Heartbreak has inspired many songs, and the rejected romantics at Getintothis brave the memories and choose some of the best songs of love lost.
There is a well known saying that claims only two things in life are certain; death and taxes.
As unavoidable as these may be, there is another pair of phenomena that can also be said to be certain – love and heartache. We have all experienced the onrush of love, whether that love is requited or not, and this makes it not only a driving force in creating music, but also a great connector, in that pretty much everyone can relate to a well written love song.
The flip side of this is we have all also experienced the keen sting of heartbreak. Again, it is easy to listen to a heartbreak song and connect with it on some level, or even feel like the song was written just for you.
Throw a dart into the top 30 of any given month in any given year and chances are you will land on a song that has some connection to love or heartbreak.
Love has inspired countless works of art, be they songs, paintings, films or poems. Love can drive us to create, to express our feelings to the world, it can make a simple or reserved man eloquent and expressive. It can drive people to build great monuments like the Taj Mahal or write beautiful songs such as Roberta Flack’s touching and timeless The First Time Ever I saw Your Face.
Thankfully this burst of heartfelt creativity is generally done in a more inspiring way than Tom Cruise standing on a sofa shouting his new found devotion to Katie Holmes, and making what my mother would call a holy show of himself, but each to their own.
Of course, love seldom runs a smooth course and when things go off the rails, again an outpouring of emotion is often the case, whether this is a sad cry or a targeted bitterness. For every schmaltzy love song there is a response dripping in resentment or drowning in tears.
And so, with no further badinage, let us plunge into the unhappy world of the heartache song. The songs represented here are those that perhaps best express the human reaction to a love fading or brutally ending, howls from the abyss of a love gone wrong. The songs here are not arranged in any order, as there is no yardstick yet devised that can measure or grade one person’s heartbreak against another, and the songs set out here are chosen for personal reasons rather than paraded in a chart.
So make a cup of hot chocolate, find a box of tissues, pull up a comfy chair and remember – these songs are there for you when love has walked away.
Marc Almond – If You Go Away
A much covered song, the original being by Jaques Brel. I have chosen Marc Almond‘s version because his voice lends itself very well to melancholy and it is my opinion he is the artist that seems to cram the most emotion into the lyrics, translated from Brel’s French.
If You Go Away is not a dignified song, it is a song that crawls and begs its subject for so much as a touch or a backwards glance. Neither is it a pretty song, rather a song of abasement and pleading. The opening line “If you go away on a summer’s day, then you might as well take the sun away” sets the scene for the singer being so desperately distraught at losing the object of their affections that they can see nothing worthwhile in a world without them.
The downbeat, minor key verses are uplifted when Almond sings of what might happen if his lover instead decides to stay – “I’ll sail on the stars, I’ll ride on the rain” The language of these choruses is rich with the clichés of being in love. Here is a hint of the truth that it is often depression that makes us our most articulate, whereas love makes simple, happy fools of us all.
The prospect of abandonment makes the singer lose every last shred of self-respect, singing “Please let me remain the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand” and even, in the original French version, “the shadow of your dog”. This continues with Almond trying to negotiate some kind of contact, some last shred of relationship as he sings “Please don’t leave me, I won’t cry anymore, I won’t talk anymore, I’ll hide in your room“. Never before or since in music has a singer begged for such a degrading future, believing that the worst fate with their lover is better than the best one without them. Truly heartbreaking. Banjo
Thin Lizzy – Still in Love With You
A surprise showing from the heavy rock fraternity here, a genre not usually associated with the heartfelt ballad of lost love . Still in Love With You sees Phil Lynott drop the hard rocking brawler bravado for the role of the doomed romantic. The band bring a light touch to this song of regretful acceptance of the end of a relationship. The main reason for including this in the top heartbreak songs lies in Lynott’s vocal performace. For a man at the helm of one of Britain’s fiercest rock bands, he has a fine emotional, expressive voice and manages the song’s melancholic tone with great skill.
