There are love songs, of course. There are break-up songs. And then there are songs about relationships that don’t fit into either of those categories — the ones about love affairs that aren’t ending, even when something has gone seriously, perhaps irreparably wrong. Romantic crisis anthems, if you will. The newest of Montreal album, Paralytic Stalks, which is out this week, is all about a relationship in peril; the band’s mastermind, Kevin Barnes, recently told Spin, “The general theme of the whole record is trying to keep myself together when I’m faced with all this madness, trying to keep my relationships together.” It struck us that we don’t hear these stories told in song nearly enough — and since Valentine’s Day, with its perfectionist conception of love, is around the corner, this seemed like a good time to compile them.
of Montreal — “Spiteful Intervention”
Don’t let the catchy melody throw you off — this is an incredibly dark song about insomnia and self-loathing and creative frustration and being totally powerless to stop hurting the person you care most about. Barnes confesses, “I spend my waking hours haunting my life/ I made the one I love start crying tonight/ And it felt good.” On one hand, it’s a desperately ugly revelation; on the other, if we’re honest, who hasn’t been there?
The Mountain Goats — “No Children”
Speaking of dark, here’s The Mountain Goats, with their fans’ favorite sing-along jam — the anthem for a couple who have been torturing each other for years but who seem oddly addicted to their miserable relationship. “No Children” is a song about relishing your failing love affair and all the despair it causes: While “I hope you die! I hope we both die!” gets all the attention, the naked masochism of “I hope it stays dark forever/ I hope the worst isn’t over” is the real kicker.
Lady Gaga — “Bad Romance”
Although you’d be forgiven for not noticing it amid all the “rah rah ah ah ah”-ing and “Gaga, ooh la la”-ing, Lady Gaga’s best song is, in fact, about being “caught in a bad romance.” Substantially less depressing than The Mountain Goats’ and of Montreal’s romantic-crisis tracks, “Bad Romance” is about embracing the weirdness and perversity of a relationship that may well be terrible for you. Our favorite, vastly underrated, moment is when Gaga wails, as if choking back tears, “I don’t wanna be friends!” Amen to that.
The Magnetic Fields — “How Fucking Romantic”
All types of bizarre love affairs, break-ups, and objects of desire come up in The Magnetic Fields’ classic 69 Love Songs, but it’s this brief a cappella number that seems most fitting for this collection. It’s about loving someone who treats you like shit, and probably also about how real-life love so often falls pathetically short of the idealized romances we see in musicals. How many awful relationships can be summed up by the lyrics, “Love you obviously, like you really care/ Even though you treat me like a dancing bear/ Toss your bear a goldfish as it cycles by/ Don’t forget to feed your bear or it’ll die”?
TLC — “Creep”
“I love my man with all honesty, but I know he’s cheating on me.” There’s a conflict we don’t envy. In one of the most unexpectedly honest R&B songs of the ’90s, a woman steps out on her adulterous mate because he isn’t giving her the affection she needs — but keeps it a secret to avoid jeopardizing the relationship. Complicated! Of course, we have to wonder why she’s so adamant about covering up her infidelity when his doesn’t seem to phase her much. Double standard alert. You don’t have to take that, T-Boz.
Joy Division — “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
Sometimes, a relationship just goes horribly, depressingly stale. That’s the thrust of the song that brings all the sad sacks to the dance floor, Ian Curtis’s catchy ode to his failing marriage. Each verse is a heartbreaking image of domestic misery, but this is the one that really conveys the gloomy ambivalence: “Why is the bedroom so cold?/ Turned away on your side/ Is my timing that flawed?/ Our respect run so dry?/ Yet there’s still this appeal/ That we’ve kept through our lives.”
Nirvana — “About a Girl”
Some people seem to think that Nirvana’s early single “About a Girl” is a straightforward love song. They put it on mix tapes for their girlfriends like it’s some great compliment. The thing is, it’s actually about a relationship of convenience where the woman clearly has the upper hand. Does “I’ll take advantage while you hang me out to dry/ But I can’t see you every night, free” sound like a dynamic you aspire to? Do you want your lady to think she’s an “easy friend”? No, probably you do not.
Arab Strap — “Cherubs”
While we’re on hopelessly disparate relationships, here’s Arab Strap: “Only when you’re wrecked do you agree with all my plans for you and me.” The slow, throbbing drum machine gives the track a sexy vibe — but it describes the kind of ill-advised encounter you wake up from the next morning with a headache that feels like the percussion on “Cherubs” is happening inside your brain.
The Offspring — “Self Esteem”
Like “Creep”’s ugly twin, minus the reciprocal cheating, The Offspring’s self-flagellating mid-’90s hit is about letting a lady walk all over you and taking what you can get because you’ve got “no self-esteem.” The narrator sets himself up as your classic martyr, proclaiming, “The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care.” But really, when you get down to it, he’s as sensitive to rejection as anyone else — he’s just desperate. Whatever. We won’t judge.
Tammy Wynette — “Stand by Your Man”
And finally, we couldn’t leave out this topic’s most famous text. Even though we kind of hate this song.