Heartsick In A Pandemic — 12 Breakup Albums To Shelter You In Place
In the first weeks of shelter-in-place life, I came across a dozen different articles offering tips on dating in a pandemic. Advice included how to position your laptop for the optimum angle, and what colors to wear to make yourself more attractive on camera (congrats if you own anything purple). Two months later, I still have yet to see any stories geared toward the heartbroken, those of us who felt like staying home every day with a bucket of ice cream and a bottle of (insert beverage of choice) before it was government-recommended.
After reading The Ringer’s take on the best breakup songs of all time, I realized a better approach would be to explore entire records instead of single tracks (apologies if the word “single” triggers negative emotions right now). After all, how can you really wallow or war without spending close to an hour immersed in an auditory chamber of angst? And since we’ve all had enough of seeing Bob Dylan and Fleetwood Mac appear on similar lists even though most of us weren’t even born when their masterpieces were released, the following list is composed of 12 records released late enough that millennials can remember buying them on vinyl or CD (remember those?).
In case you’ve forgotten what albums are in this Spotify world, think of them as musical novels that provide the listener with a central theme that spans from opening note to closing lyric. Whether you trend toward sad or mad, glad or bad-ass, one of these albums is bound to satiate your broken, bleeding and bandaged heart. You won’t regret filling some of your newfound alone time listening to these records. Plus, turning off the TV for a bit will also give your siblings a chance to finally log into the family Netflix account.
Transatlanticism- Death Cab for Cutie
We’ve all experienced the excitement for what lies ahead while simultaneously feeling flooded with the misery and mistakes from the previous calendar. After all, isn’t that what New Year’s Eve parties are for? So when lead singer Ben Gibbard follows the album’s first soaring guitars and rumbling drumbeat with the simple statement of it being a new year yet not feeling any different, we can all identify. It may be January (insert year), but you’re still reeling from the July night when you professed your love to your longtime friend and never got a meaningful response to provide hope or closure.
“Title and Registration” features unexpected finger picking to create the album’s catchiest beat. Then in perfect Death Cab form, the lyrics begin and it’s soon clear this is actually a painful song about the nostalgia that bubbles up when stumbling upon an old photograph from a relationship gone awry. There’s no one to blame, no hero or villain, just another story that didn’t make sense, scrapped midway through and left to collect dust in a folder. Gibbard sums it up best here when he laments, “Here I rest where disappointment and regret collide, lying awake at night.”
The title track captures the limbo of long-distance love, relying on images of the planet being formed and the resulting islands formed by the deluge of rain to describe the isolation felt when the most important person in your life is living on another continent (especially in the time before smartphones and Skype). Clocking in at more than six minutes, the song develops more slowly than a Wes Anderson film, adding an instrumental layer with each verse. Beginning with piano and eventually crescendoing with guitar, drums, and the closest Gibbard can get to shouting, he and his bandmates respond to the hypnotic repetition of “I need you so much closer” with an emotional, “So come on!” The album could end here and would still rank as one of the decade’s best.
Preceding it is “Tiny Vessels,” an equally powerful yet starkly different song. It recounts a summer fling with sharp candor written in the second person, opening with the soft admission of “this is the moment that you know that you told her that you loved her but you don’t.” Acting without a chorus, the song begins and ends with hushed admissions of feigned feelings for an in-the-moment lust, bookending a guitar-heavy second verse that compares a bruise’s eventual disappearance to the way feelings fade away. As the track winds down, Gibbard continues pushing out painful realizations, none heavier than the simple fact that “we’ll pretend that it meant so much more.”
Are You Alone?- Majical Cloudz
Have you ever had a promising person break things off because she/he was still in love with an ex? Did it happen a week before Christmas, leading you to basically stay in your tiny apartment for the rest of the year, drinking bourbon and listening to depressing music as you try to endure the final days of a shitty 2016? Um, me neither. But should that happen, you won’t regret giving this album a spin. Be warned, however, the songs will intertwine with emotions so quickly that it’ll be years before you can hear them again without experiencing the associated pain and dejection. Singer-songwriter Devon Welsh and electronic musician Matthew Otto blend their talents to create ethereal beats that meander around soul-crushing lyrics.
The title track manages to package red wine, sleeping pills, cheap sex, sad films, and of course death all in less than four minutes. The balance between ruins and reflection continues in “Silver Car Crash,” in which Welsh admits, “I want to kiss you inside a car that’s crashing, and we will both die laughing… while I am holding onto you.”
