The 50 best breakup songs
Heaven knows you’re miserable now—so you may as well enjoy it with the best breakup songs ever made
Mon Feb 10 2014
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division
Sting gurgled, “If you love somebody, set them free,” and Bono wailed, “I can’t live with or without you.” But neither of them got close to the exhausting, depressive reality of a tortured love affair. Their lyrics never fully summed up the paradox of attraction and repulsion, or the bittersweet pang of nostalgia that comes when something beautiful is dying. They were not, in other words, Ian Curtis.
The lead singer of seminal Manchester, U.K., band Joy Division, Curtis was one of indie rock’s greatest losses—a troubled genius who let his shyness fall away onstage, but lived his personal life in quiet agony. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is Curtis at his most melancholic, and the ultimate chronicle of a relationship’s breakdown.
“When routine bites hard / And ambitions are low / And resentment rides high / But emotions won’t grow / And we’re changing our ways / Taking different roads…” The lyrics are ostensibly about Curtis’s relationship with his wife, Deborah, but they also refer to the inner rifts that contributed to his fragile psychological state and his eventual suicide in May 1980—a mere five months after this track was recorded.
For listeners, though, its eternal chorus—“But love, love will tear us apart again”—says everything there is to say about the mixed pleasure and pain of being in thrall to another human being. The music is postpunk at its minimal best, a sparse synth hook adding a touch of optimistic light to the shade of Curtis’s themes.
It is, without a doubt, the best breakup song ever created: Not just a ditty about dwindling affections, but a searingly precise evocation of human fragility. We are simple beings, it seems to say, made and broken by small moments, and powerless against the tide of our own emotions.—Jonny Ensall