Fed up of love songs? Music Critic Sarah Mawson makes the case for anti-love songs, the songs which detail the different stages of heartbreak and heartache, arguably in a more artistic way than their counterparts
It is the Valentine’s season and love is in the air and more noticeably – on the radio. As soon as it hits February romantic ballads start occupying the airwaves even more than usual, and while they are undoubtedly catchy and inspire feelings of infatuation (reciprocated or otherwise), they lack originality. I’m here to argue that anti-love songs – the tracks that scream of broken hearts, relationships that never even began and leave you without closure, and even uncaring attitudes towards romance – are far better than any lovelorn crooners plaguing Radio 2’s Sunday Love Songs. The narratives of anti-love songs are more nuanced and interesting, and since the sad truth is that the vast majority of romances don’t work out, some never coming to any sort of fruition, they’re also more relatable, therefore more emotive.
It’s probably at this point that I should make explicitly clear that I’m not bitter, I am simply right. And even if I am bitter, I’m still right. With that out of the way, let’s get into it. The best way to go through these songs is by looking chronologically at the timeline of a failed romance, so our first category starts at where it should: the beginning. The moment you realise you’re growing those pesky little feelings and you find yourself hoping to any deity that will listen that they don’t turn into anything extreme. It is in this stage that you will find any excuse – in yourself, the other person, or the combined circumstances – to run away. In light of that, here are the first songs joining the ranks of 10CC’s denial classic ‘I’m Not in Love’:
Joe Purdy – ‘Isn’t Love’
Despite the fact that it came out 20 years ago, the message of this folk ballad has remained true, and Purdy’s pleading refrain of ‘I hope this isn’t love’ still resonates with all those who would rather climb Everest than feel the painful vulnerability of love. The singer holds no hope for the relationship, knowing that as long as there is love, there is a deep and destructive desire to not be anywhere near it. ‘Isn’t Love’ is also the proud owner of one of the most accurate lyrics ever written about love as it opens with ‘well it hurts so much / may I scream out loud’, mimicking the age-old trope of frustration-screaming into a pillow, or from your local cliffside.
Low Roar – ‘Nobody Loves Me Like You’
In this song is where the storytelling really starts to shine. The band’s frontman, Ryan Karazija, is singing about a situation in which the lines of a friendship are starting to blur into something more and this track is him trying to gently persuade both parties to ‘save what we can before it ends’, predicting the relationship will end in tears if it keeps evolving. The title refers to the reason, repeated like a mantra in both chorus and outro: Karazija is saying they will lose they cherished platonic love they already have if they take it any further. The perspective Karazija provides is risk averse in probably a positive way, but it also means both will forever wonder what could have been.
Next we have the category of bittersweet, premature endings. These are for the relationships that hold promise at the beginning, actually make it into some official stages, but end before any true commitments can be made due to various circumstances that drive a couple apart. Unfortunately getting to experience even some of the relationship makes the ending no less painful, even if it does provide a little more closure than the aforementioned ‘what could have been’ conclusions.
Leon Bridges – ‘Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand’
Anyone who has listened to Leon Bridges before will know that not only is he a brilliant songwriter but he’s one of the best soul singers alive right now. The story of the song is best represented by the title itself: the knowledge that, for reasons unknown, the relationship won’t be worth the time and effort put into it. With little questioning Bridges knows that ‘I might regret that I can’t be your man / but sometimes the bet ain’t worth the hand’ and tries to reason with the recipient, telling them ‘don’t get your feelings broken for nothing.’ Sadly all the logic in the world couldn’t make emotions adhere to it and takes unbelievable strength to walk away when it might be the last thing you really want to do.
The Avett Brothers – ‘Pretty Girl at the Airport’
This track paints a picture straight out of a romcom, specifically the tearful goodbye at the airport where one is left waiting ‘there for a plane ride / with no one there to sit and hold your hand in flight’ after the other has just left. In the first verse it’s made clear that there’s a mutual understanding of their feelings, knowing they love each other, but something pushes them apart. Whether it’s a job on the other side of the country, or the knowledge that they won’t last as a couple, the song encourages the recipient to ‘leave now while you can / I’m not your man’ in a truly heartbreaking chorus supported by an equally heartbreaking string-heavy instrumentation.
Finally we have what might be the most tragic of the bunch: the songs about falling out of love and subsequently letting go. These are not about the crash and burn of a breakup with all its anger and wrongdoing, but the slow fizzle of affection and the numbing realisation that you don’t love each other anymore.
The Greeting Committee – ‘I Don’t Mind’
The lyrics in this song are downright harsh. Lead singer of The Greeting Committee, Addie Sartino, details the ending of the relationship and the ambivalence she depicts is cruel in its straightforward delivery. This is especially evident in the second verse when she sings ‘maybe I was wrong / to hold you for so long / when I couldn’t feel a thing for you’; a sentiment that so many are scared of – having the person you love feel nothing in return. The outro and its sudden crashing guitars is a chant of apathy as the band repeats ‘it kind of sounded like you’re never coming back / and I don’t mind’. This, combined with the hints of possible toxicity in the relationship, leaves the listener wondering if they should feel sad or happy for the singer, unsure whether it is better to leave and let go or hold on to something just for the sake of having it.
Bon Iver – Beach Baby
‘Beach Baby’ is gently devastating. The acoustic guitar supporting the short set of poetic lyrics makes for a singularly sad experience as Justin Vernon asks his lover ‘don’t you lock the door when you’re fleeing / I’d like not to hear keys’. In contrast to ‘I Don’t Mind’, and even though he knows the relationship is over, he still wants the recipient of the song to stay. He’s left watching himself lose her but unable to do anything, his only solace remembering the happier times; the days at the beach. The slide guitar-accompanied outro pushes the song over the edge of reminiscence into melancholy and continues to make the case for anti-love songs because even though they are far from happy, they’re unbelievably moving.
Anti-love songs are better than regular love songs because they take the fundamentals of music – thoughtful lyrics that tell a story, instrumentation to reflect mood, everything designed to induce emotion in the listener – and elevate them. Heartbreak is more visceral, more complex than love. It may not feel good, but it makes for brilliant music.
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