Hurts So Good: 5 Amazing Albums About Breakups

The sage Willie Nelson once said, “99 percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice. That’s what makes the jukebox play.” Leave it to Willie to break it down succinctly, even if his percentage seems on the pessimistic side. In any case, it can’t be denied that breakups have been the source for many a wonderful song, and many a wonderful record, as well. 

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The examples we’re about to list aren’t all straight concept albums about breakups. In fact, the artist who made one of them claims the album in question isn’t about a breakup at all. What we do know is that they’d be our first choices to spin for some wallowing catharsis if we ended up as another member of Willie’s 99 percent. Here they are, newest to oldest.

1. For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver (2007)

Justin Vernon was a frustrated indie musician when he holed up in a Wisconsin cabin for roughly three months at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007. The remote environs led him to reflect on a recent breakup, since there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. And although the album touches on many other topics, it works very well as a catalog of all the stages of grief one goes through while dealing with lost love.

The spare instrumentation feeds into the themes of loneliness, and Vernon’s multi-tracked falsetto conjured all kinds of haunting emotions. When he decided to release the album, without a label, in 2007, Vernon adopted the nom de plume Bon Iver (French for “good winter”). Thus, a breakup album became an origin story for a guy who has become one of the leading singer/songwriters of his generation.

[RELATED: 5 of the Best Bon Iver Lyrics]

2. Sea Change by Beck (2002)

The album title of Beck’s eighth full-length LP reflects the altered direction his music would take on the record. To be fair, he had gone the quiet folk path occasionally prior to that (most notably on Mutations in 1998). But Sea Change was a concerted effort to make a more introspective, confessional album than we were used to hearing from the guy famous for “Loser” and “Where It’s At.”

A breakup of a long-term relationship was the impetus for a series of songs that dug deep into the before-and-after of such a rupture. Producer Nigel Godrich and Beck found a sonic template that allowed the artist to project more serious emotional content without losing his identity. Songs like “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “Lost Cause” are top-shelf weepers, and the entirety of Sea Change sustains the melancholy mood as well as one of Frank Sinatra’s “lonely” theme albums from the ‘50s.

3. Tunnel of Love by Bruce Springsteen (1987)

“Thanks Juli” reads a note on the back sleeve of Bruce Springsteen’s follow-up to the massive Born in the U.S.A. The “Juli” in question was Julianne Phillips, the actress Springsteen married in 1985. Despite the gratitude for his new wife, much of Tunnel of Love finds the Boss exploring matters of the heart, and it proves to be mostly inhospitable territory.

Opening single “Brilliant Disguise” depicts two people who find the only way they can sustain their love match is to completely deceive each other about who they really are. The title track uses the old carnival ride as a metaphor for the murkiest waters and darkest catacombs of a relationship. Songs like “Two Faces,” “One Step Up,” and “Cautious Man” paint similarly pessimistic portraits of domestic bliss. Springsteen and Phillips divorced in 1988. Though neither has ever commented on the marriage, this album seems to say it all about why their union was doomed.

4. Shoot Out the Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson (1982)

This celebrated duo was at the tail end of both a marriage and a fruitful musical partnership when they recorded the songs for Shoot Out the Lights. As was the case with Tunnel of Love, the breakup didn’t happen until after the album was released. Yet the raw emotions that play about the album certainly foreshadow the eventual outcome.

Because the pair shared singing duties, the album comes off as a dialogue of sorts, one last chance for each to make themselves heard before it’s all over. Even though Richard did the writing, he ensures that tracks like “Walking on a Wire” and “Just the Motion” allow Linda to get her point across. The final track, “Wall of Death,” is a kind of joyous farewell, as the pair surmise that the thrill of the ride was worth the heartbreak in the end.

5. Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan (1975)

The architect of perhaps the greatest of all breakup albums claimed that it wasn’t at all about his marriage to Sara, which would end two years after the album’s release. Dylan also wondered how anybody could willingly listen to the pain he projected throughout the record.

But he misses the point. We sit through Blood on the Tracks to follow his insight and honesty as he details the ups and downs of this fracturing union. From the colossal hurt and anger of “Idiot Wind” to the devastating sorrow of “If You See Her, Say Hello,” there isn’t an unexplored emotion on the album. It’s a tour de force that still stings and amazes after all these years, and is on the very short list of Dylan’s greatest artistic triumphs.

Photo by John Shearer/WireImage

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