A Meditation on Finality: Albums About Death
Finality is daunting. Tackling the end of a chapter, knowing one can’t return, can be terrifying and dreadful. Looking forward can be exciting but overwhelming. No transition is more final than death. As the common denominator of human existence with the most unknowns, we are constantly surrounded by and asked to grapple with the deaths of others as we further approach our own death. It is no wonder, then, that death appears in our art. Artists are perhaps the most articulate members of society when exploring the existentialism and uncertainty of death.
For musicians, songs about death are no new frontier. One of the oldest complete songs known to anthropologists is the “Seikilos Epitaph,” a song from antiquity found at a funerary site in modern-day Turkey. Seikilos wrote the song in dedication to Euterpe, who is theorized to either be his wife or the Muse of Music with the same name. In the brief song, Seikilos focuses on the fleetingness of life and the unstoppable and indiscriminate nature of time. While “Time demands his due,” it’s also essential to live a fulfilling life and avoid grief when possible. These sentiments and themes still resonate with the existential and mourning words of more contemporary artists as they confront the death of themselves and others.
I have identified and categorized “death” albums into two types for ease of discussion. The first category of death records are those that most closely parallel the “Seikilos Epitaph;” I shall call these “Elegy Albums.” These albums mourn the death of others, often painting a comprehensive depiction of the artist’s psyche and alluding to the impact the absence of their loved one has. Two popular and potent examples of Elegy Albums in modern music are Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, and A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie. On Carrie and Lowell, Stevens demonstrates the often messy and, at times, contradictory emotions that come with grief. On the opener, “Death with Dignity,” Stevens calls out to his muse, the “Spirit of Silence,” who is later revealed to be his mother, much in the way that Euterpe could be both a person and muse in the “Seikilos Epitaph.” The multifaceted call to Silence alludes to the absence of his mother—both in life and in death—as well as the space that her deafening absence gives Stevens to meditate on his life with her now that she’s gone. Concerning his lack of a relationship with his mother, Stevens chooses to forgive her towards the end of the track and accept the permanence of her transition, thus beginning the healing process.
Stevens comes to terms with his failure to grieve properly on “Should Have Known Better” and the intimacy of love as a means of experiencing God in life and hardships. On “Eugene,” Stevens confronts challenging childhood memories of his time with his mother and stepfather, capturing the importance of retrospection in the grieving process. The subsequent track, “Fourth of July,” depicts a conversation between Stevens and his mother, Carrie, as she is dying in the hospital. The conversation on the inevitability of death, and expressions of love provided Stevens some closure and healing. Carrie and Lowell seemingly trails off with closer “Blue Bucket of Gold,” where Stevens concludes that religion, friends, and family are ultimately somewhat hollow in their ability to provide him with the solace he longed for in the wake of his mother’s passing. For some experiencing transition or grief, this lack of conclusive change in mindset may be unsatisfying. However, Stevens captures a more nuanced reality: one often never fully heals from loss. Perhaps, in trying to heal and grieve, it leads to even more uncertainty and instability than the initial loss left them with. It’s messy, but it’s authentic.
Where Carrie and Lowell begins with a call to the divine and otherworldly, A Crow Looked at Me starts by treating death as a primarily secular affair. The side project of Phil Elverum, frontman of The Microphones, A Crow Looked at Me’s opening track “Real Death” begins with the ethos “Death is real [...] And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art.” This gut-wrenching opener paints Elverum as physically and mentally weak in the face of death. “All fails” when he confronts the recent passing of his wife from cancer in 2016, leaving Elverum with their one-year-old daughter. In the opener, Eleverum recalls receiving a package for his wife and discovering that she had ordered a backpack for their then-infant daughter in the hope that she could be there in spirit on her first day of school, a realization that makes him collapse on the porch and wail. He actively states that he doesn’t want to learn anything from his wife’s death and makes it clear that he lacks interest in moving on, calling the effort “dumb” and ending the song by simply stating he loves her. The subsequent track, “Seaweed,” articulates the common experience of looking for symbolic meaning in seemingly menial things—in death, we have a habit of finding metaphor. For Elverum, he questions whether or not the large number of Canada geese and foxgloves he encounters on his way to pour her ashes are there because she loved them, or if it’s just a coincidence. Despite the stubborn start, A Crow Looked at Me also captures how healing is often unavoidable no matter how much you resist. Track “Toothbrush / Trash” sees Elverum find the will to throw out his wife’s toothbrush that he had left untouched since her death, though he realizes that forcing himself to move on does not feel good. However, Elverum finally has a revelation on the closer “Crow,” where he contemplates how their daughter is now entering a “smoldering and [increasingly] fascist world with no mother.” He realizes that now with her mother gone, she needs him more than ever; the responsible thing to do for his daughter is to recover from his grief and close this chapter. Often, change prompts grief, but finding new responsibility and meaning can help heal—that is the lesson.