A common thread in our heartbreak top ten is in people wondering if there is anything they can do to stop the relationship ending. This is definitely the case here, with Lynott returning to the phrase “Is this the end?” and, towards the song’s end, as he reveals that his lover had a baby by him, adding “She might think it over one more time before she goes”.
Acceptance finally comes in the heart rending line where Lynott asks his departing lover for her assistance in dealing with the emotional turmoil, when he softly sings “Help me see it through” and a million hearts break as one.
The definitive version of this can be found on Lizzy’s excellent Live and Dangerous album and is an oasis of calm in an album of killer riffs. It is easy to imagine many eyes starting to water, even in Lizzy’s testosterone filled audience. Banjo
The Beautiful South – I’ll Sail This Ship Alone
Far from out of place in a list of heartbreak songs, The Beautiful South slide smoothly into this genre which suits the Paul Heaton fronted band down to the ground. The beauty of I’ll Sail This Ship Alone is its embodiment of the acceptance that finally comes from heartbreak – albeit amongst pain, anger and upset.
The balladesque song may brim with a forlorn tone and intermittent hopes of rekindling the flame, but essentially there’s an underlying defiance which pops up in every refrain: “If you would rather go your way then go your way I‘ll sail this ship alone“. The fatigued vocals may cry loneliness, but they acknowledge instead a final resignation to reality, from which empowerment is the next natural step.
The mixture of pure malaise from the inconsolable vocals combined with a genuine angst mirror the mixture of emotions heartbreak can contrive, capturing those misunderstood feelings as though Paul was living it with you. Lauren Wise
The Grand Tour – George Jones
“Step right up, come on in, if you’d you’d like to take the grand tour”
The undisputed King Of Country Music, George Jones, invites us inside. She’s gone, in a big hurry, and all thats left are memories, jarring painful reminders of when it all felt so right. Happier times, when love was all that mattered.
She’s gone. And nothing will ever be the same.
The chair where he sat as she brought him his paper, the bed where ‘they lay in love together’, her picture on a table, her rings, all her clothes, and the nursery. She took the baby. She took his heart. This house, this home so previously filled with love and hope, now finds George alone and despairing, wishing he could turn back time. But she left quickly. We get the feeling they’d tried before to mend the fractures of their union, to rebuild and start again with forgiveness and understanding as the bedrock of their fresh start. But it wasn’t to be.
George’s heart is breaking, you can here it in the strains of his voice, the pleading and the sorrow. Now, anyone who knows the real George Jones will tell you. This country genius, like so many before and since, had his issues. He was a brawling, cocaine fuelled, alcoholic. A serial womaniser, who just couldn’t help being that George Jones. Eventually, later in life, he made serious attempts to beat his demons, find his God, and live a life of devotion with his fourth wife, though he struggled til his death in 2013 at the age of 81.
Songs like “The Grand Tour”, “She Stopped Loving Him Today”, and “Good Year For The Roses” made him what he was, a massive Country star, and the ‘she’ in the narrative of so many of his songs, especially “The Grand Tour”, was almost certainly a reference to his tempestuous, destructive and ultimately doomed marriage to Tammy Wynette. He never really got over the end of that relationship.
“….But now she’s gone forever, and this old house will never be the same, without the love that we once knew….”
Roy Orbison – Crying
Ryan Adams – Come Pick Me Up
Right back at the start with his debut solo record, the new king of heartache was putting it out there for all to dissect. As an artist, there were those all too quick to pigeon-hole Adams as Alt-Country and having the balls to call your debut ‘Heartbreaker’ says it all doesn’t it? Given liquor, yarn and an acoustic guitar- a perfect recipe for exploration of the less than light side of the human heart.
What a way to celebrate the aching of love lost. The track creeps along like a perfectly paced companion for heartache. Not so much a spilling of the wounded heart but a pining for a cheating girlfriend- proudly exposing its battle scars in the process. A certain ‘do as I say kids…’ lesson learnt, that rings all too familiar. Like most of us know there’s always comfort to be had in that.
