Scene’s Selections: Songs about Death
This week’s selections were inspired by Mount Eerie’s musical eulogy to his wife who died of pancreatic cancer, which you can read more about here.
On Phil Elverum’s (Mount Eerie) newest album, “A Crow Looked at Me,” the grieving musician writes a haunting tribute to his wife, Genevieve, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2016. On the emotionally devastating first track, Elverum muses on death with heavy, wry certainty: “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art.”
Death, as a concept, might seem antithetical to commodification or creation. Yet as Elverum walks his listeners through his own intimate process of grief in 11 songs, he seems to suggest that death necessitates art in a particularly acute way. This week, inspired by Elverum’s work, Scene explores how other musicians have confronted grief and turned experiences of death — in various, complicated ways — into art.
Julien Baker – “Funeral Pyre”
By Erin McAuliffe
While alive, sleeping is the most similar thing we do to dying. And I fell asleep to Julien Baker’s first album “Sprained Ankle” every night for months.
So, it makes sense that one of her new singles with Matador Records is titled “Funeral Pyre” (a form of outdoor cremation). The song addresses morbid ways to die: lighter fluid fires, frostbite and drinking gasoline, but Baker’s sound is soothing and her lyricism turns death divine (she calls an urn on the mantelpiece “A trophy for everything that withers eventually”).
On the track Baker talks about a friend she wishes “to be the last thing I see” before dying — if “Funeral Pyre” was the last song I heard, I would be lulled contently into death.
Alvvays – “Next of Kin”
By Mike Donovan
Alvvay’s “Next of Kin” breezes through my car speakers as my friend and I make our way downtown.
“Mike, this isn’t like you. You never listen to happy music,” my friend said.
“Are you listening?” I reply.
“Yeah, it’s so beachy — sorta like surfing.”
“You’ve never been surfing. Anyways, listen.”
My friend obediently tunes his ears to Molly Rankin’s shambling vocals just in time for the second chorus: “I left my love in the river / The only one who sees / I lost his hand in the current / It was the life I’d wanted and I’d hoped for”
“Why Mike? Why do you do this? You ruin! You lie! Ugh!”
“The CSS [Chronic Sadboy Syndrome] must be acting up again.”
“Get over yourself.”
“Would you tell Molly to get over herself?”
Sufficiently triggered, he picks up the phone and proceeds to add The Mowgli’s complete discography to the Spotify queue (much to my dismay). Nonetheless, I was proud of myself. More accurately, I was proud of Alvvays. They have a way of hiding death in plain sight, glazed in the wispy ephemerality of our hopes and aspirations, and it never takes much to brush the glaze away.
Sun Kil Moon – “Carissa”
By Adam Ramos
The major truth at the center of “A Crow Looked at Me” is that death, real death, isn’t magically transformed into beauty a la guitar chords. Death is often without reason and meaning, no matter how many music groups try to rationalize it. In his 2014 album “Benji,” Matt Kozelek, under his Sun Kil Moon project, struggled with this truth in the album’s opening track, “Carissa.” The track is named after Kozelek’s second cousin, a struggling single mother who died after an aerosol can exploded in her garbage.
Despite the tenuous relation, the event was jarring for Kozelek — evident in the rambling lyrics and intimately vulnerable delivery. A simple melancholy chord progression gives the song any semblance of stability as Kozelek wrestles with the fate of his second cousin Carissa and his position within it.
At the end of the atypically long track, Kozelek attempts to reconcile the the death. “Meant to give her life poetry, or to make sure her name is known across every city” Kozelek pleads. But the plea feels futile, a reflection not on death but rather Kozelek’s shortcomings in accepting the reality of it.
Sufjan Stevens – “Fourth of July”
By Brian Boylen
“A Crow Looked at Me” and its overwhelming focus on the death of Phil Elverum’s wife immediately reminded me of a similar singularly focused album, “Carrie and Lowell,” by Sufjan Stevens. There is one large difference in that instead of the loss of a spouse, Stevens laments the death of his mother, Carrie. Stevens had a complicated relationship with his mother, who abandoned him at the age of three in a video store. The confusion and pain of losing a mother one barely knew is beautifully encapsulated on the song, “Fourth of July.”
Centering around a deathbed conversation between Stevens and his mother, each verse alternates perspective as they confess their love for the other. “And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best / Though it never felt right / My little Versailles,” says Carrie as she apologizes for abandoning him, and lovingly nicknames him. The song’s lyrics of regret, pain and death are grim, but the unconquerable love beneath it all exudes a certain hope that outweighs the darkness.