copy of Television Personalities’ The Painted Word with a warning. “Don’t listen to this after a breakup,” he said. “You’ll slit your wrists.” Fortunately, I’ve only had one breakup I’d characterize as truly painful, and I missed the window on soundtracking it with this record by a year, but his admonition stands. The Painted Word is real sit-motionless-in-the-dark-and-obsess-over-your-every-life-choice kind of music, an album that telegraphs its gray mood with its black-and-white cover—a far cry from the paisley explosions of the psychedelic post-punk group’s earlier works. Dan Treacy’s eye for evocative, kitchen-sink drama sketches is here put in service of some of the saddest music he’s ever written; even the happily married mom of “A Life Of Her Own” feels trapped, while the carefree children of “Bright Sunny Smiles” all grow up to be miserable adults who know they’ll never feel that way again. And running throughout every song is a thematic refrain of lovelorn longing and saying goodbye that’s bleakly beautiful, as usual, but yes, potentially fatal if consumed during your own deepest wallowing.
When it comes to the magnum opus of failed-relationship tragedies, it’s hard to beat the shattering force of Pedro The Lion’s concept album about the life and death of a marriage (and life), Control, but if we’re talking my favorite, I’ve gotta go with the one that soundtracked the nadir of my own relationship existence, Tegan And Sara’s So Jealous. While not as mature and bleak as follow-up record The Con, what makes So Jealous such a brutally effective breakup album is the vein of desperate hope running through all the tales of insecurity, heartache, and desire that suffuses the music. “Don’t you worry, there’s still time,” goes the refrain of leadoff track “You Wouldn’t Like Me,” giving false hope to anyone who’s ever laid on the floor of their bedroom, staring up at the ceiling, wondering if there isn’t just one thing they could do that would fix everything. And so it goes—each track of loss followed by one of achingly sincere hope, a one-two punch of roller-coaster emotions that all too perfectly provides accompaniment to the bipolar nature of one’s state of mind in the face of loss. God, what a record.