Murder! Suicide! Murder-suicide! In time for Valentine’s Day, a compendium of pop’s most genius works of staggering heartbreak, with sentiments just caustic enough to make you consider sticking with dogs for companionship.
It certainly wasn’t the first country ditty where a woman-beater gets his final comeuppance (see Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” or Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County”), but this is the most iconic; gaining its power from an infectiously dark comic sensibility (they poison his black-eyed peas) and some giddy, Springsteen-sized hooks. After radio stations got angry phone calls about the song’s infectious blood-thirst, the here-to-forever-controversy-prone Dixie Chick Emily Robison said in a statement, “We’re not promoting murder, and we even say that in a disclaimer on our album…Besides, is there a gentler way to go than with black-eyed peas?”
OUCH: “Ain’t it dark/Wrapped up in that tarp, Earl?” CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN
Ghostface Killah, feat. Ne-Yo
“Back Like That”
On his best-charting solo single to date, the Wu-Tang’s most preternaturally emo MC explores his rage after his ex moves on to the next one — a jailbird and neighborhood snitch that Ghost has scuffled with in the past. The rapper was ten dusty fingers deep into his classic soul period, smoothly borrowing the despondent piano melody from Willie Hutch’s 1976 weeper “Baby Come Home.” “Back Like That” ironically flips a sweet love song to make a venomous one, but it’s definitely telling that both men are confessing that they’ve done somebody wrong.
OUCH: “Let me get that rock on your finger / Oh, it’s stuck? Then I’ll take the whole finger then, man.”C.W.
Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley wasn’t going for an emotional exhumation here, just a snotty punk-rock kiss-off. The song, he has said, goes from “‘I’ve been dumped,’ to ‘It was your fault ’cause you’re shit.’ [It’s] all about the process.” Not exactly spiritual growth, but proof that lashing out childishly can be way more fun than picking through the ashes, searching for answers.
OUCH: “Oh shit, I wish I’d known before now / Oh shit, that you were such a fucking cow.” David Peisner
Eleven years after Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes burned down Andre Rison’s mansion, this 21-year-old Nashville Star runner-up took the idea of a woman scorned turned human torch and built a career off it. (Steve Earle gets a co-credit ’cause the whole thing sounds like a straight cop of “I Feel Alright.”) The ex’s offenses are never detailed beyond the implication that he’s “holdin’ on to someone” else, but more to the point, this isn’t even about him. The act of arson seems less revenge than a shrug, idle hands turned destructive — what else is someone who’s giving up on love supposed to do all day? And that’s way scarier than revenge.
OUCH: “Light ’em up and watch ’em burn / Teach them what they need to learn.” Steve Kandell
Badu’s boyfriend is cheap, selfish, oversexed, and it’s time for him to call his friend Tyrone and get some help packing his shit. This plainspoken live track (the real stars are the screams of affirmation from the audience) was supposedly spawned from a live improv in London, where Badu made up the lyrics as she went along. She’s said she “had no idea that it would make such an impact,” but “Tyrone” ended up setting the stage for the oncoming perfect storm of late-’90s scrub-bashing.
OUCH: “Every time we go somewhere / I gotta reach down in my purse / To pay your way / And your homeboys’ way / And sometimes your cousin’s way.” C.W.
Prior to 1999’s Summerteeth, Jeff Tweedy was widely seen as, if not a lightweight, then a generally genial presence, particularly compared to his ex-bandmate in Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar. Which is why the casual domestic violence permeating Wilco’s third album was a surprise — even to Tweedy. “It’s just something that came out subconsciously, kind of free association,” he told Salon in 1999, regarding the homicidal musings of “Via Chicago.” “And it was like, ‘Wow, I’ve got to hang on to that one.’ It felt honest and close to something real.”
OUCH: “I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt all right to me.” C.W.
“Keep It to Yourself“
This criminally underrated chronicler of romantic disappointment outdoes herself on this track recorded live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rigby has said she wrote the song after a new boyfriend asked her about her last relationship. “You say you’d like to kill the man who broke my heart,” Rigby coos gently over acoustic guitar and a swaying bossa nova beat, as the song opens. She goes on to essentially dare her current inamorato to off him, describing in acute detail where he can be found.”
OUCH: “Here’s his address, here’s his picture, here’s the make and model of his car / He works until 4:30, then he hangs out at the topless bar.” D.P.
