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Plenty of fans are listening to Robin Thicke's new album, Paula, and thinking, "This marriage may not be salvageable." And by that, they mean the sacred contract between performer and audience, not the one between Thicke and his estranged wife, Paula Patton — although that's obviously not going so well, either.
In devoting an entire concept album to his hopes of winning back Patton, Thicke has come up with some of the most laughably quotable lyrics of the 21st century, proving that the lines between pathos and comedy really are blurred.
He's actually indulging in a fine pop tradition, actually — The Divorce Album — although most other stars who've recorded one did it to exorcise their bitterness and not try to "Get Her Back." None of the other practitioners of the form ever wrote lyrics quite as imploring as "Ooh, turn the porch light on/At least open the doggy door" or "I should have brought you roses… and rubbed your toesies."
Are you nursing your own romantic wounds, and looking for an album about how you can do better than your ex? You can do better than Paula. Here's a sampling of some other stars' (far superior) autobiographical breakup albums:
Adele was "miserable and lonely" — duh — when she and Dan Wilson wrote "Someone Like You" about the love of her life, a decent guy who, as it indicates in the song, had not just moved on but already gotten married. This muse was the subject of nearly every other song on her mega-selling collection of laments, too. Saturday Night Live had it right with that hilariously weepy sketch: 21 is what you put on if you need a good, self-pitying cry that'll last 45 minutes longer than the one you'd get out of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me."
Marvin Gaye, Here, My Dear
Hard as it is to believe, this is an even loopier and more stream-of-consciousness divorce album than Thicke's. And it has a story behind it that's just as legendary and wacked-out as the record. In 1976, the soul singer was caught up in negotiations with his soon-to-be-ex, Anna, who also happened to be the sister of his record label president, Motown's Berry Gordy. His lawyer had an idea: give her the roughly $300K he was due as an advance on his next album, along with the first few hundred thousand in royalties. Everyone agreed, and Gaye's original plan was to make an album so awful that she wouldn't get any extra money. But eventually he came around to wanting to make a complex song cycle about their life together and apart. Most critics thought it was terrible anyway — unintentionally — but some insist it's a classic of the nakedly confessional form. Sample lyric: "Somebody tell me, please/Why do I have to pay attorneys' fees?" Rather than be flattered by this album-length tribute, Anna considered filing an invasion-of-privacy suit, but thought better of it.
Nas, Life is Good
"I guess this is my Here, My Dear album, [like] Marvin Gaye made," Nas told The Guardian upon this record's 2012 release. On the front cover, he has the green wedding dress worn by his ex-wife, Kelis, strategically draped over his knee. "I found it in my house and thought, it's going somewhere! Either on the cover of my album, or burning in a garbage can."
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
This is likely the only breakup album in history in which all five members of a band were either recently breaking up or imminently hooking up with another member of the band. Try that, Eagles! Given the animosity and incriminations within the album, a major bust-up would have seemed in order, and yet, almost 40 years later, these five still can't go their own ways.
ABBA, The Visitors
"Ring, ring — why don't you have your lawyer give my lawyer a call?" Unlike the forgiving members of Fleetwood Mac, ABBA thought that two divorces covering all four band members was plenty of reason to break up, but at least they left us with this deeply downbeat 1982 swan song. Agnetha and Björn had separated years earlier, but now it was Benny and Anni-Frid's turn at splitsville. Cooperation was not at a peak. "It could be frosty sometimes," Björn Ulvaeus told Savista magazine. "It was getting harder to say, please do that again [without hearing] 'No, I don't want to!'" "I believe we were all a bit tired of each other," in the studio as well as at home," said Anni-Frid Lyngstad. (Needless to say, an album as focused on the end of things as The Visitors was not a major source of material for the Mamma Mia! musical, although "One of Us" did manage to sneak in there somehow.)
Beck, Sea Change
Having broken up with his longtime girlfriend, Beck seemed to feel like a loser, baby — but rather than kill him for setting his hybrid party pop aside for such an organic stretch of depression, we rewarded him for really opening up for the first time on this somber 2002 left turn.
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
Hey, we told her Blake Fielder-Civil was no good. But she sure got a heck of an album out of that relationship, before diving back into it with him a few months after the album's release helped fuel a pattern of self-destructiveness that led to her never making an album again. It's harder to find anything funny in the album since her death, but there was a good deal of wit as well as woe in her breakup laments.
