Sleep Well Beast
Prince of Tears
'Break Up Albums' - tear soaked, bitter, angry, maudlin or lonely records that, by rights, should be given their own gloomy little section of a record shop.
Here, would be a place where 'Sea Change' by Beck could be filed next to Bon Iver's 'For Emma....' The display racks would be constantly stacked with copies of 'Rumours' and 'Blood on the Tracks' and it'd also be the only place where I could pick up another copy of 'Shoot out the Lights' by Richard and Linda Thompson, seeing that I wore out my last copy.
In 2017 there were three significant additions to the 'break up' aisles, albums that contain unvarnished accounts of the before, during and immediate aftermath of relationships ending. They are unflinchingly honest and sometimes uncomfortable to listen to.
Matt Berninger of The National is a man in turmoil (although, after six fairly intense albums, you probably knew that already), but now he's reflecting on his middle aged anxieties and, most tellingly, his failing marriage.
There are moments on 'Sleep Well Beast' that feel like prying on a marriage counseling session that's not going particularly well. Sonically it's one of the bands most engaging and experimental records but it's Berninger's melancholy lyrics that are the focal point. Mixed into the frantic drums and Edge-y guitars on Day I Die is a lyric of angsty pondering '...the day I die, where will we be?' it's not a question about geography but his gloomy concern about where his relationship is heading, and he's not holding out much hope.
On the synth driven Walk it Back he's trying to find solace in weed and wine whilst everything disintegrates around him. Defeated he helplessly admits 'Nothing I change changes anything'. We should be well acquainted with his pessimism by now.
The most telling and agonising lines on 'Sleep Well Beast' (and there are plenty to choose from), are in the weary and bleak Guilty Party:
It's nobody's fault
No guilty party
We just got nothing
Nothing left to say
Coming to terms with the fact that a long term relationship is painful. Berninger, who ironically wrote the lyrics for 'Sleep Well Beast' with his wife Carin Besser, has managed to articulate these feelings with such a candid collection of songs.
If 'Sleep Well Beast' describes the stages before a relationship fragments, then Baxter Dury's 'Prince of Tears' is like watching the bust-up as its taking place of front of you.
After the objectionable boasting of opener Miami, Dury hands over the vocal duties to former Pipette Rose Elinor Dougall for the song Porcelain. After a gentle piano intro, Dougall coolly puts Dury in his place: 'You're just a lonely mother fucker...I don't give a shit about you.' Her delivery is detatched and uncaring, the strings add drama to close out the song, she's moving on.
It's the moments on 'Prince of Tears' where Dury shares vocals with whoever is playing the role of his ex-partner that are the the most candid. This is where it feels like the awkward conversations are taking place in real time in front of you. Madelaine Hart has the joy of playing his ex on the song Mungo. Yet again Dury blusters with 'Don't you think I'm special? I think I'm special! to which Hart curtly responds with 'There's nothing here, so please don't call.' The emotional wounds are fresh and it hurts.
Dury occasionally gets sidetracked though. Oi is recollection of a wayward long lost friend ('I hope you survived somehow and didn’t turn into a total cunt...which is possible'), it sounds like Parklife-era Blur without the patronizing fakery. Letterbomb is a short one-word blast of punk and although Almond Milk may be a riposte to a demading girlfriend, it's features a surreal and unrelated cameo by Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods.
Baxter returns to matters of the heart on the funk of August, realising that '...as broken as I am, you and I will never be the same.' The string heavy ballad 'Wanna' has Baxter at his most downcast and self lacerating, whilst the title track that closes the album is the acknowledgement that all is over. Throughout the album Dury has moved from denial to acceptance. It's a heart-rending journey.
On Preservation, Nadia Reid's second album, she seems to be trying to make sense of her life after a recent break up. She is reaching the acceptance stage but is looking back whilst trying to move forward. The title track which opens the album is a tender introduction, Sam Taylor's sparse and echoing guitar is an idea backdrop for her hushed and intimate vocals. She acknowledge her mistakes ('I could tell I was lying to myself...'), but sees a light of hope ('I know that I will find the one to hold on to').
It is the quieter acoustic numbers that are the most touching, namely the desolate Te Aro and the folk tinged Hanson Street Part 2. However, it is on the delicate Reach My Destination that she is most defiant by quietly summing up a relationship with the line: 'there were two little words that I used, one was "fuck" the other was "you" .' It's bitterness hits hard.
Reid is at her most forlorn on the closing 'Aint Got You'. It is an emotionally naked moment, her voice is full of genuine sadness and regret. It is a poignant ending to a moving collection of songs.
Reacting to the success of 'Blood on The Tracks', Bob Dylan told an interviewer that he couldn't understand how audiences could 'enjoy' listening to 'that type of pain.' Having listened to these three albums back to back you may be inclined to agree with him, but it misses the point. The 'break up' aisles of the record shop boast an abundance of honest songwriting based on real experience, there is a universal truth there. And these three albums are worthy additions to their racks.
view the entire top 30 so far beginning with the albums on this page
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.