Songs about Places (by Joshua)

I’m not a person who likes certain music because of the memories it evokes – I tend to listen to the music of a song first, decide whether I like it or not, then listen to the lyrics. If I happen to then associate the song with a memory or it becomes associated with something I’ve done, fine, but unless I’m listening to the song while creating the memory my music taste just doesn’t work like that. This, of course, makes this subject rather tough for me – I have to take it more metaphorically than simply picking a song about a place. It’s more like a song about a place I may have never been to, or have always been in, or a place that isn’t an actual place but an idea of a place that wishes it was a place but hasn’t quite made it out of the starting gate…Ok, I don’t know what I’m talking about anymore, but I think an English and Philosophy double major somewhere just got a boner.

“The Old Apartment” by Barenaked Ladies

Have you ever moved from a place you desperately loved, or in which you felt superbly loved? Have you ever been evicted? Or maybe it was just a place you needed to call home so badly it hurt, because nowhere else felt like home and it was your only place of refuge ever. Or maybe it was a place you hated and were so glad to leave you wished you never had to go back. And then you did, and wrote a song about any one of these things. That’s what this song is about. If you do follow in their footsteps, it’s probably best just to knock.

“The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire

I grew up in a city suburb, which I always just thought was the suburbs. Anything further than 2 miles or so from the city line just seemed like the boonies to me. Then I dated this girl who grew up in what I thought was the boonies, and she called it the suburbs. First, she was wrong. It was the boonies. Second, this song is about any place you can call the suburbs – it’s about boredom. Boredom and that desperate need to leave, which you think will solve the boredom. Rob Gordon/Zimmerman in High Fidelity explains it just as well: “You can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway.” The people in this song are desperate to escape but have no idea what that may lead to.

“All at Sea” by Jamie Cullum

The literal image here is to be in a small rowboat, floating further and further away from shore, leaving behind your friends and your worries, your hopes and  your disappointments, your melodies and dissonances. Cullum has captured perfectly that idea that sometimes you want the boredom, the exaltations – you want to escape the things that bring you down as much as the things that give you the most joy. Sometimes you need it to stay sane. Or maybe you don’t, but I do. Well, lucky you, if you don’t, but don’t fucking lord it over me, ok?

“Big Time in the Jungle” by Old Crow Medicine Show

I’ve never been to Vietnam, or been in the military, and I was born 30 years too late to sign up for the war there, but I think OCMS has the general gist of it. Or maybe they don’t. I don’t know. But it’s a great song, and bonus, it’s totally fun to play hanging around a campfire. Just don’t play it if there’s a disheveled looking dude wearing a bandana and an old Army jacket hanging out by himself far to the side of the fire. He might get angry.

“Tallahassee” by The Mountain Goats

This, like The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, is a whole album about a place. This album, though, tells a story of a terrible marriage. Our intro to the album is this song, as the couple arrives to their new house in Tallahassee. It’s a bad omen, this song – it’s slow and plodding, with a terrible sense of foreboding. When you arrive to your first house as a newlywed couple, it should be a joyous occasion, but it absolutely isn’t. When they see the house, they have to ask themselves, “What did I come down here for?” They remind themselves, “You,” but we know it’s putting off the inevitable – this place is wrong for them. Maybe it’s dramatic irony, or maybe it’s their own self-deception. Maybe it’s both.

Top 5 Breakup Songs

Joshua: We are so obsessed with breakup songs, we couldn’t leave it at just describing the stages we go through. Here are our all-time, top five favorite breakup songs…plus a few more we just had to mention.


Etta James, “I’d Rather Go Blind”

Etta James has completed the Love and Stuff Month triathalon: She’s on my Top 5 Love Songs (Sunday Kind of Love), Top 5 Songs for the Grown and Sexy (I Just Want to Make Love to You), and Top 5 Breakup Songs (I’d Rather Go Blind). I’ve never been able to shake the image from the chorus here—”I’d rather be blind, boy, than to see you walk away from me.” An achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful song, one that conveys raw, almost to the point of numbness, pain.

Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek”

For the blank-faced times, the too many drinks alone time, the finding a song to cry to times. Sort of a theme for  “Speak for Yourself” (the album this song is from), so if you’re looking for a prolonged spell of crying jags and blind rage, queue up “Headlock” and “Have You Got it In You?”

A Fine Frenzy, “Ashes and Wine”

A Fine Frenzy does a couple things we all have to do after a breakup. Here’s a breakdown:

  • Feels nothing. Feels end-of-the-world-depressed. Feels suicidal in a “Yeah, that’ll show you way.” Then feels bad about all that and insists that this will be amicable, damnit.
  • Imagines her ex kissing someone else. Feels alternately ill, guilty about feeling ill because she has no claim on him anymore, sad about the realization that her claim is gone
  • Wonders relentlessly if somehow they’re going to muddle through this breakup and get back together. Asks that pleading question, albeit in a much more poetic way, “Are we going to get back together? Ever?”