“Fountain and Fairfax“
It’s hard to single out just one song off the Whigs’ magnum opus of sex, lies, and betrayal, Gentlemen, but on this one, frontman Greg Dulli really lets the seething, slobbering, aggrieved beast within him roar. Over guitars that pierce like daggers, Dulli howls about the lover he sobered up for, only to discover that she’d been dishonest and unfaithful anyway. Dulli has described the album as “that point when things go wrong, when you get mean, thinking pretty shitty things.” You think?”
OUCH: “It’s Tuesday now / I hear him breathing inside of her.” D.P.
On this scorching takedown, the alt-country vet catalogs an ex-paramour’s numerous faults. But mainly, he’s a lousy lay. Williams has insisted this furious stomp started as a joke, but her withering assessment is probably not all that amusing to the target of her derision. “That person doesn’t know it was about him,” she once said, “and by the time he’s figured it out, it’s too late.”
OUCH: “You think you’re in hot demand / But you didn’t even know where to put your hand.” D.P.
“She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)”
The singles discography of excellent ’70s honky-tonker Gary Stewart tells a familiar hard-luck story: First, he’s the sinner (“Drinkin’ Thing” and the cheating song “Out of Hand”); eventually, he hits the skids (“Ten Years of This,” “Quits,” “Single Again”). This hit, his biggest and drunkest, landed in the middle: “Truth is, I’m not man enough to stop her from doing wrong.” Amazingly, his actual marriage lasted from age 17 until 60 — when his wife succumbed to pneumonia. Then, two weeks later, Stewart shot himself.
OUCH: “While she pours herself on some stranger / I pour myself a drink somewhere.” Chuck Eddy
Shannon McArdle has said she wrote and recorded this song before her then-husband and bandmate Timothy Bracy walked out on her in 2007, leaving only a note. But listening to this blistering first-person tale of a woman thrown over for a younger model “with a fucking kitty on her shirt,” you’ve got to believe she saw the writing on the wall. These Brooklyn indie rockers were always a three-ring circus of jealousy, self-loathing, and despair, but this song — in fact their entire final album, 30 Year Low — could double as court filings for McArdle and Bracy’s divorce.
OUCH: “Thought your package was for me / Christ, I should’ve known better / You couldn’t even face me / Wrote me in a letter.” D.P.
“She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)”
Guitar-slinging good ol’ boy makes country-chart-topping comeback with funky talking blues that reminds us old-timey minstrel jug-band stuff was rapping long before rappers were. On one hand, it’s Big & Rich two decades early; on the other, it’s a sad-sack men’s lib vaudeville routine about your wife leaving your suitcase on the porch, and what happens next: “They split it right down the middle, and they give her the better half.” In the real world, though, when Reed died in 2008, he’d been wed nearly half a century.
OUCH: “She’s livin’ like a queen on alimony / I’m workin’ two shifts, eatin’ baloney.” C.E.
“Alone Again (Naturally)”
A working-class Irish piano man, clean cut in an emo-ready sweater decades
before its time, flaunting his disinterest in rock’n’roll with his comic-opera-inspired stage name, gets stood up on his wedding day. So he questions God’s existence and considers diving off a tower, even as the church congregation heads home. Then he mourns the deaths of both of his parents. Depressing! And a No. 1 single for six weeks — not bad for a suicide threat. Years later, he got married anyway. And sued Biz Markie.
OUCH: “Climbing to the top / Will throw myself off.” C.E.
“Queen (Luv U 2 Death)”
Gibbs sets us up here: The first two minutes of this twisted, three-minute tale are an earnest paean to the woman who is his port in a storm — “my only friend, the only one I can trust.” Then the couple gets robbed, and the rapper discovers it was a setup: His “French vanilla butter pecan chocolate deluxe” has been creeping around with his assailant. So Gibbs does the only logical thing he can in a song like this: He shoots her.
OUCH: “I was down to give my life for you / Wife-ing
you / Love you from the start / Stankin’ ass bitch, you breakin’ my heart.” D.P.
Journeyman songwriting pro Steven Krikorian begins the final track on his crazed first album, Life in the Foodchain, in sensitive, soft-rock, singer-songwriter mode warbling about just another love affair gone bad, with a laid-back drawl that’d never get him kicked out of Hotel California’s swimming pool. Then he suddenly yells out, “Eins, zwei, drei, vier!” and everybody turns into the Sex Pistols. “I wish I was as mellow as, for instance, Jackson Browne,” muses Tonio, “but ‘Fountain of Sorrow’ my ass, motherfucker, I hope you wind up in the ground.”
OUCH: “I’m going to K-I-L-L one of us, baby, give me time and I’ll decide on which.” C.E.