Complete honesty in its overriding beauty- forget the notion of song imagery folks. Here the lyrics are stark, arguably eloquent in their exposure of that self-defeating post-breakup punch bag mode. “Come pick me up, take me out, fuck me up…and then do it again.” Surely contender for the title of ‘The Most Eloquent Break-Up Lyric…Ever!’
16 albums later and a blossomed career in yearning and failure, it’s still played at nearly every live set. Whether solo or full banded muscled delivery it’s still received with the warmth of empathetic appreciation. Is the original 90’s American heartbreaker still breaking or just continually broken?
Key moments: 1:20 – the soaring chorus kicks in, heartbreak never sounded so glorious. Howard Doupe
Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart
No list of heartbreak songs would be complete without something from Joy Division. Frontman Ian Curtis’ habit of publicly dissecting his personal life and his deepest feelings and then laying them out for all to see ensured that much. And nowhere did he lay himself barer than in this, one of the masterpieces of its time.
Detailing his deteriorating marriage, listening to Love Will Tear Us Apart is almost like reading someone’s diary or being in the room next door during an argument, there is almost a sense of voyeurism about it, as if we are hearing something too personal to be shared. He tells of a relationship where “resentment rides high, but emotions won’t grow” and where the two people involved are “changing our ways, taking different roads”. The heartbreak here is that Curtis is keen to analyse or externalize his feelings, but seemed less keen to do anything to repair the situation.
Whether through regret or uncertainty, Curtis also says that “Yet there’s still this appeal that we’ve kept through our lives”, and in doing so echoes our own uncertainty when examining or ending relationships. This is Curtis’ lyrical strength, not in saying the unsayable, but in expressing all aspects of a situation that we will all experience and, in doing so, placing us at the centre of his hurt.
The fact that the title of this song is carved into Curtis’ memorial stone tells us all we need to know about how real these feelings were for him. Few songs have expressed heartbreak better or more honestly. Banjo
Cee-Lo Green – Fuck You
So I guess we just had to pick Cee-Lo Green 2010 hit Fuck You (or Forget You, depending on how bad you took the break up)
Fuck You was the first single taken from his third studio album The Lady Killer and topped the charts in the U.K. whilst also managing to hit number two in the Billboard Hot 100. It was, perhaps surprisingly, written in collaboration with Bruno Mars.
I suppose this particular break up song only resonates with you if you had the sort of break up that makes you want to shout angry oaths to or about your ex. On a personal note, although this was a big hit in 2010 it wasn’t until 2013, when I had a break up that fit this category that I began to understand and relate to the lyrics in the song, where I did indeed feel like saying “Fuck You”. Many times!
The song is about a girl who leaves her man because he doesn’t have enough money and it positively drips bitterness and anger as a result. When she is spotted driving round with someone else, Green spits “I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough, I’m like, fuck you and fuck her too” It appears that the new man in her life has more cash to flash when he adds “I guess he’s an Xbox and I’m more Atari”
When Green asks why this happened he lets out one of the most astonishing cries heard in modern soul music, a heart wrenching sob that somehow manages to stay in tune (of sorts) and show’s Cee-Lo‘s incredible voice to full effect.
Cee-Lo‘s love rival may have been an Xbox and we all may be ‘more Atari’, but you know what ……. we can be very happy Ataris now so, as the song says, Fuck You
Warren Millar and Banjo
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Maps
From their 2003 debut album, Fever To Tell, the song Maps is about the relationship between Liars front man Angus Andrew and Yeah YeahYeah’s lead singer Karen O. It is the painful idea of replacement that makes this song so effective, the repetition of the lyrics, “wait, they don’t love you like I love you”, underpin the song and as opposed to downtrodden self-pity that is often found in heartbreak songs. Karen O is pleading not to be replaced, looking on at her lover’s potential new partner in tender comparison.
