As we all know by now thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow, ‘conscious uncoupling’ is just a phrase for breaking up in PretentiousSpeak. Whatever you wanna call it, splitting from your long-term partner is never anything but painful, and the recovery process usually takes a long time. Even if the split was amicable, you have to give yourself time to literally flush the other person from your system. And if the relationship was in any way abusive, or simply underscored by negativity, it’s going to take even more time to rediscover and redefine yourself.
My recipe would be to equip yourself with some relevant music for the duration of the process. Personally, I find that the best kind of rock and pop music is created exactly under such circumstances – in periods of pain, transition, and change. There aren’t that many great songs talking about happiness and satisfaction, nor do musicians produce great songs in a happy, healthy state of mind. The human mind at peace with itself and the world – if such a thing exists – is simply not profoundly creative. (Just look at what happened to Metallica when they sobered up.)
My favorites are songs and albums dealing with dissolving relationships of any kind – a kind of letting go process that some of these artists managed to capture in all its subtle nuances. Although all these songs/albums revolve around the same topic, and convey more or less the same feelings, thoughts and reactions we go through during our various uncouplings, what particularly interests me are the different moments or stages in a relationship that this music references – either dealing with its aftermath and analyzing it in retrospect, or chronicling its decline and eventual dissolution, or addressing specific moments of clarity when you take stock of the relationship, and realize it’s not going to survive.
The music I’ve chosen here reflects my personal tastes and preferences, and is no way meant to encompass all the good music made on this subject across different genres. This is simply music that speaks to me on a very deep, very personal level.
It takes no degree in close reading to realize right away that Moloko’s final, 2003 album is an electronic ode to the couple who fronted the band, Róisín Murphy and Mark Brydon. Both the band and the couple dissolved after touring for the album, and made no secret of the fact that it chronicles the decline and eventual demise of their relationship. I was just coming out of an intense and troubled relationship myself when this album appeared, and I held onto it for dear life, much as I did with Tool’s Lateralus. I won’t go into a detailed analysis of each song (and there is no subpar song on this album), but just highlight a few of my personal favorites.
The opening track “Familiar Feeling” is a bittersweet remembrance of what brought the couple together in the first place – that feeling of having met the other person somewhere before, all the things they have in common – and also an attempt to reassure themselves that everything is as it should be in the wake of first doubts and misgivings about the relationship. A familiar situation, I daresay, at least in my case.
Nothing can come close to this familiar feeling
You say it all without ever speaking
The slightly self-pitying “Forever More” with its hypotheticals (“What if I drown in a sea of devotion?”) questions the concept of eternal love and the ability of humans to sustain it, as well as the driving urge to find a partner to share life’s journey. Let’s just say that this song is me personified in late 2003.
Gotta find me somebody
But there’s nobody to love me
With its deceptively cheery rhythm, “Blow X Blow” is the heartbreaker of the album for me, capturing the yearning for your ex-lover while you desperately try to disentangle yourself from the emotion. There is nothing to do in the end but face the pain, although it’s literally-not-figuratively killing you.
Kill me slow
Blow by blow
What a way to go
Hey hey hey
You didn’t mean those things you said
You didn’t mean those things
Not exactly a break-up album, but definitely one that addresses the issue of letting go, especially of poisonous relationships/notions/ideas. Since I’ve already discussed the album at some length here, and highlighted a few songs, I’ll give more space now to the brilliant “The Grudge,” a mini-study in alchemy, forgiveness, and giving up control:
Give away the stone
Let the oceans take and transmutate
This cold and fated anchor
Give away the stone
Let the waters kiss and transmutate
These leaden grudges into gold
When Adele burst onto the music scene with this highly autobiographical album, it wasn’t just her beautiful voice and great songs that captured so many people, but also the deeply-felt lyrics describing the circumstances of her tumultous relationship, and her misery after the break-up. “Someone Like You” simply wouldn’t get off the top of the charts for months, and it’s easy to see why. But my personal favorite from the album is “Turning Tables,” probably because it so eloquently captured some of the feelings I had in my previous relationship.
Under haunted skies I see you
Where love is lost your ghost is found
I braved a hundred storms to leave you
As hard as you try, no, I will never be knocked down
I can’t keep up with your turning tables
Under your thumb I can’t breathe
In my book, this remains the best pop/rock song ever written on the subject of relationships, and one of the best music videos ever. Another long-term relationship on the rocks, but in this one Kate is trying to come to terms with the fact that humans hurt those they love, and allow themselves to be hurt in return. Appealing to God is in vain, and getting the other person to put themselves in your shoes (and vice versa) is the hardest thing to do. Basic facts of life, learn them, deal with them as best you can.
You don’t want to hurt me
But see how deep the bullet lies
Unaware, I’m tearing you asunder
There is thunder in our hearts
Is there so much hate for the ones we love?
Tell me we both matter, don’t we?
Close in the footsteps of “Running Up That Hill” is the poignant, dark, desolate treatise on the slow, cold death of love that is Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Nothing parallels the desperation of realizing that two people who used to like each other and shared so much are on different roads that will only continue to diverge.
A relatively recent favorite is Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” a very original song from several different aspects, the most curious one being the late introduction (some 3 minutes into the song) of a female counterpart (Kimbra) who suddenly casts a different light on the man’s story: from his complaints about the way he was treated in the aftermath of the break-up and all the “I guess that I don’t need that, though/Now you’re just somebody that I used to know” the song takes a fork in the path and Kimbra tells us (I always sing this part from the top of my lungs, that’s how much I relate to it):
Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
But had me believing it was always something that I’d done
But I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And that I wouldn’t catch you hung up on
Somebody that you used to know
Another favorite from a more recent pop batch is Pink’s “Blow Me (One Last Kiss),” which maybe isn’t quite there in the pantheon of Kate Bush and Joy Division and Tool, but the song came out round the time my last relationship was going down the drain, and the lyrics captured my mood perfectly:
White knuckles and sweaty palms from hanging on too tight
Clenched shut jaw, I’ve got another headache again tonight
Eyes on fire, eyes on fire, and they burn from all the tears
I’ve been crying, I’ve been crying, I’ve been dying over you
Tie a knot in the rope, tryin’ to hold, tryin’ to hold
But there’s nothing to grasp so I let go
To end on a slightly different note, the last two are songs from the fringe, and counterpoint Pink quite nicely, seeing as they belong to the metal genre, but when they’re not sacrificing goats during the long dark polar winters, these guys suffer just like the rest of us.
The heart-breaking video about loneliness in old age offers an interesting alternative to the usual esthetics of love song videos, whereas the song deals with the same relationship pattern discussed before: initial passion is slowly substituted by misunderstandings, fights, pain, and eventual loss of interest in trying to make it work.
Each teardrop from your eyes
Makes something inside me die
Each of these days that draws us apart
Takes a piece a from my heart
Kill me kill me kill me again with your love and chase the storm away
Bring me bring me bring me the end with your love
And haunt the demons away
On the other hand, Opeth’s “To Bid You Farewell” offers a largely instrumental, meditative, quietly despairing perspective on love gone awry. It’s a piece I mostly listen to in the fall because it somehow best belongs to that time of year, and if you give it a try I’m sure you’ll understand why.
And in sadness I lumber
In my own ashes
I am standing without a soul