Adele's new insta-blockbuster, "Hello," touches on the singer's signature theme of breakup regret while adding a new twist: the telephone. The song joins an illustrious lineage of sad-phone-call songs, 10 of which we survey here. Maybe in a decade, we'll be rounding up the best frowny-emoji-text anthems, but "Hello" proves that there's a certain enduring pathos to the phone-call-as-pop-framing-device, whether the narrator is drunk-dialing an ex, as in Drake's "Marvins Room," or lamenting the void on the other end of the line, as in ELO's "Telephone Line."
A silent phone inspired one of the most anguished ballads in Prince's catalog. The track has a late-night, empty-bar vibe, with the singer hammering at a piano and a cruddy drum limping way down in the mix. But despite the off-the-cuff feel, studio wizardry plays a crucial role: Prince multi-tracks his vocals in wasted heaps, pushing the expression of torment to new levels. The best moment comes at the very end, when the singer chastises his ex for being too cheap: "It's just one lousy dime." The song has inspired many covers, including versions by Stephanie Mills and Alicia Keys.
Paul Westerberg's voice is a wounded scrape on this track. He hurls vitriol down the phone line, shouting over a gnarled, furiously strummed guitar: "How do you say, 'I miss you,' to an answering machine?" The machine responds to Westerberg, flat and uncaring, mocking his pain: "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and dial again."
Womack's tune is one of the most devastating entries in the phone-song canon. Over delicate acoustic guitar and doleful pedal steel, she struggles to avoid getting drawn back into a toxic relationship: "I don't need to check that message/I know what it says/'Baby, I still love you' don't mean nothing/When there's whiskey on your breath."
Nineties R&B had a love affair with in-song phone conversations. Here, Levert is trying to win back an ex, but when he calls, he gets her answering machine. He's angry, lonely and self-pitying all at once: "I don't deserve this, talking to your answering service." The slow-burning deep-soul arrangement is well-suited to Levert's histrionics. "I don't care who knows," he sings into the machine, almost yelling now. "Life is too damn tough!"
10cc flit between pleading and bitter invective on "Don't Hang Up," a lush multi-part suite. The meat is in the opening section, which contains a truly epic guilt trip: "I'm doing really well/I'm as happy as a lark/I've got a new apartment/It's as safe as Central Park/And if they ever mug me when I'm walking in the dark/Would you know?"
An entire breakup plays out over the phone in "Laundromat." Nivea caught her boyfriend (voiced by R. Kelly) stepping out, and she opens the track with a simple, cutting line that she doesn't even bother to finish: "You're a lying, cheating, son of a …." The bubbly funk arrangement can't conceal the song's tragic core — Nivea hangs up on Kelly and heads to the laundromat in an effort to wash his memory from her life.
This song reads as a one-sided telephone conversation — and a depressing indictment of Rundgren's relationship, in which neither party seems to have much interest in the other. Rundgren starts a line singing, "seeing you," but then quickly doubles back to add a caveat that erases most of his lover's value: "or seeing anything as much as I do you." "I take for granted that you're always there," he adds. "I take for granted that you just don't care." It's hard to imagine a follow-up call taking place.
Like Rundgren, ELO uses the piano-ballad form for the setting of a lovelorn phone call. Halfway through the track, the singer decides that the phone will define the rest of his existence: "Can't you just let it ring a little longer, longer, longer?/I'll just sit tight/In shadows of the night/Let it ring forevermore."
"Marvins Room" wasn't our first taste of Emo Ex-Boyfriend Drake, but it is definitely the pinnacle. On the song, Drake drunk-dials an ex-girlfriend and sing-raps all of his problems. "I'm just saying, you can do better," he says over the phone after a female voice asks if he's drunk right now. "Marvins Room," gave Drake a chance to show off his conversational style while also getting to actually show off during the conversation with his ex, as he repeatedly explains — in textbook red-flag fashion — all the ways that he is the better option for her.
Before there was "Marvins Room," country music got its own drunk-dialing ode with Lady Antebellum's emotional duet "Need You Now." On the track, band members Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley reflect on their nocturnal intoxication as they tell their lovers how much they miss them and want them back. The country-pop tune skillfully and subtly captures the desperation of the pair's post-midnight musings.