“If You’re Lonely” unfolds like a personalized Dear Abby response, ending with simple and direct advice: “Now I see it, I was wrong to feel that I couldn’t feel love, that I couldn’t love again, that I couldn’t make new friends and be someone new. So if you’re lonely, you don’t have to be all alone.”
I could fill pages with the poignant prose found on this album, but would be remiss if I didn’t direct your attention to “Game Show” and “So Blue.” The former gently builds from sounds of melancholy bells to a restrained climax, while the latter creeps in like the rising tide of a bay, lapping coldly at the shore as it gradually creeps forward before retreating with the same ease, changing ever so slightly on the third verse. It is there the music recedes and Welsh confesses, “In the rain, I wanted to say I need you, but I felt so in the way of you. I’ll try not to be so blue.”
Give this record a listen when you’re holed up in your apartment in the days and weeks after a breakup, fearing you’re destined to die single and sorrowful. Things will get better, I promise.
For Emma, Forever Ago- Bon Iver
It’s only fitting that the debut album of a band named loosely after the French words for “good winter” slides on like a favorite old sweater. Within the first minute, you’re ready to throw some newspaper and kindling in the fireplace and set it aflame before nestling in for a wintry audio experience. For anyone who hasn’t lived a winter in the north, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon perfectly captures the darkness and desolation that arrive every November, the daily pattern of overcast days and long frigid nights that can span almost half the year.
The now famous origin of this record revolves around Vernon fleeing to his father’s rustic cabin in the Wisconsin woods after he broke up with his band, split up with his girlfriend, and topped it off with a case of mono. On why he chose to leave North Carolina, he said, “I knew that I wanted to be alone and I knew that I wanted to be where it was cold.” Who knew that this self-isolation would prove prophetic for today’s pandemic world?
Opening track “Flume” is a perfect example of its sum being greater than the parts, its simple chords strummed along with Vernon’s falsetto vocals before other elements are layered in. It’s a perfect precursor for the album. Following it is “Lump Sum,” an equally evocative tune that foreshadows the SAT-worthy vocabulary flaunted in future Bon Iver records. While some artists’ lyrics are impossible to ignore, the overall sound of these tracks allows the listener to absorb the overall message without knowing the words. Nonetheless, there are still some unforgettable lines. In “For Emma,” Vernon teeters between vengeful and benevolent in singing, “Go find another lover… to string along with all your lies. You’re still very lovable.”
Attention to his surroundings, however, makes this less like a typical breakup album and more like a Walden musical. He artfully weaves nature imagery into his ruminations, crafting a world where crescent moons cast shadows on the crestfallen below. Dropping phrases like “the moon is a cold light” and “I crouch like a crow contrasting the snow” prove the man is attuned to his environment, resulting in songs that feel like paintings put to sound.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention “The Wolves (Act I and II),” the standout track that hints at the more experimental sounds of Bon Iver’s future releases. As its title implies, it feels like two songs welded together, cascading into cogitating “what might have been lost,” proving that no matter how deep into the woods you retreat, you can’t flee regret.
Confess- Twin Shadow
I didn’t know much about music during the ’80s (unless you count NKOTB and the Cocktail soundtrack), but this album could easily pass as something from that decade. After heavily produced opener “Golden Light,” thunderous drums and distorted guitar riffs reminiscent of Depeche Mode usher in “You Call Me On.” Although I never really got into Prince, for some reason lead singer George Lewis, Jr., reminds me of the ’80s icon, partly because of their apparent shared self-view of being God’s gift to women. That confidence contributes to this album’s success in recovering from a bruised heart. Hearing about the struggles with unrequited love from a guy who’s more wealthy and talented, not to mention better looking, somehow makes you feel better about yourself because you’re not alone in the world of rejection.
“Run My Heart” offers bitter and defiant lyrics served on a bed of synth and keys, pulling no punches as it opens with “You don’t own my heart, don’t you dare. You don’t run my heart, don’t pretend you care.” Listen carefully for similar snippets of futility and failure throughout the record, including lines such as “I’m in love with the unlovable” and “I’ll cry when the movie’s over.” This record is best listened to when you finally feel ready to move on, or while driving to clear your head (and toilet paper your ex’s car).
