Many of the best songs are written about break-ups, but do any of them speak to what a divorced father is going through? Ben Railton shares this playlist of six songs that do…
There are few themes more ubiquitous in the history of popular music than the breakup. From “Heartbreak Hotel” and “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” through Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” (both recorded by bandmates in the process of breaking up with each other, no less!) and down to recent bestsellers such as Adele’s 21 and roughly 97% of Taylor Swift’s songs, pop hits have covered and re-covered every angle and stage of the breakup process. (To say nothing of country music: Do you know what you get if you play a country record backwards? Your girl, your dog, and your pickup truck.)
Yet many of those breakup songs are geared to different types and levels of relationships, and perhaps especially to the kinds of intense emotions associated with first loves, passionate affairs, sudden heartbreak, or the like. So it isn’t always easy, when you’re dealing with an extended divorce that ends a 16-year relationship as I have been, to find songs or albums that really speak to that particular process and emotional state. I’ve found some that do, however, and here I’ll share a playlist of six songs, ideal for divorced fathers, grouped into three interconnected pairs because that’s just the kind of organizational guy I am (and please share your own nominees for such a playlist):
Two Albums for the Initial Shocks
By the time their respective, long-term marriages ended, Tom Petty and John Hiatt had been making music for decades, so it stands to reason that each would record an entire album chronicling the many different emotions and perspectives that constitute such divorces. The two albums are stylistically distinct but thematically complementary, and work well as a paired set. Petty and the Heartbreaker’s Echo (1999) features many hard-rockers, but gradually moves through a series of more serious tracks that reveal Petty’s sadness (“Room at the Top”), anger and confusion (“Echo”), resignation (“No More”), and a concluding determination to carry on (“Rhino Skin,” “One More Day, One More Night”). Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters (2000) is far more unified, using the genre of the blues as a throughline to pair social commentary (“Lift Up Every Stone,” “Mr. Stanley”) with every imaginable emotional response to divorce, including mourning (“Crossing Muddy Waters”), raw pain (“What Do We Do Now?”), anger (“Take It Back”), and, again, a culminating determination (“Before I Go”). I honestly can’t think of anything more therapeutic for a man in the early stages of divorce than putting these two albums on repeat.
Two Songs for Moving On with Grace
There comes a point, though, where we’ve got to take those records off repeat. As we do, two hugely different artists and songs can help us start to move forward gracefully. U2’s underrated “Kite,” from All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000), is a moving meditation on aging, death, separation, and the difficult but crucial necessity of letting go, even when it’s the most painful thing we can do; maybe Bono is singing to a child moving into the world, maybe to a parent at the end of life, but lines like “I wonder what’s gonna happen to you/You wonder what has happened to me” speak eloquently to the feeling of moving away from someone to whom we’ve been so closely tied.
Then there’s Eminem. Given the infamously angry and even violent nature of Eminem’s repeated breakups from his wife Kim, it might seem crazy to pair any song of his with “Kite.” But the raw, honest, and admirably self-critical “Going Through Changes,” from Recovery (2010) offers, in a final verse in which the rapper speaks directly to his three daughters about his breakup with their mother, one of the most succinct and affecting portrayals of divorce in pop music. “Wish it didn’t end this way/But I just had to get away/Don’t know why, I don’t know what else to say,” Eminem concludes—but he has already said a great deal, and his song, paired with U2’s, speaks very meaningfully to the stage when we begin letting go and moving on.
Two Songs for Reflection and the Rest of Our Lives
Helped by whatever it takes—including Bono and Eminem—we do eventually move on and forward. But as we do, especially from a marriage that has been such a central part of our lives for so long, we must also reflect on all the memories and histories, contemplate all the influences on our own identities and perspectives, and carry all those thoughts forward into the rest of our lives. I know of few songs that accomplish those goals better than Dar Williams’ “After All,” from The Green World (2000). Williams’ speaker uses the occasion of a breakup to reflect on much of her life, from an early brush with suicide to the influence of her parents and their own troubled marriage, and then returns to the breakup, in some of the most beautiful lines I know: “Well the sun rose in so many colors, it nearly broke my heart/It worked me over like a work of art/And I was part of all that/So go ahead, push your luck/Say what it is you gotta say to me/We will push on into that mystery/And it’ll push right back/And there are worse things than that.”
There are, and another of the worst things, alongside a life lived without self-reflection or -awareness, is one defined by bitterness or regret. So argues perhaps the most beautiful breakup song I know, Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter” from The End of the Innocence (1989). Henley’s song traces many of the emotions and stages I’ve highlighted through this playlist, but in its final moments its speaker comes to an understanding of the deepest truths of both breakups and life: “I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter/Because the flesh will get weak and the ashes will scatter/So I’m thinking about forgiveness/Forgiveness/Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore.”
Not an easy place to get or be, of course—nor are any of these others. But get and stay there we must, and I hope this playlist (along with any songs or albums you’d suggest!) can help us do so.