The instrumental bridge in Maps is mind-blowing, it both explores the subject matter through its’ aggression and brings the track to a climax before simmering to a stop. There is much anger in this song, but it is the point of view of replacement that makes it a fascinating track in which Karen O doesn’t take the point of view of feeling sorry for herself but instead aims to persuade Angus Andrew that she can make it work. Lewis Ridley
Sugar – If I Can’t Change Your Mind
Despite being an obvious breakup song, Sugar‘s If I Can’t Change Your Mind is not exactly mournful or pessimistic. It is in a major key (as opposed to a sad sounding minor key.) This is not accidental. When producer Lou Giordano suggested that the solo should be longer, Sugar‘s Bob Mould is reported to have said “not really, this is going to be a single. It’s best to keep it moving and get back to the verse.”
This does make it seem like a mellow interlude. The rest of Sugar‘s Copper Blue is much heavier despite being a very melodic record. It is still Mould‘s biggest commercial shot to date. He felt like he was finally “getting his due” after the acrimonious split of Husker Du and the limited success of his two solo albums.
Mould has never started publically whether this song was inspired by a real life break up. Then again, why should he? Andy Sunley
Primal Scream – Love You
Revisiting this song led me to find some of the most hilariously wrong lyrics I have ever seen on the internet. Most of the time, I can’t penetrate Bobby Gillespie’s very much Glaswegian accent, but strangely this isn’t a problem for me when he sings.
Sonic Flower Groove was the first Primal Scream album, and the Byrds-like guitar pop was very much at odds with what Gillespie had been doing with his previous band, The Jesus and Mary Chain, although to be fair, it is debatable how much influence he had with them as he banged his singular drum. He definitely looked the sixties-throwback part though, with a fabulously Roger McGuinn-like hairdo.
The song starts slowly and quietly, dignified and poetic, a small voice intoning thoughtfully, ‘I sometimes misunderstand things you say, lose all sense of command’ but builds to a crescendo of desperate pleading, ‘Don’t walk away, don’t walk away, DON’T WALK AWAY!!’ It ends with a swirl of strings, the comedown after the tantrum.
The whole atmosphere of the song is reminiscent of one of those nights after you’ve been spurned that starts off with, ‘No, I’m not going to let it bother me’, and ends up with you clutching a wine bottle, a damp tissue and a phone.
Listening to it now brings back those same emotions of wallowing in misery and what ifs, picking at a scab. What a shame that they never play any of the old jangly songs these days. A sad loss. Denise Hodgkinson
American Music Club – Apology for an Accident
Mark Eitzel, American Music Club‘s singer and emotional core, is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve for all to see. His lyrics often cut to the bone emotionally, and brutally lay out the truth of the subject at hand.
Never one to shy away from displaying his faults and weaknesses to his audience, he is perhaps best summed up by a line from another American Music Club song, Gratitude Walks, where he described his performer’s persona as being “drunk on the kind of applause that gets louder the lower you sink.”
On Apology for an Accident, Eitzel again turns the blame for a failed relationship purely onto himself and pictures himself bereft and alone, singing “when you left you took all memory of me with you, leaving me with no hope of every being loved.” The self pity momentarily gives way to integrity and strength as Eitzel tells his departing lover “I hate to see all your sweet words just go to waste, but honey they’re a little weak for my taste”
This doesn’t last long though and soon the lyrics return again to self blame and self loathing, “Well I’m an expert in all things that nature abhors. Your look of disgust when I touched your skin. And I try to figure what the world needs me for, so I replay the scene again and again”
Apology for an Accident captures a man at the peak of his powers who is unashamed to lay himself emotionally bare in front of the world in an attempt to purge his demons, externalise his pain or just to try to make sense of the hand that life keeps dealing.
Stunning, breathtaking and, yes, heartbreaking. Banjo
And so there we have it. We have journeyed through some of the most hearfelt, most relatable and most emotional songs to have touched our hearts. And really what else can we expect from our musical heroes?
It can be said that it is an artist’s job to explore the outer reaches of the human experience and to report back from the abyss, so that we can look or listen to the results and see something of ourselves there. And if that is the case we can feel that we are not alone in our feelings, that we are instead in good company.
If any of these songs resonate with what you are currently going through then we wish you well. But remember that broken hearts heal and surprising, wonderful times are often just around the corner. Stay strong.