Beck, “Lost Cause”

You’ve given up. You didn’t want to, this isn’t some big confident show of how over it you are, no. But you’re done trying. And it’s all sad and terrible but maybe a little hopeful, because it can be over now. Not over for real, not yet, but there’s a promise that it will be some day. And that’s something.

Joni Mitchell, “Down to You”

An oddly comforting song that, when you’re in the throes of your breakup, reminds you that this too shall pass. This is my all time favorite Joni Mitchell song. I remember driving around listening to this, about a month after a breakup, and those first lines clicked with me immediately: “Everything comes and goes/Marked by lovers and styles of clothes/Things that you held high and told yourself were true/Lost and changing as the days come down to you.” Also the part where she suddenly shrieks “Love is gone” with a chorus is hilarious. I know it’s not supposed to be, but it’s a much needed laugh. Between Joni Mitchell’s zen-like wisdom and so-serious-it’s-funny-choral-moment, this song feels like a huge relief.

Honorary Mentions:

Billie Holiday, “I’ll Be Seeing You”: Nobody does wistful like Billie Holiday.

Martha Wainwright, “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole”: It’s nice to hear a pretty song turn so filthy. Martha Wainwright is angry, is not interested in hiding it, is about to spend a full minute repeating “You bloody motherfucking asshole.”

Lauryn Hill, “Ex Factor”: If you’ve ever been through a breakup without “There for me there for me, said you’d be there for me/Cry for me cry for me, you said you’d die for me” running through your head at some point, you apparently missed out on the very crucial experience of listening to “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” on repeat for two years. Fix that.

Joshua’s List:

“Sad Songs and Waltzes” by Cake

A wonderful cover of the creator of nasty breakup songs, Willie Nelson. He can’t possibly begin to forgive his ex. She done him wrong. And he ain’t got no one to tell it to but his guitar and the tech recording his song. I hope whoever Nelson wrote the song for (and John McCrea sang the song for) actually heard the song. But it’s almost better if she didn’t, right?

“Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” by Jeff Buckley

I’m not sure if this is actually a breakup song or not, I’ve just always used it as one. Maybe it’s the accordion. Maybe it’s the wide open D-chord transitioning to the horrible E-minor. Maybe it’s Buckley’s naturally wilting, wistful voice. You can’t help but wish…no, know, that she should’ve come back to him. He knows exactly what he’s done wrong. He’s a fucking idiot. Can’t he make a mistake? Unfortunately, he knows the answer, and it’s not good.

“Accidentally Like A Martyr” by Warren Zevon

This was a serious candidate for the breakup sex entry for me for a while. The chorus describes exactly that: “Mad love, shadow love, random love, and abandoned love.” Can you think of a better description for sex you shouldn’t be having? But it’s much better describing that period after you finally break off all contact with your ex and then force yourself to remember over and over again all the times you had passionate, uninhibited sex with her/him. It’s torturous, and Warren Zevon knows exactly what you’re going through.

“No Children” by The Mountain Goats

This song isn’t actually written from the perspective of a couple already broken up; rather, a couple that should be ending but can’t bring themselves to kill it. Or each other. Or themselves. I love the line: “And I hope when you think of me years down the line, you can’t find one good thing to say.” I’ve oft felt like this: I know I’ve never done anything to truly hurt someone, especially someone I’ve loved, but there’s a certain romantic charm in being hated in perpetuity by someone who once loved you. Maybe that’s insanity, but I have a feeling I inspire that kind of long-standing revulsion with my exes, and it’s rather comforting.

“So Very Hard To Go” by Tower of Power

After that, I had to end this entry on a positive note. And what better a song than this to express positivity of a breakup? The singer is, unfortunately, deeply in love with the person he’s singing it to, but he’s realized that it’s better for her in the long run if they weren’t together anymore. He can’t bear the thought of his girl being unhappy, especially if it’s because of him. He must make the ultimate sacrifice to step aside, but, in the end, he’s ok with it. It’s hard now, and it’ll get better, but goddamn, if this shit doesn’t suck. I one day hope to be that mature to realize when I should do what he’s doing…Cuz I’ve never done it before.

Honorable Mentions:

“Break Your Heart” by Barenaked Ladies: Ok, this is only on here because I’ve never been on this side of a breakup. Move along.