The next album category is “Swansong.” Written under the unique circumstance where an artist knows their death is inevitable, often because of some diagnosed terminal illness, these records seek to capture an artist’s fear or acceptance of the unknown. They serve as both a reflection on legacy and final conversation with God, fans, and loved ones. Often included may be expressions of regret, words of wisdom or knowledge for those left behind, or an attempt to make peace with what is left undone. Overall, the attitude of these albums is to lay everything bare and make one final statement. Two albums that best capture these attitudes and sentiments are Brainwashed by George Harrison and Blackstar by David Bowie. In collaboration with Jeff Lynne and his son, Dhani Harrison, George Harrison created Brainwashed after being told that his lung cancer had metastasized to his brain. The opening track, “Any Road,” epitomizes Harrison’s lifelong optimistic mentality and desire to find God. Knowing that he will soon reach God in death, Harrison leaves his listeners with the positive message that all roads will lead you to where you are meant to be in life, and, in George’s view, we will all arrive at God. “Never Get Over You” serves as a final statement of devotion to Harrison’s wife, Olivia, and a final ode to their love that will live on without him. George plays into his tastes by covering Cab Calloway’s “Between the Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” in an homage to the formative music he heard in his youth. The closer and title track sees George warning us of modern developments that he perceives as “brainwashing,” such as schools and mobile phones, unapologetically noting that the answer to overcoming these problems is seeking God as a means of truth. The track ends with George and his son having a final moment together, chanting the “Namah Parvati Pataye Hare Hare,” a devotional song to various Hindu gods. George values the Hindu idea that music is meant for directly connecting with the gods, and in this final moment, he uses this chant with his son to commune with the divine unknown whom he knows he will meet soon. Harrison keeps the album minimalist, opting for an acoustic and singer song-writer approach. He takes final moments to warn us of the future, leave his listeners with his wisdom, indulge in the classics of his youth, and connect one final time with his wife and son, whom he will be leaving behind in the material world.
Blackstar seeks to communicate similar closure as Brainwashed. However, where Harrison opted for an intimate and stripped-back approach, Bowie challenges himself to make one final, progressive step forward in his sound. For his final record, Bowie enlisted long-time co-producer Tony Visconti and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem as his percussionist and numerous other prominent musicians to create a final jazz-inspired art rock album. As inspiration, Bowie pulled from the rising sounds of the era, such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Boards of Canada, and Death Grips, to create a challenging piece of music that sounded like a step forward into the unknown instead of a nostalgic return to his classic pop sounds. The opening track, “Blackstar,” is an isolating, harrowing listen—irregular percussion, crooning brass, and distant vocals convey an eeriness that compliments the funerary imagery Bowie presents. Bowie affirms that he is a dying “black” star and an unconventional celebrity. Not only is his career defined by redefining what a popstar could be, but he insists on having his dying words be unique and challenging. “Lazarus” sees Bowie grappling with death from a terminal illness, looking to Christ to revive him while knowing it isn’t going to happen. He reflects on his life as a rockstar. He looks forward to his eventual freedom, where he will metaphorically ascend to dizzying heights and leave behind modern life, represented by his falling cell phone. “Girl Loves Me” sees Bowie discussing the pain of death and the difficulty of drug usage during the hospice period, and “Dollar Days” sees Bowie acknowledging that his life exists beyond his own experience and has taken on its meaning to fans. Amidst his commentary on the music industry’s oppression of artists and an acknowledgment of his own death, Bowie lets his fans know that he appreciated their love in life and is grateful to have their mourning in death. And finally, Bowie regrets that he can’t give the fans all the art he has left in his mind on “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” but makes peace with it and leaves us here to think about the nature of untimely loss.
What can be learned from these Elegy and Swansong albums about how we should conduct our lives, tackle finality, and think about death? If anything, it’s the inevitability of it, the messiness of it, and the uncertainty of it. You can’t expect a perfect end for yourself or others. Whether the closing of a chapter is sudden and unexpected or visible for years, you can never plan perfectly for closure. However, you can make peace with the finale you have in front of you. Express and confront your regrets. Give thanks. Impart wisdom. Reminisce but also look forward to the unknown. Account for who and what is left behind, but carry your experiences and companions with you.
These albums capture personal experiences with death and the essence of what death can feel like. As an art form, music puts into sound the many juxtapositions and contradictions that make up the end of life—grand and disorienting, communal and isolating, traumatic and liberating. When you pass on and reflect on all the chapters you’ve closed in your life, know that however you grapple with finality will be the right way for you, and lean into the next portion of your existence with authenticity. As you move on, be you.
Connor Lammas is a senior in the College studying Government. He is the Editor-In-Chief of the INDY.