As a writer, I have to accept that almost everything I do will only reach a partial audience. For example, not every Relevant reader cares about the decline of hip-hop, or is interested in how Auto-Tune is creating a “karaoke industry.” However, there will always be a few universal experiences that connect us all, and most of those are connected to either love or pain.
The end of a romantic relationship is such a powerful memory because it takes those two elements, love and pain, and intermixes them into the days, weeks, and months when you come to the realization that your habits, how you spend your time, and what you expect of the future all changed with the words declaring the relationship over.
In the past year, my engagement ended very publicly; partially, because I chose to write about it (see “Empty Altar, Broken Heart” and “Your Perfect Storm”), and partially because that’s just what comes along with living life over the airwaves of three states.
Ultimately, the break-up brought a lot of good into my life: it sharpened my writing, taught me to hold onto character, even more than perceived love. It showed me what real love is: my cousin Derek taking me rabbit hunting to get my mind off the grief and volunteering to “be the dog” (if you didn’t grow up in rural west central Illinois, in the absence of a hunting dog, one hunter must jump on brush piles to scare the rabbits for the other to shoot), my friends taking me to movies, sitting in silence and listening to me cry.
And when I had no love, and no woman to give it to, I found some really great records. Now that it’s all behind me, I remember loving these songs just as much as I remember leaving the girl. In the seventy or so years that popular music has existed, there could be thousands of albums added to this list. These are a few of mine: recorded statements of heartbreak, hopelessness, and finally, determination that met me where I was. These are the songs that told me I wasn’t alone. These are my break up records.
I picked this up for $3 on vinyl at Amoeba of San Francisco, which is hands down the best record store I’ve visited (sorry, Chicago vinyl shops). It was born out of Dylan’s divorce, and nearly fatal motorcycle wreck. Personally, I believe that this is his masterpiece, one of the only autobiographical works of a man whose art remains shrouded in mystery. For 10 songs, the magician stepped out from behind the curtain and told us how much he was hurting, even if it was through fictional characters.
Vital Lyric: “Oh whatever makes her happy/I won’t stand in the way/Oh the bitter taste still lingers on/From nights I tried to make her stay.”
Vital Songs: Tangled Up in Blue, If You See Her Say Hello, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
In 2008, Kanye lost the two most important relationships in his life: his mother died during complications of surgery, and he and fiancée Alexis Phifer called it quits. In three weeks this fall, he holed up in a house in Hawaii with only his pain and an archaic “808” model drum machine, one of the earliest tools in hip-hop. He emerged with a genre-bending album that may one day be categorized alongside soul classics by the likes of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye rather than filed under “hip-hop.” Mr. West only focuses on losing his mom/manager/best friend Donda on two songs, and spends the rest of the project unpacking the baggage from his broken engagement, in which he blames his own blind ambition and workaholic tendencies as much as his ex’s uppity LA ego.
Vital Lyric: “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/all I could show him was pictures of my cribs/He said his daughter had a brand new report card/all I can say was I’ve got a brand new sports car.”
Vital Songs: Welcome to Heartbreak, Paranoid, Heartless
Frontman/lyricist Brian Fallon is clearly preoccupied by four things: classic punk rock culture, the works of Charles Dickens, the Jersey-shoreline imagery of Bruce Springsteen, and his divorce. The album begins with Fallon staring at his ex-wife’s taillights as she drives away, and ends with a declaration that maybe love is worth another chance. The songs in between play out like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” reflections on jazz, death, travel, and friendship, and somehow all of this is viewed through the eyes of someone who’s single once again.
Vital Lyric: “And I Saw tail lights/last night/in a dream about my first wife/everybody leaves/and I’d expect that much from you.”
Vital Songs: Great Expectations, The 59 Sound, Film Noir, Miles Davis and the Cool, Here’s Looking at You Kid
Even if you’re a self-proclaimed “country music hater,” Sugarland is worth a listen, if only for lead songstress Jennifer Nettles impressive vocals. She’s really a blues singer who happens to be in a country band (for further evidence, check out Soul Miner’s Daughter, her previous roots/blues project). Nettles marriage fell apart just before writing the bands latest album, and her lyrics and voice chronicle the experience, not with anger or bitterness, but rather in a reflective and poetic tone.
Key Lyric: “We cried with each other/and we split the blame for the paths we couldn’t change/Pictures, dishes and socks/our whole life down to one box /there he was waving goodbye on the front porch alone/but I was already gone.”
Key Songs: We Run, Love, Already Gone, Take Me As I Am.
“Unless otherwise noted, these songs are about divorce,” said Matt Pryor to a sold out crowd at Schubas(www.schubas.com/), one of Chicago’s renowned music venues. The former frontman for The Get Up Kids, Pryor is hailed as one of the “founders of emo.” But even he didn’t write songs titled “Drunk or Dead” and “Blood on the Floor” before experiencing divorce. While technically two separate albums, Killed or Cured and At the Foot of my Rival, are bookends on the same experience. Killed was penned while on tour in Japan, when Pryor’s marriage was falling apart at the same time as his first band, which was the only real job he’d ever had.
Three years later, he returned to the subject, and wrote about the long-term fallout, lawyer litigation, and the experience of crashing on a friend’s couch since he couldn’t go home.
Vital Lyric: “It’s hard to say goodbye/but at least we got to have this time/at least we got to have this time.”
Vital Songs: Watch the World Cave In, Drinking in the Afternoon, Revenge, Fountain of Youth, Hughes
Despite the fact that Sarah Kelly is an old friend and one of my favorite songwriters, there was a time when I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to listen to her music again. My ex-fiancée and I had once slow-danced around my living room to “Fall Into You,” Sarah’s song that was used on Grey’s Anatomy, and Sarah was scheduled to sing the song at my wedding. While technically a worship leader, in 2006 Sarah teamed up with Guns & Roses Producer Mike Clink for Where the Past Meets Today, a look at a series of abusive relationships she’d lived through. When I heard the same songs recorded live in 2008, her journey overlapped with my own, and I’m guessing with many others facing similar heartache. The crowd’s energy and live cellist helped her Joplin-esque vocals capture the tears of abuse and the grit to change a hopeless situation.
Vital Lyric: “Any price that I have to pay/I’m gonna pay to stay.”
Vital Songs: Fall Into You, What You Leave Behind, Amazing Grace, Remember Me Well