Love Is Hell- Ryan Adams
Speaking of inflated egos, let’s discuss Ryan Adams! The prince of pain is at his best when feeling his worst, making it a difficult decision to choose just one of his records for this list. Ultimately this 2003 release, originally dismissed by his record label for being “not commercially viable,” grew a cult following that led to 15 years (and counting) of his fans pleading for the release of the B-sides, a still unreleased album with a working title of Black Hole.
Written and recorded early in his solo career, Love Is Hell focuses on several women that include actress Parker Posey, musicians Beth Orton and Meg White (yes, that Meg White), and girlfriend Carrie Hamilton, who succumbed to cancer a year earlier. Needless to say, there was a lot of material for Adams to draw from. He magnificently splices together the themes of heartache and death, blurring the lines so that it’s impossible to know which songs are about which unavoidable life event. It’s by no means his best or most polished work, but certainly one of his rawest.
If you’ve ever been single and like to hang out at bars, chances are good you’ll identify with “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home,” an uplifting reprieve from its preceding gravity-heavy songs. As he does so well, however, Adams dumps his anhedonia onto the instruments’ levity, realizing in the opening lines, “I am in the twilight of my youth. Not that I’m going to remember.”
“I See Monsters” features hushed vocals over fingerpicking as it captures the excitement and anxiety that come with a fledgling relationship while that person is asleep next to you. “English Girls Approximately” is an upbeat summary of a not-so-nice ex, ending with Adams declaring “you meant everything” over a haunting electric guitar riff, leaving it to the listener to decide whether it’s an accusation of her meaning every hurtful word said, or if she merely meant everything to him.
If you’ve only heard one song from this album, it’s most likely the unforgettable cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” Adams’ interpretation, however, transforms the anthemic ’90s hit into a somber plea for love, a feeling that has stirred all of us at some point in our search for shelter from the pain.
Quiet Is The New Loud- Kings of Convenience
I wasn’t alive for Simon and Garfunkel in their heyday, but the Norwegian duo of Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe perhaps most closely resembles some of their sounds. And no, I can’t pronounce either singer’s name.
This record is bookended by perhaps the two best titles for breakup songs — “Winning The Battle, Losing The War” and “Parallel Lines.” The opener shifts partway through as Øye and Bøe harmonize, “The sun sets on the war, the day breaks, and everything is new.” As the last word is sung, the minor chords carrying the first half of the song are replaced by more uplifting guitar strumming, mimicking the clarity that comes with looking back on a relationship and realizing it wasn’t so perfect after all.
The final cut is summed up perfectly in its title, and should immediately draw in anyone who has embarked on the endless quest of trying to make it work with someone, only to be deterred by distance or timing despite the unquestioned chemistry. Alas, like parallel lines, some people never find a way to connect, destined instead to watch from afar as they pass each other by.
Think of all the texts you’ve written to an ex without sending, choosing instead to keep to yourself those lugubrious confessions and bitter observations that only come with hindsight. This in a nutshell is Sasami Ashworth’s debut album, a deeply personal and moving collection of songs crafted on her iPhone while on tour as a member of Cherry Glazerr. Or as Ashworth puts it in “I Was A Window,” the album’s opener and catchiest earworm, “Words hanging over from yesterday’s ending thoughts, all strung together with the feeling I almost lost. So I wrote them all out.”
The magic of this album lies in its ability to encapsulate the gamut of emotions that surface during the heart’s recovery — despondence, bitterness, anguish, rage, realization, perspective, appreciation. In addition to songs about sunken love, this record also covers an arguably more painful topic: relationships that never come to fruition because of circumstances beyond control, namely poor timing. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Not The Time,” which continues the unsent letter motif and is packaged as a breezy summer anthem in which she laments, “It’s not the time or place for us, but you said that you would save some space for us.”
Her underrated vocals also shine in the stripped down “Free,” a nostalgic ballad for anyone who has shared an intimate night with someone they’ve met in their travels, both parties accepting the reality that they’ll never see each other again. You’d be forgiven if you dismissed Ashworth as just another singer-songwriter, as her background is actually playing keyboards and the French horn before she taught herself guitar. Not surprisingly, the former music teacher learned, and seeing her perform live provides an entirely new appreciation for her musical skills.
Nowhere is this more evident than in “Adult Contemporary,” which starts with ominous finger picking before switching into minor chords reminiscent of Nada Surf’s “Popular,” and could easily sneak onto any of Nirvana’s later albums. Despite the brooding and defiant sound, lyrics such as “sometimes I wish I could forget you” imply the fury is merely a facade erected to protect open wounds.
