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The Power of Love: A look at some of the greatest break-up albums ever

The “break-up album” is a special breed of record.  It takes the personal pain and suffering of the artists and turns it into this cathartic release which, thankfully for the thousands of broken-hearted members of the record buying public, have become beacons of hope throughout their troubled times.

Love has always been a key component to music. As you’ve perhaps seen on the front page of this esteemed website, Nick Hornby said in his novel High Fidelity that, “the unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don’t know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they’ve been listening to the sad songs longer than they’ve been living the unhappy lives”.  But its not just about unhappy songs, its about songs getting through to someone who is experiencing massive emotional pain and trauma. And helping them deal with it.

A “break-up record” has the ability to do this despite a possible blurred perspective, teary eyes and lack of sleep.  The music cuts through the ‘crap’ surrounding a messy break-up, blasting through the logistical and emotional mixed up confusion to cut to the chase and sooth the soul.  A good “break-up album” can massage the mind, bring perspective and even push an individual onto a positive path, after days, weeks or months of negativity.

They are immensely powerful and personal statements from the artists which somehow manage to become personalised for the listeners as well.  These albums bring comfort to those who may then realise that they are not the only people in the world to feel their pain and suffering – even multi-millionaire musicians have messy, painful and horrible ends to relationships.

These “break-up albums” also seem to gain a life of their own.  They become synonymous with pain and ordeal and in a perverse manner can only be fully appreciated when experiencing such pain.  However, listening to a “break-up album” when happy does allow for listeners to recollect and regain focus on their relationships and it is something which all in a happy and fulfilling relationship should strive to do at least once in a while before it is too late and the album, unfortunately, becomes indispensable.

In my opinion there are three great “break-up albums”.  Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, Ryan Adam’s Heartbreaker and finally, Bob Dylan’s masterpiece of pain that is Blood on the Tracks.  If you have recently experienced heart-ache then these albums will definitely help you through tough times.

Tunnel of Love by Bruce Springsteen
Released by Springsteen in 1987 when he was at the height of his fame with the E-Street band, Tunnel of Love was inspired by the ending of the Boss’ first marriage.  This is one of his most personal and introspective statements and a far cry from the bombastic Born in the USA. But unlike some of the other albums on this list, the record is also about finding new love.  The album goes through plenty of themes and ideas related to love and being in a relationship, to give a slightly different aspect to a traditional “break-up album”.

‘Ain’t Got You’ is a light-hearted look at Springsteen’s life where he has material wealth but no emotional wealth in the form of his wife.  ‘Tougher than the Rest’ and ‘All that Heaven will Allow’ are songs where the Boss exclaims his love high and mighty to the world.  However, in the next songs, he radically changes his approach.

‘Spare Parts’ has powerful backing and sees Springsteen return to his favourite car themes.  The chorus bares the powerful lines, “Spare parts and broken hearts, Keep the world turnin’ around” while the typical boss narrative is as bleak as it can get.  In ‘Cautious Man’, Springsteen’s more primal doubts of love and relationships come out as the protagonist has ‘Love’ and ‘Fear’ tatooed on his hands, symbolising an internal conflict about Springsteen’s failing marriage.

The title track sees Springsteen compare love to a fairground ride.  The couple are riding this ride which becomes a horrific and bumpy ride.  Demons come out of the shadows as the Boss wails that “It’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love”.  What should be a simple thing becomes a complicated and uncertain affair.  The message here is that love is a mysterious thing that can end all too suddenly.

‘Brilliant Disguise’ is a more complex track which sees the Boss’ internal conflict become a secondary issue.  The narrator has a flash of uncertainty and stops questioning his partner, instead focusing the blame and questioning himself.  “I wanna know if it’s you I don’t trust, ‘Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself”.  The final song on the record, sees the narrator move into this territory even further as he reaffirms the idea of persevering with love.  He’s ready to move on.

Springsteen’s songs are about battles.  Battles of society against its youth, its army veterans, against broken promises.  Today Springsteen is still battling away at things, We Shall Overcome sees him battling poverty and society in 21st century America.  But Tunnel of Love saw him battling against relationships and the promises made within these relationships.

His soul is tortured by these promises and big decisions made.  He’s as uncertain and as fearful on relationships as one can be until he finally breaks through.  Those who listen to this are likely to eventually have this eureka moment.  Until then listeners will share in the Boss’ pain at a relationship that is failing and share the subsequent insecurities that one feels after a couple once madly in love splits up.

Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams
Heartbreaker was Ryan Adams’ first solo album.  Released in 2000, the novelist Nick Hornby (sorry to quote him again!) has said that, “Some people are at their best when they’re miserable. Ryan Adams’s beautiful Heartbreaker album is, I suspect, the product of a great deal of pain”.  And it would be hard, after having listened intensively to this album, to disagree with him that Ryan Adams was going through some major internal and emotional torment.

The opening track, ‘To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high)’, is a cheerful enough ditty, although there is this lingering melancholy which somehow seeps through.  As with many of the songs on these break-up albums, it’s not intentional.  It’s just his true feelings being played on record. It sees Adams claim that being unhappy is all part of the course of being a young person.  However, ‘Winding Wheel’ has the alt.countryman pleading for his love to come back to him in a most beautifully poetic fashion.

