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Eight Songs and Stories from Our Broken Relationships

Bruised hearts, bold discoveries, and Conor Oberst.

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    How many of you can tell a bad breakup story? [A beat.] Ha, I thought there were a few of you. Well then … how many of you walked away from those same crinkled relationships with a few songs in tow? [Another beat.] Oh boy, too many to count.

    tyriongif Eight Songs and Stories from Our Broken Relationships

    The good news is you’re not alone. We’ve all been there too, and that’s what brings us together today. No? Okay, well it certainly gives us a foundation on this here holiday to digress on our wonderful pasts. C’mon, how else are we supposed to cope.

    Waxing nostalgic and blasting pop music is our goddamn given right today and if we want to get drunk beyond our years and talk about our horrific pasts… well, then get the hell out of our way and let us bleed. After all, there’s a long line at the jukebox and the tamale man’s already left.

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    What now? Oh right! Pop music. Without further adooze, here are eight sad stories from bruised hearts and the many songs that survived the shitty John Dear letter.

    Enjoy and Happ–

    –Consequence of Sound

    “Grasping Air”

    YOB

    You can’t ride shotgun in someone’s car for very long without learning about what they love to listen to. In Peter’s car—a geriatric Toyota minivan he inherited from his parents once their three kids were old enough to haul themselves around—it’s usually metal that crashes out of the tape deck the second he turns the ignition. Prog metal, thrash, stoner doom, he likes just about all of it (not black metal, and don’t you dare say “nu” in that car). I was an indie kid and a metal fledgling when we became friends and, later, partners. I’d never even heard a Black Sabbath album all the way through. When you date a metalhead, you don’t just mingle your taste with theirs, you sample an entire culture.

    Soon we were steering that van to show after show—gigs his buddies played at dive bars in parts of Chicago that don’t even have names, or stops from touring acts like Mastodon and Primus. The best was YOB, who showed up at Beat Kitchen one summer looking like a clump of Jewish uncles, chatting up the audience before their set. Onstage, they were less meek. Mike Scheidt is a volcano; the band is transcendentally loud. I feel transported after a lot of shows, but that one felt like church.

    Even now that we’re just pals and not palentines, The Unreal Never Lived is probably the only album P and I get equally rabid about. It’s hard to single out a track to focus on—we’ve gone through the whole LP many, many times in that van—but “Grasping Air” is the heaviest and thus his favorite. That’s what happens when you date someone who’s been steeped in metal since puberty: you don’t share songs so much as you share mosh pits, bruised shoulders, deep cesspools of noise. –Sasha Geffen

    “Going to Scotland”

    Mountain Goats

    The first Mountain Goats song I ever heard was “Linda Blair Was Born Innocent”. It was the opening track to what is probably the best mix CD I’ve ever received. This was 2006, and I was head over heels for an actress in my school’s summer repertory company. Our relationship was short-lived but intense, awash in white wine and mix CDs, and when she left, I had trouble accepting it for what it was: a fling of the summer variety. So, I wrote her a letter–an honest-to-god paper letter–filled with local ephemera and drunkenly scrawled snippets from the Mountain Goats’ “Going to Scotland”, a deep cut I had just discovered. By that point, though, our time had passed. She didn’t even know the song. And perhaps that’s why it’s “Going to Scotland” and not “Linda Blair” that stings with every urgent strum. It’s a reminder of that sad, futile time when hope defied acceptance, the sort of thing that tends to spoil what was otherwise a perfectly lovely couple of months. –Randall Colburn

    “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart”

    Against Me!

    In college, I dated a guy who lived in Berkeley while I was living in Eugene, Oregon. He was a punk rock guy, and I was an indie rock gal, but we bonded over Against Me!. We were together when New Wave came out and shared our first listen–he thought it teetered toward being too poppy, I loved it for its melodies–but we agreed that Tom Gable was still on point lyrically. One day, we were listening to the album in his car, and “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart” began. We’d heard this song together many times; however, on this particular day, he commented that it reminded him of our relationship. To anyone who has ever heard this song, that is not the most comforting observation coming from a significant other; it’s about a doomed relationship, where both parties strain to fight a losing battle. His words created a rock in my stomach. I couldn’t believe he’d say such a thing, but what really hurt was I knew he was right. We broke up shortly thereafter. It was for the best, but every time I hear that song–as chillingly beautiful as it is–I can’t help but tense up and think about that night in that car. –Katrina Nattress

    Is This It

    The Strokes

    Is This It is about wanting more. More from life. More from love. And more from the world in general. I grabbed the album in 2001. It was the start of my senior year of high school, and I spent hours lost in the indie rock revival that pumped through my Walkman. I couldn’t get enough. You can imagine the shock when I learned my CD was missing a track that was only present on the international release. “New York City Cops” was deemed too insulting following the 9/11 attacks and thus stripped from the American pressings. But I wanted it. Badly. I needed more songs. My girlfriend managed to track it down at a local record store and gifted it over. Heartbeats fluttered and hammered through my chest. Even the cover art was superior. I was in love.