Ashworth engages in a little wordplay on “Callous,” which begins with an admission that she lost her calluses for “you, and you didn’t even think to ask me how my day was. Now I’m leaving.” The song unfolds as a laundry list of ways she’s sacrificed for her callous ex, a familiar feeling for anyone who’s newly single and finally realizing they were investing far more in the relationship than the other person.
Closing cut “Turned Out I Was Everyone” is perhaps the most pensive, partly because it sounds nothing like the rest of the record, and partly because of how its simple yet significant lyrics are delivered. Relying on just 17 words, Ashworth creates a hypnotic admission that is simultaneously comforting and chilling, as if the song itself is embracing everyone in the world who goes to sleep each night feeling alone, providing reassurance through shared experience, warmth through proximity. In an age of social distancing and endless swiping, it’s the perfect elixir for everyone in solitude.
808s and Heartbreak- Kanye West
Whether your preferred form of expression is poetry or finger paint, if your mom died unexpectedly and your fiancée dumped you, chances are good you’d be able to generate some pretty dark and depressing art. Kanye West did just that, back when he was hilariously unpredictable instead of concerningly so. If the record’s name was unclear, the opening lines leave little doubt about its motif as West wonders, “Why would she make calls out the blue? Now I’m awake, sleepless till noon.” The meandering melancholy beat continues long after the lyrics are exhausted, allowing you the listener to stew in your own sadness for another 3+ minutes. His reliance on the 808, a simple drum machine, results in a hollow, almost ghostly sound throughout the record, conveying his loneliness through the sparseness of the music.
The following track shifts the record from bottom-of-the-well darkness to a walls-are-closing-in panic as he laments about his lack of children, the quintessential ticking-clock tune that so many thirtysomethings experience at some point. With song titles such as “Heartless,” “Bad News,” and “See You In My Nightmares,” this album will never be mistaken for a quick pick-me-up. But if for some reason you missed the memo on the first 10 tracks, “Coldest Winter” is the perfect closing (I ignore the live “Pinocchio Story,” and so should you). So the next time you find yourself sifting through old photos of an ex, sing along as he digresses, “Goodbye, my friend, I won’t ever love again,” and remember that if Kanye and Kim can find each other, there’s definitely someone out there for you.
O- Damien Rice
If you find yourself vacillating between defiance and depression, you’ve got a lot in common with Damien Rice. The Irish singer-songwriter wastes little time on opening cut “Delicate” to shift from soft singing to blind rage, all neatly wrapped in a five-minute package. Throughout “The Blower’s Daughter,” he repeats, “I can’t take my eyes off you,” allowing the song to build gently before softly replacing “eyes” with “mind,” and finishing the sentence by admitting, “Until I find somebody new.” Rice’s voice pairs beautifully with bandmate Lisa Hannigan’s, and the fact that she broke up with him while touring behind this album provides an extra punch to the gut.
While the familiar songs live on the A side, don’t sleep on the back half of the album. “Cold Water” is simple and somber, while “I Remember” begins as Hannigan’s I-miss-you ballad and ends with Rice angrily responding from afar, demanding, “I wanna hear what you have to say about me, hear if you’re gonna live without me. I wanna hear what you want. What the hell do you want?”
There’s even a hidden track (remember those?), “Prague,” which features emotions so raw that no American steakhouse would be allowed to serve them. In the end, he screams, “I could wait for you, but what good would that do?” before closing with a whispered, “I’ve got years.” After the forgettable 2004 follow-up, those three words proved prophetic, as it took him more than a decade to release another album, in large part because he was still too shattered. So yeah, the breakup was rough.
Burst Apart- The Antlers
You’ve probably heard of this band’s previous release, Hospice, which is a concept album about a hospice nurse who falls in love with his patient before she inevitably dies. If you’ve been in a destructive and doomed relationship, you’re probably nodding your head right now and searching for it on Spotify. Yet for all the beauty and pain of that record, Burst Apart is actually the better breakup balm, as the range of songs matches the range of emotions that come with admitting defeat. Frontman Peter Silbermann’s vocals strike a beautiful balance between falsetto and desperation, vaulting these poetic ballads into unforgettable experiences of utter devastation.
