So clearly I’m really late to the game on this, but a couple weekends ago as I was driving down to Portland, I started listening to the This American Life podcast. It’s so good! I love the way these radio segments really value stories and the importance they hold, and how each segment is a collection of stories based on the theme. The first one I listened to was about break-ups, and the first act (each segment is divided into three acts) was about break-up songs in particular. It was so fascinating because it followed a woman through a break-up that made her start to analyze why people love break-up songs so much, and why someone going through a break-up would want to listen to a song about breaking up that is obviously going to make them feel worse. Then she decides that she needs to write a break-up song. She makes reference to Phil Collins’ song “Against All Odds” several times as being a cornerstone of her own post-break-up experience, and then by a stroke of luck and the right connections, she’s able to have a phone conversation with Phil Collins about how to write a good break-up song.
I find myself gravitating toward break-up songs a lot, even when I’m not being broken up with (which thankfully is most of the time), and I think the appealing thing about them is that it’s kind of a shared cathartic experience with the artist. A musician is able to put words to all of the horrible feelings, from mourning to anger to disbelief to pleading desperation, you’re experiencing so deeply and wholly but can’t express yourself in words. There’s comradery in that, like “Phil Collins knows exactly what I’m feeling right now” and even though it doesn’t alleviate how terrible you feel, it’s kind of nice to know that you’re not the only one who has ever felt that way, and to have a name for it. “Against All Odds” may quite possible be the saddest break-up song of all time: from characterizing himself as an empty space in the wake of his lover’s absence to the pleading assertion that she was the only one who ever knew him it all and vice versa, it’s absolutely pitiful. As in, it makes me feel genuinely full of pity for Phil Collins and what he must have been subjected to to be able to write such a heart-wrenching song.
Anyhow, after listening to that podcast, it got me thinking about my go-to break-up songs and what it is about them that gets me every time.
Bon Iver – “Skinny Love”: This whole album is really sad because every song is about the same break-up, but there’s something especially heartbreaking about this song in particular. He wants to make it work, she’s opting out, and he can’t stop it. When he sings “And now all your love is wasted / Well then, who the hell was I?” it’s like an eruption of raw, bitter emotion that stems from a place of not wanting to believe that that could be true. I’ve been there, Bon Iver, I’ve been there.
Ryan Adams – “Why Do They Leave?”: It seems like Ryan was a little blindsided, like he struggling to wrap his head around why his lover would leave him and now he’s trying to reconcile the fact that he’s completely alone and left with nothing. “Lover, why do you leave / on the day that I want you for me?” It’s a cruel irony that is ripping him apart emotionally, and you can hear it in his voice.
Death Cab For Cutie – “A Lack Of Color”: This one starts out kind of abstract, but it starts to break down toward the end and get really literal and depressing. Ben Gibbard drunkenly picks up the phone and slurs a message on her voicemail begging her to come home, and then sings “But I know it’s too late / I should have given you a reason to stay.” Feeling like you should have done more to keep the one you love around is probably the most heartbreaking class of regret.
Band of Horses – “No One Is Gonna Love You”: Oh heavens, this was a staple break-up song for me when my last relationship ended. I remember seeing the title of the song before hearing the actual song and thinking “Wow, that’s harsh.” But in actuality, it’s a proclamation of enduring love in spite of the relationship’s unraveling: “no one is ever gonna love you more than I do.” Just writing the words is almost enough to make me teary-eyed. It’s hyperbole, sure, but there’s something about that statement that feels wholly true in the context of the song.
Elliott Smith – “Say Yes”: This is the I-didn’t-know-what-had-until-it-was-gone break-up song. Elliott’s unlucky in love but when he finds a really stellar lady, he messes it up and she leaves, and he realizes that he’s “in love with the world / through the eyes of a girl / who’s still around the morning after.” Kind of similar to “A Lack Of Color” in that he’s kicking himself for letting a good thing slip through his fingers, and now it’s too late. That’s definitely a feeling that hurts.
So upon further analysis, maybe I like all of these songs because I’ve experienced near-identical emotions in a post-break-up situation? I can definitely relate in a real way to what they’re saying, but it also seems like it would be really difficult lyrically to write a break-up song that isn’t cheesy and cliche, and I feel like all of these songs touch on something universal in a distinct and unusual and poignant way. I also noticed that all of these songs are written by males! Does anyone know of any great break-up songs written by female artists?