You know what I hate? Divorce Albums. Not that someone would want to write songs about their divorce–you should want to, divorce is hard and sad and complicated and terrific material for art. But it’s when people start talking about it in interviews, “I wrote this new batch of songs after my painful divorce,” when it appears in the press material, when you start to get the feeling that the divorce is being used as a marketing strategy. Or as some kind of insulation from criticism: “You have to like this album because the artist went through so much to create it.” Sorry, I don’t have to like it! Josh Ritter, who I am a huge fan of, is the latest culprit, but there have been many, many others in my years of music fandom.
Okay, as we say in the business, </rant>. Here are three divorce songs I do really like and am moved by. (Tammy Wynette fans, I apologize, but country music divorce songs are a genre unto themselves. Maybe I’ll tackle that at some future date.)
1) “In Our Hands,” Kenny White: A slow, moody picture of a divorce in progress, the awful time when everyone knows it’s over but no one has managed to move on yet. The singer smokes a cigarette, finishes his drink, drags himself to bed, hoping to “pass a night without shaking.” He can’t stop his mind going, though. He thinks of the wreck of his marriage; he wishes he were still a little kid who could be comforted by his Mom. In the third verse his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s voice enters: remembered or actual, it’s hard to tell. Maybe they are still living together. She berates himself as he’d berate himself, for leaving this marriage to chase “small girls with big shoes and punctured skin.” “Are you sure it’s your heart you’re following?” she taunts, and every word lands. “When did this pain cut so deep?” he asks, helplessly.
2) “Suburban Song,” Lee Feldman: Different songwriter, but it could be the same guy–here he is a few months or years later, and he and his ex-wife has reconciled to an extent, become cautious post-marriage friends. They go to a musical recital together on a Saturday afternoon; afterward, he comes home with her to the house they once shared. She needs his help cleaning the windows; it’s a two-person job. They engage in this domestic routine as though it is still a routine. “I’m still thinking about the recital,” the singer says, at various times in the song, and the phrase comes to represent all his ruminations about the past, about the better times of their marriage and how they’ve reached the place where they are now. She’s tired; she goes up to bed, “just like she used to.” He’s alone in his old house, still thinking about the recital. He has a momentary fantasy of her coming back down the steps to join him, or of himself going up the stairs to join her in bed, but knows neither is going to happen. He finishes straightening up, turns off the downstairs lights. Locks the door on his way out.
3) “Divorce Song,” Liz Phair: An obvious choice but also an awesomely great song from an awesomely great album. In relationships, I don’t think there is ever really an ending, but there is a beginning of the end, and that’s what Liz Phair nails in this song. The singer and her husband are on a road trip; he in a moment of frustration says she isn’t worth talking to, she in a moment of spite asks to get a separate room at the motel where they stop for the night. The offhand ways we screw up our lives! “Take a deep breath and count back from 10 and maybe you’ll be all right,” the singer says to her husband, or herself, a plea for self-control, for stopping before saying the unforgiveable things that anyone in a marriage for any amount of time always has access to. “You’ve never been a waste of my time, it’s never been a drag,” the singer tells him–a final appeal to their shared past, or (in Jackson Browne’s words) her opening farewell? Well, given the title of the song…