Mr. T Experience
While the Ramones’ bitterest love song (“Glad to See You Go”) used Charles Manson as an absurdly glib punch line, the Bay Area pop-punks of the late-’80s and early ’90s who inherited the gabba gabba groove gave heartbreak a headier, more bittersweet lilt (that was no less relationship-whipped). Perhaps the best example is Mr. T Experience’s ruthless-seeming rejoinder to an old girlfriend, with singer-songwriter “Dr. Frank” Portman mocking her by trumpeting the awesomeness of his new girlfriend, who bakes pies and knows which fork to use and sits around with him while he, um, talks endless shit about his old girlfriend?! It all falls apart when he stoops to the pitifully dorky retort that “you made a fool of me, but who’s laughing now and who’s laughing not, HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA.” Sheesh, just go and have a wank already, Skeezix.
OUCH: “My new girlfriend is better than you / She’s got higher breasts and a bigger IQ.” Charles Aaron
Leading off the female indie-punk trio’s Bloodsucker EP, and given an extra shiv of bitterness by label troubles, “Vi Ploriontos” is lean, mean, and leaves a discordant farewell shot of “You’re gonna cryyy!” clanging around your skull. Singer-guitarist Marcy Mays was some kind of genius diarist of what it’s like to tolerate (and then not) codependent drunk assholes; and here, she’s almost lost in a revenge trance while the band bashes away in full support. Their rollicking cover of Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted,” on the same EP, bites down hard on the word “snake,” as one might imagine.
OUCH: “I wasn’t worth a Megadeth ticket, a shave, a fine wine…Though I loved you, you suck.” C.A.
The proudly wandering Italian doo-wop king of the New York streets could be vicious when it came to runaround Sues, and he had no qualms about gender double standards. Writing about this Top 10 hit in 2000, Dion DiMucci explained that if a guy acted sad in his old macho Bronx neighborhood, somebody would “slap him upside the head.” So, a whole lotta slappin’ goin’ on, especially where “evil little child” Diane is concerned. She’s two-faced, her heart’s made of wood, and without her, he’d die.
OUCH: “I wanna pack and leave and slap your face / Bad girls like you are a disgrace.” C.E.
Womack & Womack
Talk about complicated: Cecil Womack is the brother of Bobby, who was married to the widow of Sam Cooke, whose daughter is Linda Womack, who is Cecil’s wife. Cecil and Linda made gorgeous, gospel-and-disco-infused R&B that focused on middle-class marital strife, which they seemed to know intimately. On the title cut of their first album, he confides about boxing her around and calling her dirty names and she scratches up his face, as the groove moves toward new-wave Prince. Follow-up single: “Baby I’m Scared of You.” Wow.
OUCH: “Flashbacks and uncovered tracks / From when you left with my best friend.” C.E.
Eve, feat. Faith Evans
“Love Is Blind”
“Love Is Blind” may be the most convincing you-will-not-get-out-of-this-song-alive moment ever committed to tape. Plus, it’s wholly unique among breakup classics, with Eve passionately defending a female friend who’s been horribly abused by her partner, then expressing frustration with her friend for leaving and coming back (“I could have killed you when you said your seed was growin’ from his semen”), and finally, leaving no doubt that the “snake motherfucker” in question will be dealt with posthaste. Despite its brutal litany of violence, “Love Is Blind” benefits from Swizz Beatz’s poignant, almost folky production, and you’re left feeling eerily uplifted — like, for once we hear about a sister having another sister’s back, and the rap-revenge fantasy not ending with a “bitch” getting toe-tagged.
OUCH: “You heard my gun cock / Prayin’ to me now, I ain’t God, but I’ll pretend / I ain’t start your life, but nigga I’ma bring it to an end.” C.A.
“(I Used to) Believe in You”
The Farfisa-driven northern Ohio band of Bob Pfeifer and Myrna Marcarian — initially a couple who ran a record store together — made only one real album. But Who’s Landing in My Hangar? had more rocky relationship songs than most decades-long careers. Pfeifer, who sounds supremely pissed-off in this one, says their lyrics were frequently character composites, more metaphorical than autobiographical. But between him in this song, and Marcarian in “(Say No To) Saturday’s Girl,” and both in the magnum opus “Refrigerator Door” (sung partly in Slovenian), the rage and frustration are inescapable, regardless.
OUCH: “All I see in my eyeball is you / Your legs spread and him inside of you.” C.E.
