Song Spotlight: Breakup Songs

They are not coming back.

Sooner or later, anyone who’s been through a relationship’s end must come to grips with that simple fact.

Electronic was a generically-named supergroup comprised of Bernard Sumner (Joy Division/New Order) and Johnny Marr (The Smiths, and guitar-for-hire in various bands), with occasional assistance from The Pet Shop Boys. Their 1991 self-titled debut contains dance-rock almost as solid as New Order’s Technique from two years prior.

“Some Distant Memory” wasn’t released as a single; I am torn between thinking that’s a shame, because it deserved wider exposure, and being glad that it’s maybe just a little bit of a secret. Musically, it’s one of the flat-out prettiest songs I know.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been a good single anyway; over the course of a too-brief four minutes and change, it passes through more musical ideas, without over-repeating them, than many bands manage over the course of an album.

It starts with a halting, uncertain rhythm that quickly shifts into a percolating, heavily syncopated synthed bass pattern. The beat may or may not be “Balearic”; don’t worry if you don’t know what that means, nobody did back in the day either. All that matters is that it is deeply, deeply funky.

Over it are laid the sort of choppy keyboard strikes that New Order listeners will be familiar with, along with Bernard Sumner’s “average everyman” vocals. An open secret of much of my favorite synthpop is its use of seemingly-flawed voices, to counterbalance the music’s innate tendency to chilliness. If you get that contrast right, something profoundly beautiful can be produced from the tension between digital and analog, from marrying the icily-perfect to the deeply-human.

I don’t know
If we could get lost in a city this size if we wanted to
And I don’t know if I could survive without seeing you
And every time I see your face, I feel out of place

It’s so easy, why are you leaving?
(It’s just because I’ve grown afraid of you)
I wish we were at the beginning
(It would be so good to be with you)

The lyrics, like the singing, are completely artless; they could be an entry from a found diary, or an overheard phone conversation. But rather than seeming generic, they come off as universal. He or she is leaving – what more is there to say? This is anybody’s breakup; this is everybody’s breakup.

At 1:19, chimes appear, like distant bells at the wedding of the person you didn’t marry, but maybe could or should have.

At 2:11, Marr throws in a flamenco-ish guitar break; una guitarra que llora. The crying is over quickly though, and everything drops out but the rhythm pattern; then, for a few measures, we get those stacatto keyboard accents again, like the last half-hearted jabs of an emotional knife-fight; but it’s already apparent there will be no winner this time.

And then, at 3:07, all the fight goes out of it: the rhythm un-knots into one that’s simple and direct, while above it suddenly soar achingly-beautiful (synthesized) strings and (real) oboe.

It’s an autumnal, elegiac melody; on its first go-round, strings and oboe sing in tandem. The second time the oboe takes the lead, and the strings answer it in a sort of round, before both fall back to earth, harmonizing in a slowly-melting puddle of gorgeousness.

The concluding two notes seem to actually intone the word “over”.

It’s done.


Taking a longer, wordier, more elliptical – yet no less inexorable – route to the end is “Morning Glory” by Versus, a 4-piece rock band a bit like a more straightforward, less-artsy Sonic Youth – particularly in the (Thurston) Mooreish vocals of Richard Baluyut – or (as the bandname might indicate) Mission of Burma:

It’s another breakup song, this time replete with references to Nicholas Ray’s noir classic In A Lonely Place.

In a lonely place
It feels like outer space
So take it back to the top
And wait for your heart to stop

But in the lyrics they pull a neat, appropriately-cinematic trick, as shown in the above lines – they are going to “take it back to the top”, running the film backwards to the affair’s start. It’s not unlike the fragmentary time-folding narratives so popular in some contemporaneous 90’s movies, like the the Travolta-resurrecting Pulp Fiction, or the end of Noah Baumbach’s debut Kicking and Screaming, which drops a romantic “meet cute” on us after we’ve already seen the couple’s breakup.

At 4:28, bassist Fontaine Toups starts a sing-songing duet with Baluyut, her voice innocent and comforting, his rough-hewn, as he repeats the earlier verses. Her answering melody is simple, like a lullaby (“Pick a morning glory / it’s the end of the story”).

The split-frame effect produced by their contrasting voices and the möbius-strip narrative is, indeed, heart-stoppingly beautiful; in the song’s final minute or so, the guitar riff is gradually, almost-imperceptibly handed over to the piano, underlining the fact that these two stories are really just one.

And so it ends (I died when she left me):

Your face in black and white
No time to say goodbye
We only had one moment
A trail of smoke in the sky

And so it begins (I was born when she kissed me):

Beginning at the end
We’re safe from all your friends
You can blink your bedroom eyes
Away from all those spies
We won’t answer the phone
They can listen to the dial tone
Blue eyes in the morning
Glory in the end

I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

What’re your favorite breakup songs?