    Flash forward 10 years. I was seeing a different girl. She also adored The Strokes. Is This It became the soundtrack of lazy weekend days in bed, as well as a go-to when hosting friends for dinner. But that all came to an end, too. In fact, “Barely Legal”, “Someday”, and “Alone, Together” bled from the speakers as we decided to end things. Again, my heart thumped like a herd of wild bison. But this time it was shattered.

    A part of me feared I’d never be able to listen to Is This It again. I had a similar experience with Miranda July’s 2007 film The Future, which is a movie I’ve not been able to finish because its tale of a grief hit like a cement boxing glove. But fortunately, I mustered the strength and returned to Is This It. When I listen now, I relive the soaring highs of my first love, as well the melancholy pit of a failed relationship. A co-worker gave me a vinyl copy of Is This It for Christmas. It was the American version. It’s hard to explain, but somehow that just felt right. –Dan Pfleegor

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    “Elvis Presley Blues”

    Gillian Welch

    If you’ve ever had the experience of loving someone that you just can’t seem to shake, like a bad habit, you know how uniquely miserable it can be. (“Fool me once…” and all that.) My first concrete memory of John is from when I was 15, when he took a picture of me and put it in our small-town high school’s yearbook because he “thought I was cute.” Fast-forward a decade, two reconciliations, three breakups, a shared love of folk music, and a cross-country move together later, and what is my 25-year-old self left with? Mostly a very nice Dutch oven that his parents bought us and a handful of albums and songs that we both loved. One of them is “Elvis Presley Blues”.

    When we saw Gillian Welch together for the second time at the Strathmore in Silver Spring, Md., in August of 2011, Dave Rawlings played so fiercely and intently that dust, or smoke, rose from the strings of his guitar. I loved Gillian Welch because John loved her–I loved the way he would sing along with her in the car, knowing every word, and I loved the way his face lit up when she appeared onstage. I still love Gillian, instinctively and reflexively, and I love the deceptive simplicity of this song. When I hear it, I can’t help picturing how a very young Elvis must have looked on television for the very first time, when he “shook it like a chorus girl,” before my mind inevitably goes to the stark contrast of the way he was “the day that he died”–a sad caricature of his former self. –Katherine Flynn

    “California”

    Joni Mitchell

    Of all the traits I look for in a prospective partner, the ability to broaden my horizons by introducing me to fresh and fascinating perspectives is right up at the top of the list. But when it comes to my taste in music, I’ve always been stubborn, obstinate, and unshakably set in my ways. Here comes a confession: My name is Henry, and for the first 25 years of my life I was a Joni Mitchell hater. Something about her screechy, shrill voice just rubbed me the wrong way; listening to her sing was like hearing nails on a chalkboard. Whenever a Joni track started playing, I’d grimace and launch into an inflammatory tirade about how overrated she was as a songwriter. That is, until true love broke the spell of pigheadedness and stupidity.

    I remember it vividly. My girlfriend was combing through the dollar vinyl at Amoeba Music when she let out an ebullient gasp. Sauntering over to where I was leafing through some folk 45s, she held up a copy of Blue as her lips parted to reveal a wry smile. She knew that despite my bias against Ms. Mitchell, I wasn’t one to pass up a bargain. I inspected the vinyl for scratches and blemishes, hoping to find a flaw, but it was no use. The record was mint; she’d caught me in a Catch-22. In the end, frugality won out over partiality. Before I knew it, I was positioning the record on my turntable.

    “Maybe start with side two,” she patiently suggested, “And at least TRY and listen to the lyrics this time.” Interpreting this as a challenge, I closed my eyes and let the Canadian singer-songwriter serenade me with brilliant lyrical fragments of her journey across France, Greece, and Spain before “going home to California.” When Joni Mitchell dismissed Paris as “too old and cold and settled in its ways,” I felt like she was censuring me personally. What’s more, I knew that the criticism was fully justified. I’ve long since abandoned my vendetta against Joni Mitchell and can’t wait to discover what unwarranted prejudices my girlfriend will help me cast off next. Côtes du Rhône? Midday naps? Romcoms? Only time will tell. –Henry Hauser

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    Beyoncé

    Beyoncé

    Beyonce_AlbumCover1100x1100v1

    I traveled up to Buffalo, my alma mater, to visit my girlfriend for my birthday and Christmas. I don’t normally take the plane there, so enduring an eight-hour bus or train ride upstate (I picked the latter this time) became the norm. After embracing her and eating the chicken alfredo pasta she made on my arrival, I went to her bedroom and took a nap.