Taylor Swift, Speak Now
"Dear John," Swift's epic farewell ballad to John Mayer, had such sizzle, you can still get second-degree burns just from listening to it today. "Back to December" is rumored to be about Taylor Lautner. But not all her best breakup songs are so specifically tied to one celebrity ex. "Last Kiss" masterfully evokes the memory of the final clinch you didn't know would be the final clinch, and you're really better off not knowing whether such a beautiful song was inspired by Joe Jonas or not.
Spiritualized, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
Breakups and drugs are linked as Jason Pierce dwells on how a girlfriend in his own band, keyboard player Kate Radley, moved on to the Verve's Richard Ashcroft behind his back. Probably the proggiest breakup album ever, if you don't count the midsection of Pink Floyd's The Wall.
Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak
It's a bit of a death album, too, with West's mother just having passed away, but mostly it's the mother of all severely Auto-Tuned ex-fiancée bashings. Rolling Stone called it "Kanye's would-be Here, My Dear or Blood on the Tracks, a mournful song-suite that swings violently between self-pity and self-loathing." He seems to have rebounded a little since.
Bon Iver, For Emma, Long Ago / Maroon 5, Songs About Jane
Like Thicke, these two acts weren't too proud or scared to name their exes in their album titles. The "Emma" of Bon Iver's first album is something of a mystery woman, but it's no secret that Adam Levine wrote Maroon 5's breakthrough album largely about his high school sweetheart, Jane Herman. Judging from what we read about his dating life, he definitely worked her out of his system with this album.
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
"You're an idiot, babe/It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe," sneers Dylan, in his finest and least sympathetic form. He denied it was about his failing marriage to Sara Lowndes. "A lot of people thought that song, that album Blood on the Tracks, pertained to me... I've read that that album had to do with my divorce. Well, I didn't get divorced till four years after that… I didn't feel that one was too personal, but I felt it 'seemed' too personal. Which might be the same thing. I don't know." Yeah, we're going with totally about the marriage.
Frank Sinatra, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning and Sings for Only the Lonely
Sinatra-philes on a post-romantic bender have a hard time picking between these two albums. Wee Small Hours usually wins, if only because the forlorn image of the Chairman leaning against a lamppost fits most people's self-image better than the Pagliacci clown makeup Sinatra is wearing in the cover art for Lonely. But who needs to pick, when both recordings take us so beautifully down to the dumps? We can all relate: It is better to have loved by Ava Gardner and lost her than never to have dated the world's most beautiful woman at all.
Paul Simon, Hearts and Bones
His divorce from actress Carrie Fisher was grist for some of Simon's most overtly confessional songs ever. Sample lyric: "One and one-half wandering Jews" — Fisher being the one-half — "returned to their natural coasts, to resume old acquaintances, step out occasionally, and speculate who had been damaged the most." You could count on Simon to sound more wistful than vituperative.
Elvis Costello, Blood and Chocolate and North
It may or may not have been coincidental that Costello released his most lacerating album, 1986's Blood and Chocolate, shortly before divorcing from his first wife. "I knew then what I know now/I never loved you anyhow!" he spat, shortly before getting to "I Want You," the most stalker-friendly song ever. But you'd be hard-pressed to find any coincidence in the timing of 2003's North, a gorgeous song cycle about the death of one relationship and the birth of another, echoing his split from longtime paramour Cait O'Riordan and the first flush of new love with future wife Diana Krall.
Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages
The Rashomon of divorce albums. Side 1 is from the guy's point of view, Side 2 from the woman's. Let's see if you can guess which songs are which from the titles. "Washing the Dishes" — that's one of the gal's songs. Lucky guess, right? As you can guess from Willie's Zen attitude, the album is more about acceptance of human nature than trying to win anyone back.
Phil Collins, Face Value
The bitterness Collins directed at his first wife, Andrea, on his 1981 solo debut should have shielded him against soft-rock criticisms forever. And then, a few short years later, came "Sussudio." But for half a minute at least, he made an awesomely scary stalker.
Rosanne Cash, Interiors / Suzanna Vega, Songs in Red and Gray / Sam Phillips, A Boot and a Shoe
Three women who divorced their producer-husbands and lived to tell the tale. Cash was riveting in her introspection following her split from Rodney Crowell, as was Vega in her depression after divorcing Mitchell Froom. But only Phillips actually enlisted her ex — T Bone Burnett — to help her make the album about her divorce.
Need to get even more down in the dumps about being dumped — or giving someone else a push? Some suggestions for further forlorn listening:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Boatman's Call
Kelly Clarkson, My December
Dan Fogelberg, Exiles
George Jones, Memories of Us and The Battle
Annie Lennox, Bare
Meshell Ndegeocello, Bitter
Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love
Richard and Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights
Til Tuesday, Everything's Different Now
Jack White, Blunderbuss