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The Art of the Break-up Album

Posted by purplemary54 on March 18, 2012

Note: Up until now, my methodology (such as it is) has been to listen to songs on my itunes until something catches my attention, and I write about it.  This has been uneven and frustrating when my mind refuses to settle on something.  I’ll still employ the random method, but I think I’ll expand my repertoire to include more general postings (not that I couldn’t do that anyway in more frequent posting, but I’ve yet to master multiple posts a day).  So, today’s entry is a little less specific.

I love break-up albums.  Not that I think it’s so wonderful that couples break-up.  There is nothing wonderful about heartbreak; I’ve had my heart broken, so I know just exactly how much it sucks.  But it does lead to good, sometimes great, art.  And some of the best albums I own came in the aftermath of the end of a relationship/marriage.  The timing of them varies, so the main emotional thrust is often very different.  Bruce Springsteen put out Tunnel of Love before his marriage to Julianne Phillips ended, so the album chronicles the confusion and uncertainty of a marriage as it dissolved (“God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of”).  Tom Petty waited a couple of years before his divorce album, Echo, was recorded and released.  The time gave him a more circumspect attitude to his divorce from Jane Petty; it’s very loving and sympathetic, a rarity for this particular genre.  I think you might even classify The White Album as a break-up record, even though it took them a couple more years to actually admit it (maybe that’s why I like it so much).

The ultimate break-up albums are, of course, Bob Dylan’s masterpiece Blood on the Tracks and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors.  Both of them were written and recorded in the midst of divorce and separation.  They are both miraculous in their own rights:  Dylan’s because it is the best thing he ever recorded, IMO; Fleetwood Mac’s simply for existing.

Dylan first.  Blood on the Tracks is simply stunning.  The depth of emotion and revelation is almost unheard of for a Bob Dylan record.  He seems almost as naked as the production, which is stripped down, primarily acoustic.  Even though he never makes any clear statements about his estrangement from his wife, the references are thinly veiled at best.  Many of the songs are about love gone wrong.  “Simple Twist of Fate” comes closest to drawing overtly on the break-up, especially at the end, when he sings “I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring.”  The sadness is palpable through most of the songs, as is wry humor and nostalgia for what’s been lost.  He really only rages on “Idiot  Wind,” and then it’s not entirely clear who the rage is directed at.  It seems to shift direction from Sara to himself to the press for digging into his personal heartbreak like vultures.  The only track that seems out of place is “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” a bizarre, drawn out western about a bank heist and a barroom romance that ends in death (although it at least fits thematically).  Dylan knew his marriage was over when he recorded this, although they didn’t divorce until two years after it’s release.  Blood on the Tracks is sort of the musical equivalent to lying in bed with all the curtains drawn because you just can’t face the heartbreak.

Rumors is the musical equivalent to having a huge screaming fight, complete with name calling and thrown dishes, in the middle of your anniversary party.  Which makes perfect sense, since two of the break-ups occurring during the recording of the mother of all break-up albums happened between members of the band.  (It was such a messy affair, that it spilled over into the next album, Tusk, two years later.)  The fact that they managed to continue working together through all of this is a testament to their sheer stubbornness if nothing else.  And Lindsey Buckingham kicks off the festivities with a bang by declaring himself “Second Hand News” in the first track.  (There is absolutely no reason to pretend these people are singing about anything but themselves and each other here; this is the single most autobiographical work I’ve ever heard.)  Stevie Nicks seems less angry and more circumspect about the end of her relationship with Buckingham, but she’s no less accusatory: “Players only love you when they’re playing.”  Christine and John McVie’s simultaneous divorce seems a quieter affair, but that may be only because John was the bassist; he didn’t get to sing.  Christine, though, seems to be moving on, with songs like “You Make Loving Fun,” about a relationship she had shortly after splitting with John.  She seems to be rubbing his nose in the fact that she’s a lot happier without him.  While the other four members were fighting amongst themselves, Mick Fleetwood was in the middle of divorcing his first wife.  The album reaches its emotional climax on “The Chain,” which is a reaffirmation of why they remained together as a band even as they broke apart personally.  It gives voice to all of Fleetwood Mac’s members, with Mick’s drumming and John’s bass forming not just the rhythmic spine but much of the emotional tenor.  John McVie’s bass is especially evocative; it’s simple technically, but he makes his brief solo shine with everything he couldn’t say.  The song builds itself around the beat and the chant of the chorus, “And if you don’t love me now, you will never love me again.  I can still hear you saying we must never break the chain,” and finally erupts into a blistering guitar solo by Buckingham.  There is a unified vision in this song, even as the vitriol spills out.  They will hang on to each other through the chaos, burned by the crucible into a single entity.  The band was simply bigger than they were.

Which explains the optimism of arguably the most well-known song from Rumors: “Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow.  Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here.  It’ll be here, better than before.  Yesterday’s gone.  Yesterday’s gone.”

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