Casey Jarman is a music critic, writer and illustrator, contributing to The Believer, Willamette Week and Portland Monthly, among others. His latest work is Death: An Oral History, a collection of conversations with people on the topic of death. He will be talking about his new book at Wordstock, Nov. 5 at the Portland Art Museum and at Powells on Oct. 27 at 7:30 pm.
I wrote a book about death partly because I was sick of writing about music. That’s my background, for the most part: writing profiles of and doing interviews with musicians. I’m a nerd about songwriters and music production, but I thought I needed to write about something that shook me up a bit and challenged me. So I pitched a book of interviews about death, and I was lucky enough to have an editor go for it.
When I started the book, almost two years ago, I interviewed a retired Catholic priest in Eugene. We had a lovely conversation — it didn’t make it into the final book, but it still floats to the forefront of my mind often. When I got into my car to leave the church where we spoke, I tuned the radio to the local college radio station. The DJ was playing “Farewell Transmission” by Magnolia Electric Company. I felt a sort of buzz go through my body as Jason Molina, who himself died a pretty dismal death in 2013, sang “The real truth about it is / There ain't no end to the desert I'll cross / I've really known that all along.” And then, “I will be gone, but not forever.”
This sort of thing kept happening. The deeper I got into these intense interviews, the more I noticed themes of death and grief coming up in the music I loved. I started hearing these songs in a new light, because of the really personal discussions I was having with people. So I started keeping a list of songs that addressed death in a thoughtful way, and I started daydreaming about making a Death Mixtape that I could hand out after readings or discussions. Readings and discussions make me pretty nervous, but sharing a compilation of songs I love, that’s a joy. So here it is!
There are a lot of sappy, sentimental songs about death. There’s a time and place for those, I’m sure, but I haven’t found that time or place just yet. The songs on this list are funny or pretty or abstract. I tried to leave out songs that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Leonard Cohen doing “Hallelujah” is no less a wonder because we’ve all heard it a hundred times, but hopefully you'll find something new here.
1. “Poor Bastard,” Kyle Morton
The opening track from the Typhoon frontman’s recent solo debut, What Will Destroy You, finds its protagonist regaining consciousness in the midst of his own funeral. When he springs from his coffin, he announces, “I’m feeling so much better now, I want to thank you all for coming out — though premature, it truly means the world.” It’s a darkly funny tune, but the arrangement is deeply melancholy. Morton has spent years writing insightful songs about mortality, but this might be the first time he’s used an absurdist comic fantasy to get into it. It reminded me that many of the deepest and most moving conversations I had about death, while working on this book, also involved a lot of laughter.
2. “Undertaker,” Bry Webb
A brooding gothic folk tune with a funeral dirge brass arrangement that probably should have landed on the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack at some point. This one really only has a vague narrative, but I believe it. A small-town undertaker singing “all my enemies come back to me” gets me every time.
3. “This Woman’s Work,” Kate Bush
It’s so shocking to me that Bush wrote this incredible song for a mediocre John Hughes film starring Kevin Bacon. Ostensibly about complications during childbirth, to me it reads like a song about the frantic and overwhelming pause before grief. It has these cascading moments of sheer panic and confusion — I’m reminded of discussions I had with Jana DeCristofaro about Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief refusing to proceed in an orderly fashion — but then it also has these distinct moments of clarity. It’s a wise and generous song.
4. “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” Bobby Bare
Like I said, there are many sappy country songs about death. This one, though — written by Tom T Hall — seems so honest and unvarnished. It’s a small story with little details that wouldn’t matter much to anyone but the narrator. It’s not a big sentimental number about some great American — it’s about a random guitar player that just made an impression on Hall when he was a kid.
5. “I Seen a Man Die,” Scarface
There are certain MCs who function more like journalists or ethnologists than entertainers, and Scarface is one of those. Even for him, “I Seen a Man Die” is a pretty deep dive. The third and final verse is especially striking: It’s basically Scarface coaching a young man through the process of dying, which reminded me a lot of talking with Katherine MacLean about guiding her sister to the unknown. Scarface’s version: “I hear you breathing but your heart no longer sounds strong / But you kinda scared of dying so you hold on / And you keep on blacking out because your pulse is low / Stop trying to fight the reaper just relax and let it go”
8. “Living Without You,” Randy Newman
It’s unclear whether the titular “You” in this song is deceased or just out of the picture, but it’s an incredibly visceral grief that a young Randy Newman touches on here, and it certainly translates to bereavement. Plain and direct and brutally honest. “Nothing’s gonna happen / Nothing’s going to change / Baby it’s so hard living without you.” The arrangement is totally flooring, too.
6. “King of Sorrow,” Sade
Thematically identical to “Living Without You,” only this has Sade’s notoriously sexy vocals and smooth production attached. “I’m crying everyone’s tears” is one of the most open-ended and compelling lyrics I can think of, though, and the total disregard for gender conformity in the chorus is something I greatly enjoy.
7. “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San,” John K Samson
I don’t know how you write a believable song from the perspective of a dying man when you’re not dying, but I think this is one. I do know that in Samson’s case, there was a lot of research about the actual Ninette Sanatorium in Manitoba. (On the same album, he also writes a song from the perspective of a graduate student who’s researching this Sanatorium, so it all gets very meta.)
9. “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” Joni Mitchell
Good to get a little funky ’round the middle of the mixtape. “Death and birth and death and birth!”
10. “Joy & Pain,” MAZE
I got to see Maze in 2012. It was a life-changing event. This is a marquee song for the band. It’s healing in its simplicity. It also keeps the funky middle-bit of the mixtape going strong.
11. “Dead Slate Pacific,” John Vanderslice
A song about mental health, suicide, and anxiety. Different readings could make it feel guilt-trippy or sweet. After years of hearing it, I’m still not sure which reading I subscribe to.
12. “Priests and Paramedics,” Pedro the Lion
I talked to Pedro co-founder David Bazan about this song, wherein a paramedic debates whether it would be best to tell a dying man that he’s dying or not, and a priest decides to reveal his own battle with depression mid-eulogy. He felt like he should have given the story another twist. But I like it just the way it is, Bazan’s bleak vocals and all. If you haven’t checked it out, Control is one of the great rock records of its era.
13. “Funeral Song,” Laura Gibson
I won’t claim to know what Gibson, a dear friend of mine, is getting at here. To me, it sounds like a story about the whole world — even inanimate objects — coming together to mourn. And there’s something very pretty about that, beyond Gibson’s great voice and playing.
14. “Even The Good Wood Gone,” Why?
I thought this was a nice bookend to pair with “Poor Bastard.” Instead of waking up in his casket, this song’s protagonist wakes up as a museum pharaoh with a “No Flash Photography” sign hung around its neck. Songwriter/frontman Yoni Wolf’s transition from rebirth to a much less exotic death is pretty compelling, too. Something about the whimsical, baroque instrumentation here just does it for me, too.