“Why’d Ya Do It”
You could imagine this ungodly obscene, anatomically specific, inexorably curdling-for-almost-seven-minutes, reggae-punk screed being aimed at the laryngitis-and-substance-scarred diva’s former flame Mick Jagger or her then-husband Ben Brierly of the Vibrators. But truth is, it was mainly written by a man: agitator and playwright Heathcote Williams. None of which prevents your private parts from hoping Faithfull isn’t wielding a sharp knife when she wails about how you spat on her “snatch” and betrayed her “little oyster for such a low bid.”
OUCH: “Every time I see your dick / I see her cunt in my bed.” C.E.
Having written an eternal hymn for the youthfully wounded (Big Star’s “You Can’t Have Me”), Chilton soldiered on, becoming more and more of a wryly bitter wag. “No Sex” isn’t about anything as pedestrian as individual human relationships; instead, it’s the exhausted whoop of a petulantly jaded American boy-king for whom random, unprotected sex and careless drug use are the only pseudo-freedoms left after the shitshow of the ’70s and early ’80s. This “no sex” business was simply a disease too far (namely, HIV); and somebody had to testify. So the woozy horn section and Chilton’s dinky Telecaster engage in a monumental smirk-off.
OUCH: “Hey, baby, it’s the 1980s / Baby Doc sent it up from Haiti / Can’t get it on or even get high / Come on, baby, fuck me and die.” C.A.
A long road trip trapped in a car with someone who’s in the process of dumping you is an existential hell that Sartre couldn’t have considered, and what makes this standout from the infamously confessional Exile in Guyville so cringe-worthy is how mundane all the relationship’s breaking points are. The first line is: “And when I asked for a separate room”; the devastating word there is “and,” carrying the implication that we’ve joined this airing of grievances in medias res. For all the attention given to the baldness and boldness of “Fuck and Run,” along with Phair’s “I want to be your blowjob queen” come-on, this is the one that still leaves a mark.
OUCH: “It’s true that I stole your lighter / And it’s also true that I lost the map / But when you said I wasn’t worth talking to / I had to take your word on that.” S.K.
“Is That Enough”
Buried in alimony and child-support payments, Gaye opted to knock off a double LP and split the royalties with Berry Gordy’s sister Anna, whom he’d left for another woman he wouldn’t last long with, either. The result was Here My Dear, the There’s a Riot Goin’ On of marital nonbliss. In “Is That Enough,” he stretches out for 7:46 of immersive, blurry, quietly storming drone-funk, complaining about possessiveness and jealousy until he takes a smoking break and his smooth-jazz sax player takes over.
OUCH: “Somebody tell me please / Why do I have to pay attorney fees?” C.E.
Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky
“A Dear John Letter”
There’s a frigid breeze blowing through this spoken-word heave-ho that would give Casanova the shivers. Honky-tonk truth-teller Jean Shephard has a voice with an unwavering quaver that never overdramatizes, and she’s one cold-blooded so-and-so here, acting out this No. 1 country hit with Husky playing the enlisted sap. The no-she-didn’t scenario: A soldier presumably has just survived the Korean War’s grind toward armistice, and he happily receives a letter from back home; unfortunately, the letter from his girlfriend/fiancée not only asks him to return her photo, but then informs G.I. Woe that she needs it for her new husband, John’s brother.
OUCH: “Dear John, I must let you know tonight / That my love for you has died away like grass upon the lawn.” C.A.
“Prayer to God”
Chicago’s Steve Albini has always been indie rock’s most quotable curmudgeon, but the producer’s own project revealed a whole new level of bile on 2000’s 1000 Hurts, perhaps not coincidentally recorded around the time of his divorce. In “Canaveral,” Albini sings, “What do you think could make him / Stick his hands in my life?…What do you think could make him / Stick his cock in my wife?” But it’s the album’s cruel benediction of an opening track that stings and endures more than any Evan Dando slag ever could. Over a plodding, crashing beat, Albini finds religion for the express purpose of doing away with his presumably unfaithful ex and the aforementioned interloper, about whom he simply concludes: “Just fucking kill him. Kill him already. Kill him already. Kill him. Amen.”
OUCH: “Her: She can go quietly, by disease or a blow / To the base of her neck, where her necklaces close / Where her garments come together, where I used to lay my face / That’s where you oughta kill her / In that particular place.” S.K.
“Rid of Me”
It’s hard to imagine anyone on this list, no matter how much of a deranged psychopath (howdy, Mr. Coe), saying boo to Polly Jean Harvey. She’s so self-possessed and unshakable in her artistic and personal vision that even when she’s waylaid by anger or despair, there’s no question that she’ll be up early the next morning, coolly rehearsing her band for that night’s gig or efficiently dispensing with whatever tedium life tosses her way. “Rid of Me” is her tactical decimation of a misbegotten lover, but she doesn’t do it with a knife or gun or any messy weapon at all; she just taunts and haunts a man to death by playing on his most irrational desires — practically howling, “Lick my legs, I’m on fire” — but not before torturing him into admitting: “Don’t you wish you never, never met her.” Game over before it began.
