So it seems that this is the season for break-ups among my friends, and having written on the more recent For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver, I’ve decided to stick with the theme for one more post, and stray from my original order for the reruns. Break-up albums have been doing alright lately, either by allowing an artist to reinvent their sound, like …Little Broken Hearts did for Norah Jones, or bringing album sales on the map, not to mention help an artist shovel in the Grammys, like 21 did for Adele. Forget lemonade, when life gives you a bad break-up, make some freaking good music.
So that brings me to 1977, the year of my all-time favourite break-up album: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Although a 5-piece band, each member of Fleetwood Mac was in the midst of struggling with personal failed relationship. John and Christine McVie (the bassist and keyboardist respectively) were in the midst of divorce from 8 years of marriage; Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were in an off period of their “on-again-off-again” relationship; and drummer Mick Fleetwood was reeling from discovering his wife cheating on him. On top of all this, since the release of their 1975 self-titled album, the band was regularly shooting down dramatic rumours being circulated by the press; everything from deathly illnesses and love-children to a massive member change. They were falling apart, and few of them could communicate with one another regarding anything other than the music they were working on. The fact that Rumours was even created in the midst of all that relational stress is nothing but a miracle.
Even more miraculous is how Fleetwood Mac is able to maintain their poppy sound while so miserable. The album appropriately begins Second Hand News, but instead of being used as a synonym for rumours, it is how the left lover feels after he’s been replaced. Still, there is almost happiness in the midst of frustration – as though he’s trying to laugh off what has happened in order to deal with the grief. The subtle yet clear Dreams plays next, and I can almost smell the tension that must have been in the studio as Stevie sings her own words about begrudgingly letting someone go, aching for her ex to be aware of “what (they) had, and what (they) lost”.
Lindsey Buckingham gets the next word on Never Going Back Again, but although the title suggests he won’t return to the relationship, this lyrically sparse track seems too relaxed and not angry enough to be a break-up song. There is something else he won’t return to, maybe because of what he learned in his now failed relationship with Nicks, or maybe not. It’s rather vague, but it seems to be more about coming to terms with himself than it does an angry break-up song. Besides, soon enough we get something much closer to that in Go Your Own Way, also penned by Lindsey. (For some unknown reason, I am on a first-name basis with these band members). Don’t Stop finds itself wedged between Lindsey’s songs, with an incredibly bright take on moving on from a break-up, wanting both parties to just be happier with whatever comes next.
Nearing the end of a relatively happy side A, Rumours takes a turn with Songbird, one of the most beautiful and timeless love songs ever. What makes it a break-up song more than anything else is the sadness in the tone of the singers voice, and this is something that necessarily is replicated when Songbird is covered by Eva Cassidy, Willie Nelson, or whoever might do it next.
It’s always a stretch for me to flip the record over to The Chain, Rumour’s most bitter song so far, and yet ironically, it also boasts some of the tightest harmonies between Lindsey, Stevie, and Christine. The tightness of the entire band is made clear in the sexy You Make Loving Fun. The bass line is sick, and the harmonies that echo Christine are perfect. I am beginning to believe that Christine McVie might have been one of the best songwriters of the 70’s (along with Stevie, of course).
I Don’t Want To Know returns to the bitter playfulness that is in Second Hand News. Similarly, the singer doesn’t want to hold the other back, or “stand between (him) and love”, but just wants everyone to get along and “feel fine”. But perhaps appropriately after this attempt at confidence, Oh Daddy is a somewhat pathetic attempt to recognize what mistakes the singer has made. To be honest, I find this one to be a dud. Anything with “daddy” as a repeated lyric is doomed.
Rumours, along with some of the relationships it wrestles with, come to a close with Gold Dust Woman, where the fictional woman is told to “pick up the pieces and go home”, and the song ends with an extended instrumental outro seeming to noisily hold on and avoid an actual finish. The only appropriate sound to immediately follow Gold Dust Woman is silence, during which I imagine all the band members quietly pack up their instruments and leave separately. I’m sure it never actually happened that way, but even though the band hung together for a while longer in this formation, they were never able to make another album match the honesty, beauty, and frustration that this one did.
I have had so much difficulty in motivating myself to write about my 2008 rerun album this particular season, so I have decided to skip right to the album I chose for 2007 instead. Along with Radiohead’s In Rainbows (which I gave the top spot in my top 12 albums of the ’00’s and wrote about here), there is no question in my mind that the album of 2007 I’m most likely to ‘re-run’ is Bon Iver’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago.
Not only did For Emma shape what we would expect from Justin Vernon and the rest of the Bon Iver crew, it also seemed to speak directly to our hearts (especially of the broken variety) through barely-comprehensible lyrics and sparsely produced acoustic guitar. The truth is, we tend to love an album with a story, and this album has a particularly good one. Vernon had hit rock bottom with both his romantic relationship, and his band at the time. Carrying his grief and pain into solitude, he decided to process by moving to a secluded cabin to write, play, and record some songs. The result: an album of intimately expressed and beautifully written tracks full of atmospheric tension.
The record begins with Flume, a song covered by none other than Peter Gabriel himself. See what you think of that, here. I’m not sure what I think about understanding all the words in this song, since part of what draws me into the raw emotionalism of Bon Iver’s music is the way his Vernon’s voice makes it hard to make out the english words. There is a sense that the only language that is clearly being spoken is that of music, and when a word or phrase does break in to my consciousness, it becomes especially meaningful. One of the clearest sounds in Flume is a muffled echo, reminding me that when grief is most poignant, sometimes nothing else sounds clear.
Although Lump Sum begins with monkish motet-like harmonies, the song picks up with a faster pace, without losing the sadness that permeates the entire album. The echoey sounds continue in the harmonies, and the song fades perfectly into Skinny Love, arguably the most popular song from For Emma…, and for good reason, since few break-up songs are able to so honestly hold in tension such raw emotion with thoughtful reflection.
The Wolves (Act I and II) slows down and emphasizes harmonies that remind me of Fleet Foxes. It moves from being nearly the sparsest track on the album, to being the most dense, complete with a horn section and chaotic drum set solo, and finally returning to the sparse voice and guitar feel it began with. I feel as though if I took a bit more time with this song, I would find all five stages of grief represented. Someone else can do that though. I’m moving on to my first love of this album: Blindsided.
Just this listen through, I realized was how clear Vernon’s vocals are on Blindsided. It seems as though the only thing he can make sense of verbally is his feelings from being blindsided, and his continual reeling from the shock.
Creature Fear and Team are two songs that carry the most volume and energy on For Emma, but instead of coming across as angry, they sound confused and desperate. Team is also the one lyric-less track on the album (though Vernon’s voice and whistle can still be heard), but I hardly notice this because of how Vernon treats his voice already like one of the instruments.
For Emma seems as though he has moved to a point of considering closure. Don’t get me wrong; he’s still fairly bitter, (“Go find another lover… to string along”) but the relationship feels “forever ago”. My favourite part of this song are the horns. The strumming pattern gets old, but it does carry this sense of moving forward, one step at a time. If the album ended here, I think it would sound like a fabricated happy(ish) ending, but luckily it does not.
Vernon ends with an “excavation” – Re:Stacks is a reflection that questions the entirety of his lost relationship. He plays with the metaphor of gambling in a way that is full of both sadness and hope. Hope, because there is a hint in the last line that the album itself is a part of the process towards moving on. He may have hit rock bottom, but he knew exactly where to channel that painful, chaotic energy: into an album that wrestles with his fears and griefs vulnerably and honestly. This is an album that I will return to, not only when I am at my worst, but perhaps especially when I am.