“So buy a pretty dress
Wear it out tonight
For anyone you think could out do me
Or better still be my winding wheel.”

‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ is perhaps one of the saddest songs to have ever been recorded.  I am not afraid of making this statement.  It’s not in the lyrics, although they too are excellent, it’s in the emotion and delivery.  The soft song has Adams almost whispering into the microphone, as Emylou Harris sings harmony and fully exploits her vocal talents.  He longs for something, but doesn’t know what this is, all he knows that he is sad.  If any further proof was needed, Elton John has covered the song.  But joking aside, I know not of the specifics of Adams’ split and sadness, but the results are there, clear for all to see.

‘Call Me on Your Way Back Home’ sees Adams pleading for his former lover, pleading for a second chance.  He misses his lover and pleads for forgiveness.

“Oh baby why did I treat you like I did
Honey I was just a kid
Bubblegum on my shoe
But you love me and I love you

Call me on your way back home, dear
‘Cause I miss you”

‘Come Pick Me Up’ sees Adams long for his muse, despite the fact that he knows that this will destroy him mentally.  He wants his lover to pick him up and put him through all the mental pain, just because he wants to spend a few fleeting moments with his former girlfriend.  Another standout track is the final song, ‘My Sweet Little Gal’ which sees Adams descend into heartbreaking gloomy angst.

Ryan Adams’ masterpiece “break-up album”, is less ‘complete’ than Blood on the Tracks for example.   It doesn’t necessarily present the range of emotions and feelings that Blood on the Tracks or Tunnel of Love do, but for those in a difficult position at a difficult time in the early stages of a relationship break-up there are not many better albums than Heartbreaker.

Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan
Released in January 1975, this album was written when Dylan was having relationship problems of his own with his wife Sara.  Although Dylan himself has said that the songs are inspired by some short stories by Chekhov, he has also said of the album, “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying the type of pain, you know?”  The album is one of Dylan’s best sellers, going double-platinum to date in the USA.  It seems that there have been a lot of broken hearts in that country.

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The album is the break-up masterpiece.  From the opener ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ to the closer ‘Buckets of Rain’, each song encapuslates some aspect of a troubled relationship.  Dylan starts the emotional journey that this album is with “Early one morning, the sun was shining”.  But the pain soon starts to seep through the songs.  ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ sees the narrator obsessed with thoughts of his lover and on the run from his memories.  The somewhat optimistic conclusion that the only thing he can do is “Keep on keepin’ on“.  But this is in stark contrast to the next song on the album, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’.

Here Dylan’s velvety voice sooths and is pleasing to the ear.  His words are measured and reflective.  Dylan is seeking solace in a variety of places; the waterfront docks, the canal, in the park.  The mood is whistful, sad and lonely.  It is a lament to a soul tourtured by love:

“He woke up, the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere.
He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide,
Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate.”

‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ has to one of Dylan’s most measured vocal performances.  It has to also represent the greatest song ever to represent that emotional pain that a break-up can cause – the emptiness inside, the pain that stops and starts – as he pleads his muse to hear him “singing through these tears“:

“A change in the weather is known to be extreme
But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?
I’m going out of my mind, oh,
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we’ve been apart.”

‘Idiot Wind’ sees Dylan become stark raving mad.  His vengeful and spiteful lyrics are spat out with a passion that only love can create.  His words are poetic bile that Bukowski or Burroughs would be proud of.  He snipes that his love is, as one may expect by the title, an idiot.  However, by the time the eight minute song has finished, Dylan’s comes to the conlcusion that both parties are idiots.  This is a song which encapsulates the more heated aspects of a relationship and one which is in many ways a lot harder to express in a musical form.

‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ sees Dylan take a step back and reflect on his relationship in a more measured manner, the song seems to be more of a kind farewll to a former lover, putting the ball squarely in his muse’s court as to whether she should ‘look him up’.  Effectively Dylan is saying, “I’m here for you whenever you want me”:

“We had a falling-out, like lovers often will
And to think of how she left that night, it still brings me a chill
And though our separation, it pierced me to the heart
She still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart.”

The album has other gems, ‘Shelter from the Storm’ sees Dylan explore the idea that a relationship is a shelter in troubled times, ‘Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, becomes a look at human interaction and relationships.  ‘Meet me in the Morning’ sees Dylan plead with his lover that Every day’s been darkness since you been gone.  ‘Buckets of Rain’ sees Dylan joyfully playing with the words but still there is this over-arching emptiness that he’s having trouble dealing with:

“Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must.
You do what you must do and ya do it well,
I’ll do it for you, honey baby,
Can’t you tell?”

Blood on the Tracks is perhaps the best “break-up album” due to the simple fact that the songs are all form a grand statement from Dylan.  It is his most introspective album and his pain is clear for all to see, the album is such a powerful statement that one cannot fail to be moved, even if one is in a happy relationship.  His words encompass a whole range of emotions and can help on a number of levels at different stages of a relationship break-up.  Of course, all of this is unintentional on his behalf, it’s just that Dylan has created the perfect album that will help all people in any relationship split, no matter how messy or painful.

Take it from this author’s personal experience.  Blood on the Tracks will help you through times of sadness and regret. Eventually, that is.  All you need is time and Blood on the Tracks on repeat on your iPod.

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