OUCH: “Yeah, you’re not rid of me / I’ll make you lick my injuries / I’m gonna twist your head off, see.” S.K.
David Allan Coe
The backstory is right there on the back cover of the Human Emotions LP, next to that scary photo of mega-outlaw Coe in his gigantic afro and belt buckle. A gravestone proclaims, THIS LOVE IS DEAD, a five-paragraph letter starts, “Dedicated to my wife 1976–1978,” and explains that he wrote the last two songs “when I got your ‘notice of divorce proceedings.’ ” That’d be “Jack Daniel’s, If You Please,” then this country-metal monster, which climaxes with “blood splattered all over the wall.” Hers, and maybe his.
OUCH: “Standing in the bathroom with a gun in my hand.” C.E.
“One More Hour”
While Eminem’s pas de f-you with “Kim” comprised more than 700 words, one simple epithet ensured that Sleater-Kinney’s “One More Hour” would be a breakup mixtape staple for decades — the haunting, sirenlike, romantic death-rattle mantra: “Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyyyeeesss.” Sung in tandem by singer-guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, the former’s voice quivering up high, the latter’s droning blankly below, it’s got that magical elixir of undying/unrequited affection, relentless passive-aggression, and utterly defeated desolation. The song elevates to another level for the chorus, as Tucker and Brownstein shout and moan interlocking refrains of “I needed it” and “I know,” while every fan wonders how much it hurt for this former couple to perform this song for the better part of a decade.
OUCH: “Take off the dress, take off the face.” C.A.
Richard & Linda Thompson
“Walking on a Wire”
While the couple were recording this devastatingly beautiful, palpably excruciating domestic drama for 1982’s folk-rock breakup classic Shoot Out the Lights, Linda was pregnant and Richard was sleeping with someone else behind her back. Linda sings Richard’s acid lyrics (“I hand you my ball and chain”) like a eulogy, which, of course, they were: The Thompsons soon divorced, but still embarked on an infamously brutal tour, during which Linda occasionally kicked Richard in the shins onstage. “We were both miserable and didn’t quite know how to get it out,” Linda has said. “We couldn’t talk to each other, so we just did it on the record.”
OUCH: “This grindstone’s wearing me / Your claws are tearing me / Don’t use me endlessly.” D.P.
“I’d Rather Go Blind”
Perhaps the most disturbing love songs are the ones in which the betrayed or aggrieved party turns his or her pain into a grenade of self-abuse. And though the late Jamesetta Hawkins had a battle rhymer’s fearlessness, never flinching from a throwdown, she sang as if every heartache was a body blow she saw coming and simply hoped would miss (the blues legend was one indomitable scar). The Hammond B3, country-soul stroll of “I’d Rather Go Blind” initially lulls you, but the enormity of the sentiment soon takes over, as the singer’s conversational tone deepens and intensifies, implying that she’s lost in a vast, inevitable abyss. She’d rather stare into that nothingness forever than glance at the pathetic tears on her face in the mirror. “I was just, I was just, I was just sittin’ here thinkin’,” she wails. Just, huh?
OUCH: “I just don’t want to be free, no.” C.A.
There are plenty of ways for artists to cover their tracks in even the most personal, autobiographical work: metaphor, allegory; at the very least, a fake name like Layla or something. Marshall Mathers has no time for your frou-frou subterfuge. This scathing, frantic dialogue with Kim Scott (as voiced by Eminem), his high-school sweetheart turned wife turned ex-wife turned again-wife turned again-ex-wife, isn’t brutal just because of its anguished unraveling (spoiler: he slits her throat and tosses her into the trunk of his car), but also the specificity. We’re meant to put a specific face with this name. “There’s been many points in time when I literally wanted to kill her,” Em told SPIN in 2000. “I took the aggression about what was going on and started writing it — ‘fucking bitch!’ — and it came out like this. I talk about my fucking girl publicly and make songs about killing her, then go home to her. We’re like the Odd Couple or some shit.” That Mrs. M. used the song as the basis for a defamation suit isn’t surprising; that the couple remarried, briefly, in 2006 never ceases to be.
OUCH: “Now, shut the fuck up and get what’s comin’ to you / You were supposed to love me.” S.K.