Love is many things in pop music. Like oxygen. Thicker than water. All around. Will tear us apart. A tender trap. A battlefield. A mystery. A dog from hell. A bitch. A mix tape. A drug. But it was Roy Orbison who nailed it better than everyone else: love hurts. Regardless of permutation but maybe not so much hip-hop or death metal or hardcore punk, romantic misery is pop music’s main product line. For every love song flush with ardor and giddy with devotion , there are at least ten stewing in the many-flavored soup of what happens when all that flitty tatty gooey goes achy-breaky, that whole nosebleed of contrarian emotions from pining to pissed-off.
Anti-love songs are really love songs turned on its head and painted black by heartbreak, the anguished dispatches of the walking wounded. It’s the oldest, sturdiest, commonest form of pop song. Despite having long outed myself as a hopeless romantic, I’ve had no use for love songs for the last five years, except as wishful thinking and misdirection, and there’s one time of the year that it becomes a bit of a chore to indulge. Just to offset the high glucose content of the air, I cram my playlist instead with anti-love songs, holding back on the country and the blues and the pre-rehab Whitney (RIP) because they tend to get a little too intense. The back catalog is still vast without these, making the picking of just a few a bit insane - - -but then that’s sort of like love, eh? When he boiled down the one he loves but left behind to a simple prop for occupying his time, Michael Stipe might have not only midwifed a kiss-off with more venom in its spit than Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe or Marshall Crenshaw’s I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee) but quite possibly the ultimate anti-love song into the world as well, with a mean streak made even meaner by the way it verges on nonchalance. I’m not sure if any of these comes close but I picked them partly for the way each zeroes in on a specific mode of hurt feeling and partly for being the ones I reach for to commemorate the holiday. Here, then, nine of my bloodiest valentines. Have a good one, lovefools. I am one of you but for today I am not.
1. 2541 Grant Hart: Grant’s songs always had more pull for me than Bob Mould’s when they were in Husker Du, but his finest three minutes plus may well be this minor hit from his first post-Husker solo, a breakup song spewing less bile than that Husker song of his I flirted with putting in here first ( I Don’t Want To Know If You’re Lonely) but stuck instead with the poignancy 2541 nails in tracking a couple’s moving in and moving out of an apartment and of each other’s lives. “ . . . it was the first place we ever had to ourselves, I didn’t know it would be the last . . .” Geographic displacement as post-romantic fallout.
2. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart Wilco : Not a song about a loveless relationship but a loveless reconciliation when all the energy funneled to carrying a torch for a lost love burns itself out in the anticlimax of a reuniting that turns out to be not much and not necessarily what the lovelorn wanted in the first place. It hurts more out of the way Jeff Tweedy sings it like the aquarium drunkard he claims to be in the first verse, as if drinking himself blind every night is the only thing that keeps him hanging on.
3. I Know It’s Over, The Smiths : Nobody does morose with such cunning snark - - -“if you’re so funny, why are you on your own tonight?” - - - and with such asphyxiating resignation - - -“ as I climb into an empty bed, oh well enough said” - - - as Morrissey does in this, his ex-band’s most gorgeous, most devastating ballad in which a long-held love turns out to be a long-held lie. The opening line “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” would seem a bit melodramatic if that wasn’t exactly how she made you feel when she walked out the door.
4. I'm Sorry Baby You Can't Stand In My Light Anymore Bob Mould: A kiss-off that somehow manages to both wear its own sense of defeat proudly like a badge and wield the other party’s sense of loss like a weapon. Bob Mould back in form. Not that he was ever out of it.
5. It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference Todd Rundgren: The wistful loveliness of the melody in the verses and the way Todd coos them as if pitching himself to an ex can be a little disarming: “ . . . maybe you remember the last time you called me to say we were through, how it took a million tears just to prove they all were for you . . .” But just as her reluctance starts to melt ,Todd throws his sucker punch: “ . . . but those days are through . . .” Love TKO, baby. Living well is not the best revenge, indifference is.
6. Knowing Me Knowing You Abba: Hands down the Abba song closest to my heart.“ . . . no more carefree laughter, silence ever after . . .” Harrowing, as breakup songs go, for being so determined in its hopelessness it all but snuffs out what tiny ray of hope the harmonies reach for.
7. Neither One of Us Gladys Knight & the Pips: The haunting, languid keyboard figure that opens this sets the aura of lived-in, worn-out emotional fatigue. But it’s the twist in the last line Gladys sings that tells you her infinite sadness isn’t being trapped in a loveless relationship but one where love is not enough and is tearing them apart.
8. Skinny Love Bon Iver: “In the morning I’ll be with you, but it will be a different kind. I’ll be holding all the tickets, and you’ll be owning all the fines." He sounds more like the new Lindsey Buckingham here but if only for the quivery prettiness of his voice and the bruised heart he wears on his sleeve, Justin Vernon really is the new James Taylor, isn't he?
9. When We Two Parted Afghan Whigs: The unhappiness that goes unspoken, the dying from the inside, the lovers like brothers on a hotel bed. “ . . . parted” Greg Dulli sings. But by the end of the song, they’re still together in the claustrophobia of something potentially worse than a loveless relationship : a bloodless one. “ . . . if I inflict the pain then baby only I can comfort you . . .” Corrosive, colossal.