“Where Did Our Love Go” by The Supremes: A shuffle written about dying love. A straight up amazing classic.

“For No One” by The Beatles: Uh…damn, Paul. Damn. This is some fucked up shizz right here. And I’ve been there.

Alternative Love Songs – A Guest Post by Miriam Doyle

Joshua: When I told Miriam about our love songs posts, she was so excited to put her own spin on it. And when I read her list, I was even more excited. Now that you’re reading my introduction, either you’re bored to death or you’re just as excited as I am to present this to you!

The Magnetic Fields – I Don’t Believe You

There’s a story that this song hints at, and it always seems to run counter to human nature, if not logical behavior. It’s directed at a person that the singer is clearly in love with, but he doesn’t seem able to believe in the possibility of that love being reciprocated, all evidence to the contrary. There is wooing involved, and clear indication of meaningful moments being shared, but Stephin Merritt’s reaction is still to pull away wistfully. Granted, his voice is more suited to mournful songs, but still. Really, who does that? Even when you know that getting involved with the object of your desire is the worst idea in the world, who can resist the incredible ego boost when that person you’ve fixated on says that they want you too? It’s far more human to seize such opportunities and revel in an erotic or romantic moment, even when one is well aware that it will end badly. So what’s up with this guy, and his perverse resistance to his obviously eager love interest?

Voltaire – See You In Hell

There are two sentiments here that aren’t talked about enough. 1. Feeling vengeful against a lover who spurned you, even before you get over the breakup. Fantasizing about reversing the tables when it comes to anguish is truly one of the most satisfying ways to waste ones time during the pining period. Yes, one day you will be over this affair, but wouldn’t it be super awesome if your ex realizes what a mistake they’ve made and you get to have the pleasure of rejecting them the way they have you? That desire doesn’t have to wait until after the sadness is gone, either. This ain’t no angry Alanis Morrisette stridently singing here, this is still Voltaire at his most mournful and with his softest stringed instruments. 2. Love doesn’t have to be healthy in order for it to be real love. Love songs so often idealize their subject matter as the most beautiful thing in the world, but real love can in fact be used quite effectively as a bludgeoning tool between two parties with baggage. There’s an awesome honesty in admitting that even in the longing dreams one has for a past lover that they’re still putting you through hell.

The Mountain Goats – Old College Try

As tragic as this song is, it is also amazingly romantic and devoted. Returning to the “true love isn’t always healthy” theme, this is about someone who has realized that they are doomed to be miserable with their partner, and resolves to stick it out anyway because they are still in love. It is a curious surrender, in direct contrast to the oft-expressed ideals about love forever lifting you up, and admonitions to escape relationships whose negative patterns have been set in stone. Even during a peaceful lull, sometimes you just know that a nasty fight can and will break out at any moment, because that is how the relationships works now. And yet, who can doubt the lingering presence of love upon hearing, “In the way those eyes I’ve always loved illuminate this place – like a trashcan fire in a prison cell, like the searchlights in the parking lots of Hell.” Sometimes passion does take on some surprising and inexplicable forms.

The Exciters – Tell Him

This song came out in 1962 and I think that it continues to be startling, when given a little thought. Growing up in a culture that is still rife with gender roles and standard narratives, one can’t help but internalize certain expectations. Men pursue, ladies are demure and coy and always tend towards subtle maneuvers over aggression, both sexes play head games and don’t wish to ever lay all their cards on the table at the outset of the mating dance. And then this adorable #4 hit song comes along advocating… what? Only that women should initiate when their feelings are strong (“Go out and get him… right NOW”). That far from trying to fan the flames of frustrated passion or maintain ones mysterious allure, you should actually be upfront. Of course, people do still play mind games and languish by the phone without daring to confront their uncertainty, but this song still gives me hope for a positive trend. And when it comes on and I’m alone, I’m always moved to shake my bum in a sudden burst of joyful assertiveness.

The Dresden Dolls – The Jeep Song

The Dresden Dolls can always be counted upon to have a unique approach to things, and they don’t let you down in this epically hilarious cabaret-style broken heart song. You’ll find no wistful sighs here. Instead, the listener gets a speedy escalation that starts out nostalgic, and then takes a turn for frenetic introspection that leads to car theft, vandalism, and eventual institutionalization. And strangely, it really seems to make sense and resonate. Breakups are not uniform, universal experiences. I believe I can safely say that I’ve found individual things to fixate upon with every one that I’ve been through. After listening to the Jeep Song a few times it takes on the feel of a very comforting affirmation. Hey, that ex was a total jerk, so in retrospect throwing eggs at their car in the middle of the winter was really a responsible, cleansing action to take. And the backup vocals are bitchin’.