The Break-Up Album Lives, Quietly

The XX's and Jens Lekman's new records powerfully portray falling out of love without a fight.

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XL Recordings

Breaking up is hard to do, but at least it makes for good pop music. Since, well, before Neil Sedaka, romantic splits have been radio's most persistent lyrical crush, perhaps second only to romantic beginnings. In 2012 alone, many of the year's biggest, most memorable No. 1 smashes—think Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" and Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Getting Back Together"—have ridden terminations to chart tops.

So it's surprising that when the Swedish songwriter Jens Lekman went through a breakup this past year, he couldn't find a soundtrack for his despair. "It's strange, right?" he said in an interview with Pitchfork. "Ninety-nine percent of all songs are written about this! But when it happens to you, it's just so specific that you feel like you can't really relate to anything at that moment."

I Know What Love Isn't, his recently released third album, came out of that frustration. It, along with The XX's new sophomore set, Coexist, show that there's more than sing-along catharsis to music's ongoing affair with falling out of love. There's still room to innovate on the subject, and these two excellent albums belong to an underrated genre of heartbreak tunes: the angst-free breakup song.

The 31-year-old Lekman has, until now, used his head-cold croon to make big, goopy emotions sound even bigger and goopier. On 2007's deservedly raved-about Night Falls Over Kortedala, he further hammed things up by overstuffing his arrangements with samples of old soul and easy-listening songs. Hilarious, pointed lyrical details leavened the mix. One song, for example, described him breaking up with a girl and her responding with an asthma attack. Disco strings whined, a harp sounded—all-too-recognizable reality became something celestial.

The asthmatic-girlfriend song was called "I'm Leaving You Because I Don't Love You," and its name could have subbed in for the title of I Know What Love Isn't. Lekman's penchant for specific images remains—one track opens on him lying with a bag of frozen peas in an overheated apartment—but the feeling he's documenting is also specific: resignation. Not a frustrated, tantrum-thrown "I quit!" but rather the clear-eyed, sad recognition that something once great is about to end. He sings of being asked what's wrong and replying, dishonestly, "nothing," and of noticing a subtle reduction in the pressure with which he holds a girlfriend. Numbness leads to action, which leads to shock: "When I let go of that hand, I always start to feel something," he confesses, "like a bottle smashed against my head." Many of the songs talk about how the rest of the world moves on even if you can't, so the music—while still fearlessly inviting the description of "adult contemporary"—is smoother and more serene than it was on the brash Kortedala. Even the saxophones here seem unexcitable.

"Unexcitable" also describes the arrangements on Coexist, the second album from London trio The XX. Their 2009 debut xx was hailed as a masterpiece of sparseness, with singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim whispering to each other over coolly clicking R&B rhythms and lonely guitar lines. The sound proved surprisingly influential, and has been cribbed—directly, in the form of guest appearances or samples—by the likes of Drake and Rihanna. But Coexist is even quieter, less a collection of pop songs than of transfixing tone poems. The impression again is of two lovers conversing, but this time they seem to be lying in bed, lights off, as muffled percussion out of some neighbor's stereo bleeds through the walls.

Like Lekman, Croft and Sims are interested in fine gradations, about the molecules making up overriding emotions. It's not a breakup album per se but rather an album with breakups constantly on the mind—with two humans eyeing the other intensely, looking for clues as to their affections, mindful of the how familiarity can drift into coldness. "We used to be closer than this," goes the chorus to the single "Chained," in which Croft plays the role of the sadly bewildered: "Did I hold too tight? Did I not let enough light in?"

Her questions go unanswered, as do most of the questions asked on both Coexist and I Know What Love Isn't. The common thread between the albums, the one that makes them so calmly potent, is the implication that "why" is a useless word in a doomed relationship. Passions dim inexplicably in these songs, akin to a natural force ("You leave with the tide," goes one Coexist chorus) or a physiological phenomenon (in a classical Lekmanian metaphor, "dandruff on your shoulder"). The emphasis isn't on the reasons people drift apart, but rather on the feelings that result when they do.

The subject of breaking up, of course, is large enough to encompass Kelly Clarkson's better-off-without-you empowerment anthems, Adele's mournful woulda-coulda belting, Taylor Swift's sneered putdowns, and Gotye's bitter restaging of a fallout. Lekman and the XX aren't inherently better for forgoing the anger that powers those acts' surging, super-satisfying choruses. But with their small, personal, almost-perfectly painted pictures of loss, they do offer a reminder that devastation isn't always dramatic.