Before you let the needle hit the vinyl on Adele’s 30 this afternoon you already know the drama that went into each emotion and deeply felt vocal—that although this new album is all about her and her journey to get to this age, that 30 concentrates on divorce, her divorce, and all the tumult and growth that went with it. “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart / For all of my lovers in the present and in the dark,” she sings at the start of the record, creating a sense of ennui and reckoning around the sensitive topic of separating a love and a marriage. With this, however, we must be clear: Adele’s 30 follows a very delicate (and often harsh) path, that of the “divorce album” and its rich history.
Legally joined lovers have come together and separated more times that you may think during pop’s 20th and 21st centuries. Musical giants had to tackle that divide, sometimes poetically and sometimes coarsely. With that, here’s a quick look at 12 standout divorce albums and what makes each uniquely bitter, more spiteful, and more forlorn than the next.
Tammy Wynette, D-I-V-O-R-C-E (1968)
George Jones, Memories of Us (1975)
Two albums, one busted up marriage, and an amazingly frank and unironic display of heartbreak and angst from both country music legends. While Wynette’s vision was blunter and more of a contagiously melodic smash, never underestimates Jones’ gutsy torpor and display of disgust and self-loathing.
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (1975)
This is the direst and biggest of all divorce albums, namely because it’s Dylan, America’s Bard, our Shakespeare uncautiously ruminating on the ruination of his marriage to his then-wife Sara, and how he—before this—had never truly touched on the autobiographical or the self-confessional. Naked self-expression, loneliness, and the feeling of blame and disgust mark this record like a pox. That’s why this is still his best album, period, as well as divorce music’s greatest hit.
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977)
All during the writing and recording of one of pop’s most diabolical albums, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham broke up, John and Christine McVie got divorced, and Mick Fleetwood found out that his wife had had an affair. No wonder Rumours is so broken, and such a blood-letting listen filled with real passion beyond its pop veneer.
Marvin Gaye, Here, My Dear (1978)
Gaye’s divorce from his then-wife Anna Gordy Gaye—the elder sister of Berry Gordy, Gaye’s longtime label boss at Motown—made for some sticky soul listening. And bluntly direct songwriting too, as Gaye went straight for the jugular (or the heart, pick a vein) with molten lava moments such as “Anna’s Song” and “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You.”
ABBA, The Visitors (1981)
Seeing the four artists and two one-time couples of ABBA together again after 40-some years for a new album is nice—even if 2021’s Voyage does sound like a case of arrested development. Few, though, point to the fact that their last album before its disintegration, The Visitors, arrived following the divorce of both couples. Certainly something more dread-bringing than their usual chipper moments, such as “When All Is Said and Done.”
Richard and Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights (1982)
OK, take everything I just wrote about the two albums/one wedding bust up of Wynette and Jones and funnel that emotion into one LP and one couple from Fairport Conventioneers the Thompsons. Here the even-franker folkie freneticism of marital strife and awkwardly named cuts such as “Don’t Renege on Our Love” paint an unpretty picture of love on the rocks.
Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love (1987)
This is the stickiest of divorce albums in that it’s nestled between Boss relationships—his soon-to-be ex, Julianne Phillips, and the next Mrs. Boss, E Street Band member Patti Scialfa. Unlike the usually un-confessional Dylan, Springsteen has forever been a self-chronicler, and moments such as “Brilliant Disguise” reveal the mess of love on the brink, and the renewal of feelings for the future.
Nas, Life Is Good (2012)
Without shame or blame, wise and conscious hip-hop lyricist Nas used this positive-titled effort to delve into his divorce from R&B singer Kelis by using his life as a roadmap as to what went wrong, and how.
Babyface and Toni Braxton, Love, Marriage & Divorce (2014)
Released right before Valentine’s Day 2014, the not-married-to-each-other king and queen of modern quiet-storming R&B show how to break up to make up, the sweet and sultry way.
Björk, Vulnicura (2015)
What’s most fascinating about the genuine heartbreak that engulfs 2015’s Vulnicura is how public Björk’s marriage to her avant-garde equal, artist Matthew Barney, was in the first place, and how every icily chilled note (thanks in part to electronics-beats whiz Arca) and vocal bleat of this album chips away at that trust and romance.
Kacey Musgraves, star-crossed (2021)
GRAMMY voters might be torn on whether to claim star-crossed as country or pop. But one thing that’s undeniable and rifles through every category and emotion is how Musgraves reaches into her literary bag to tear down (and tear up over) her lost marriage to Ruston Kelly.