    It was the first couple of minutes into Dec. 13 when I woke up to my girlfriend next to me glaring at her Facebook.

    “Hey, people are going crazy on Facebook over this new Beyoncé album,” she said.

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    “Ha! That’s ridiculous. People be lying on Facebook. How Beyoncé gon’ release an album out of nowhere with no promotion whatsoever?”

    “I’m serious. Look!”

    I grabbed my Macbook and skimmed through the blogs and saw the spread on iTunes. Beyoncé really had done the ridiculous thing there was no way she would do.

    Buffalo had been constantly getting hit with snow to the point where the campus looked uninhabited as you gazed from the apartment window. Since we were snowed in for the most part, we had plenty of time to formulate our opinions but ended up doing so within hours. We agreed “Pretty Hurts”, “XO”, and “Rocket” were the best tracks. We shook our heads in disapproval at the start of Jay Z’s verse in “Drunk in Love” and girls eager to take those Instagram selfies and mistake “D’Usse is the shit” for “I do say you’re the shit” (read: “Drunk in Love”). We disagreed on whether “Jealous” or “Heaven” was the worst song and smirked at the explicity of “Partition” and “Blow”.

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    She’d make that short, but unfortunate drive to work and look at her phone to see texts that read, “Can you eat my skittles?/ That’s the sweetest in the middle.” It wasn’t to suggest I was aggressively pro-cunnilingus, but it’s very hard to translate a bass line into a text message. I’d watch the accompanying music videos multiple times not because it was Beyonce, but “because it was art” as I tried to stress to my girlfriend. We didn’t care for the few guests on the album, but it’s OK since Beyoncé really hooked us up for that week.

    Radiohead’s Kid A and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy aren’t my favorite albums just because of their quality, but because of how they marked a period of my life. My girlfriend and I had a rough 2013, but we closed it out with a trip to the Empire State Building (a first for both of us), a visit to the Rockefeller Christmas Tree, and gazed at the beautiful nighttime lights of the city from Central Park and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade when we ventured back to New York. Beyoncé was proof that music wasn’t a dying business, but to us, it was a soundtrack to those moments. She had to go back to her home in Niagara Falls on the Sunday before Christmas Eve to be with her family. It was a bitter moment for obvious reasons, but sweet because I knew things could get better. –Brian Josephs

    “Easy/Lucky/Free”

    Bright Eyes

    I never wanted to like Bright Eyes. Never. “Why do I need to listen to this miserable asshole if I have Elliott Smith,” I’d argue to friends again and again, usually just as drunk and angsty as Conor Oberst sounded. But when my college girlfriend-turned-nightmare insisted upon seeing “Conor” during our 2005 trip to Chicago, I obliged. Earlier that year, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn had hit stores on the same day, and that’s pretty much all she ever wanted to listen to in her old Dodge Dynasty. In hindsight, I fell in love with all of Digital Ash upon first listen, but the start of Wide Awake‘s “At the Bottom of Everything” was far too histrionic and self-important for me to ever admit that to her.

    Still, that all changed at their early summer performance at The Riviera Theatre, a double bill that featured Bright Eyes and The Faint. (Wet from Birth had been out less than a year, so that factored heavily into my reasoning for going.) Enthralled by the opening performance, I remember my leg doing the whole restless thing prior to the band’s arrival. My girlfriend’s excitement was palpable, and I couldn’t help but relish that. But then it happened: Bright Eyes came on-stage and defined the blogosphere term “killed it.” I remember how the set was heavy with Digital Ash material (score), and how they tore the stage apart during closer “Easy/Lucky Free”, still my favorite track of theirs to date (well, maybe after “The Calendar Hung Itself…”).

    When our relationship crashed into a titanium wall at 365 mph in 2007, Bright Eyes had just released Cassadaga. Prior to our break up, we had bought a pair to see them again in Orlando that May — of course, that wasn’t going to happen considering we could barely look at each other. So, instead, I wound up going with my previous ex and much like a song Oberst would pen, things got weird and depressing and awkward. I remember that night he was in this white suit, drunk, and stumbling around to “Four Winds” and a part of me was laughing and thinking, Christ, this guy finally makes sense to me now. They didn’t play “Easy/Lucky/Free” that night, but I was kind of glad they didn’t. The song’s still a favorite of mine, but it reminds me of awful things. Actually, that’s probably why I love it.

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    That doesn’t make any sense, but it also doesn’t have to. –Michael Roffman

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