'Til 3x platinum do us part.
Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard is releasing his first solo album, Former Lives, today. And given his recent divorce from Zooey Deschanel, conventional wisdom seems to hold that the album will be more or less concerned with… that. That might actually be a good sign though, since some of the greatest albums ever were written post-divorce. For our look at same, we disavowed albums made after breakups (Beck's Sea Change, Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker, among many others) and stuck to albums inspired by honest-to-God call-the-lawyers marriage explosions. We kept it to non-fictional ones too, which meant excluding The Mountain Goats' Tallahassee, a harrowing but entirely fictional account of a dissolving marriage. Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments.
15. William Fitzsimmons, The Sparrow and the Crow (2009)
Fitzsimmons chronicled his parents' divorce through his album Goodnight, and apparently it took such a toll on him that it destroyed his own marriage in the process. The Sparrow and the Crow documents that dissolution, with swooning, cinematic grandeur, nailing the "crying alone in an empty house" vibe of a wrecked union. A large, empty house, with lots of reverb.
14. Richard Buckner, Devotion + Doubt (1992)
Richard Buckner's music coats your living room in sepia-tinged regret. Signed to MCA in a portent of big things that never really happened, Buckner recorded Devotion + Doubt in the wake of his divorce, and it's a sadly underrated classic, with all the whiskey-soaked heartbreak of forebears like Townes Van Zandt and some distinctly modern touches, like the presence of avant-garde jazz guitarist Marc Ribot. "Lil Wallet Picture" is a vivid sketch of a man driving his rented U-Haul away from his cheating wife. It's dark, emotive, and like the best country, so real you can feel the wind-swept grit.
13. Bill Withers, +'Justments (1974)
One of Withers' lesser-known albums, and devoid of massive hits like "Use Me" or "Lean on Me," +'Justments was released following Withers' divorce from actress Denise Nicholas. The divorce was colored by unsubstantiated rumors of domestic abuse, and fittingly, +'Justments is a melancholic, creeping album. Though Withers could do heartbreak well ("Ain't No Sunshine"), +'Justments is something else: the cheeriness feels a little forced, and the sad songs cut deep. The album's cover depicts Withers writing: "We will help some situations and hurt some situations. We will help some people and hurt some people and be left to live with it either way." Hard to not read into that one.
12. Tammy Wynette, D-I-V-O-R-C-E (1968)
It's not about her more celebrated marriage and divorce to George Jones, but it was recorded after her first divorce. Wynette practically established an entire genre with this album's title cut. And even though she'd set the divorce rate (and women's movement) back with "Stand by Your Man," D-I-V-O-R-C-E remains one of the essential touchstones in Wynette's weepy career.
11. Jack White, Blunderbuss (2012)
Though Jack White has contradicted virtually every interviewer who's asked him about it, Blunderbuss is hard to not take as a divorce record. For one thing, White elected to switch from his famously red-and-black color scheme to one of dark blue for the album's cover (and subsequent tour). And, for another, there was a freakin' vulture on the cover. Blunderbuss benefits greatly from a bigger sonic palette than the White Stripes ever had, and the song structures are more varied, but many of the lyrics remain focused on women and relationships. A lyric like "I want love to change my friends to enemies and show me how it's all my fault" on "Love Interruption" is nearly impossible to read as anything but a post-divorce sentiment.
10. Phil Collins, Face Value (1981)
Collins' divorce and the release of his first solo album happened to dovetail rather nicely. Breaking away from Genesis' proggy ambitions with an album of poppy though despondent material, Collins ended up with a massive blockbuster, as well as a surfeit of material: not only would material Collins intended for Face Value end up on Genesis' Duke, but his second solo album, Hello, I Must Be Going! featured a wealth of breakup-oriented tunes. Collins would remain one of the highest-selling sad-sacks of the '80s: take your pick of Face Value's morose hits: "In the Air Tonight," "If Leaving Me is Easy," or "I Missed Again."