“I Don’t Want Love” might as well be the anthem for everyone who’s ready to start flirting again, eager for new connections without unearthing their emotions. For those dealing with sexual (ahem) frustration, “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” provides comfort for those seeking dream interpretation. “No Widows” is a five-minute haunting that a music-loving friend recently described as one of the most beautiful things he’s ever heard. I once played it in an Uber Pool, leaving the driver mesmerized and the other passenger in tears.
“Corsicana” is laced with crushing metaphors of being trapped together in a burning home, a perfect analogy for anyone who’s felt unable to escape the impending doom of a smoldering relationship. Closer “Putting The Dog To Sleep” uses the symbolism of euthanasia to depict the defeat of giving up on a romance when every attempt to prolong it has proven futile. We’ve all been there.
I could go on describing each track, but to be honest, words can’t come close to capturing the lushness of this album. The collection of songs envelops you like a heavy blanket on a cold starry night, slowly warming you after the fire has died, keeping you cozy until a new day.
Whatever and Ever, Amen- Ben Folds Five
Think back to being a teenager, and how intense every. Single. Emotion. Felt. The unbridled euphoria of winning a high school playoff basketball game, even though you’re not even on the team. The total freedom of your first weekend road trip with friends as you race toward Montreal and its lower drinking age. And of course the complete annihilation affiliated with a relationship’s end. Feeling vindictive? Storm around your room listening to “Song For the Dumped,” and remember to tear up an old photograph when Folds cries, “Well, fuck you, too! Give me my money back, you bitch.”
Reeling from how your ex seemingly quit on the relationship and doesn’t seem to give a shit about you anymore? Sift through your new Hinge matches while you listen to Folds call out that bullshit on “Selfless, Cold and Composed” with lines like, “C’mon, baby, now throw me a right to the chin. Don’t just stare like you never cared, I know you did. But you just smile like a bank teller, like you’re telling me have a nice life.”
If you’re rapidly going through boxes of tissues (for tears, you perv), then cry along to “Smoke” as Folds compares the end of his relationship to the burning of a book, throwing memories on the fire and watching them go up in flames. There’s a reason Nick Hornby listed this as one of the best songs ever written. Twenty-five years after its release, it still holds true.
For all the grieving and angst on the record, however, there’s also a refreshing amount of levity, thanks in large part to its reliance on piano instead of guitar. The three-piece band’s sound is guided by Folds’ mastery of the keys and supported by bass and drums. While many artists include a few piano tracks to slow their record’s pace, Folds creates a dichotomous soundscape that contrasts as starkly as the ebony and ivory keys. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll shiver and you’ll dance, and when it’s over, you’ll feel better.
Sea Change- Beck
This is the Bentley of 21st-century breakup albums, the staple of any record collection belonging to someone who feels. Similar to the aforementioned Are You Alone?, this record became so symbiotic with suffering that I needed a full decade before I could even think of listening to it again. So many artists on this list latch onto the listener with the first lines of the first song, and this one is no exception. Part of the power lies in its simplicity, as Beck gruffly opens his musical masterpiece with, “Put your hands on the wheel, let the golden age begin.” For all of us who’ve had to climb back into their car after getting dumped, golden is the last adjective that comes to mind. For example, each listen transports me back to a November in Pittsburgh, preparing to pass through Pennsylvania and the northeast during the 12-hour drive home, feeling emptier than the branches of autumn elms and colder than the grey roads and skies before me, lost in my thoughts as I navigate my way back east. I digress.
It’s difficult to highlight specific tracks on this record because they work so well together as an odyssey, flowing from one horribly depressing track to the next. “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” “Lonesome Tears,” and “Lost Cause” read like a murderer’s row of somber songs. No one would have batted an eye if Beck had instead named his opus “Apathetic, Hopeless, Wish I Could Die,” because I imagine that’s the level of grief that accompanies a breakup after seven years. The chorus of “Already Dead” perhaps best captures that feeling as Beck laments, “It feels like I’m watching something die.”
Penultimate track “Little One” stitches together images of sailors blown off course, similar to two people no longer in love. On one of the most powerful moments of the record, Beck intersects the fullest sound on the album with a humble analogy that could easily serve as the finale, comparing his predicament to a ship run aground, waves pushing its sailors in all directions because “in the sea change, nothing is safe.” We’ve all weathered these storms before, and most will certainly face them again someday. Only with retrospection are we able to realize that every squall eventually subsides. Sunshine will always return to warm us after rain has washed away what once was, cleansing the air so we can see more clearly what lies ahead on the horizon.