9. George Jones, Memories of Us (1975)
George Jones' fractious marriage to Tammy Wynette was so fraught that he cut two separate albums about it: Memories of Us and The Battle. The Battle is more blistering, but Memories of Us is a better album through and through. Few could have honky-tonk patrons weeping in their beer quite as well as Jones, and a song like "I Just Don't Give a Damn" (which he claimed to have written at three a.m. following the split) showcases the man at the height of his powers.
8. Frank Sinatra, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958)
The mawkish cover, featuring Frank as Pagliacci, actually won a Grammy, but the music has aged much better — this was reportedly Sinatra's favorite of his own recordings. Fresh off his divorce from Ava Gardner, Sinatra turned in a funereal collection of standards that could turn a sweet sixteen party into a wake. Arranger Nelson Riddle's mother and daughter had died recently, and he turned the whole album into a lush aural landscape of sadness. "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" is a late-night romantic's drunken anthem without peer.
7. Paul Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)
Not every divorce album has to be filled with tears and rage. As William Ruhlmann notes, Paul Simon's divorce album "reek[s] of smug self-satisfaction and romantic disillusionment," and this album earns its spot over Hearts and Bones or Graceland for the specificity of that emotional palette. The self-satisfaction proved to be ephemeral — Simon would spend the next ten years grappling with his own perceived inadequacies on record — but the disillusionment was here to stay. "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" leavened some of Simon's more jarring snideness with humor, but the wounds on the wax remain raw after all these years.
6. Elvis Costello, Blood & Chocolate (1986)
Costello called this album "a pissed-off, thirty-two-year-old divorcees' version of This Year's Model," and it's easy to see why. Recorded live with the Attractions (whose mutual enmity was reaching epic proportions), Blood & Chocolate has a young man's energy and an older man's problems; like the newly-divorced, it swerves from accusatory to self-pitying to downright creepy. (On tracks "I Hope You're Happy Now," "Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head," and "I Want You," respectively.) Summing up the entire emotional spectrum of a divorce in a fierce blur of rock, Blood and Chocolate is nearly peerless.
5. Richard and Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights (1982)
Stringing Linda Thompson's delicate vocals over Richard's subtly virtuosic guitar work, Shoot Out the Lights is a wonderful swirl of emotions: dignity, regret, resignation. Though the songs had been written when the pair's marriage was intact, by the time of the album's release, the Thompsons would split. There's a steeliness to songs like "Don't Renege on Our Love," but the best moments are the most quietly devastating: it's hard to listen to "Walking on a Wire" after learning its context without choking up a little.
4. Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love (1987)
Springsteen followed Born in the U.S.A. with this fiercely anti-commercial cycle of songs about the birth and death of a relationship. After his first marriage to actress Julianne Phillips and his relationship with the E Street Band fell apart, Springsteen turned inward, recording songs largely by himself. The result is the wounded Boss on Tunnel of Love, with its crushing standout "Brilliant Disguise." The song asks the essential question any partner wonders in the aftermath of a broken relationship: "So tell me what I see when I look in your eyes / Is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?"
3. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977)
Chuck Klosterman tells it best: "Nearly every song on Rumours is about breaking up with people, as it was written and recorded while (a) guitarist-songwriter Lindsey Buckingham ended a lengthy romance with shawl-clad singer Stevie Nicks, (b) bassist John McVie divorced singer-keyboardist Christine McVie, and (c) drummer Mick Fleetwood began mentally preparing himself to nail Stevie." Rarely has such a horrible band dynamic yielded such powerful (and high-selling) results.
2. Marvin Gaye, Here My Dear (1978)
Here, My Dear has quite the backstory: a judge decreed that half the royalties Gaye earned from his next project would go to his first wife Anna Gordy for alimony and child support. Gaye fully intended to half-ass the project, but found himself making a deep, lacerating chronicle of his failed marriage, seemingly against his own wishes. The album flopped when it came out, but has since been hailed as a classic: as David Ritz notes, "Soul music doesn't get any deep, darker, or more personal than this."
1. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Not much can be said about Blood on the Tracks that hasn't already been said. Dylan famously remarked of this chronicle of his divorce from Sara Lowndes: "A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, you know, people enjoying that kind of pain?" Well, he shouldn't have made it so damn good.