Burn It: ‘Songs in the Key of Death’
Posted on September 12, 2004
“Are you dead?” said the voice at the end of the line. It was very dark, I thought. And I was lying down.
“No,” I said, a finger on my pulse. “What are you doing?”
“I’m calling you from Puerto Rico!” It was Beth, my ex-girlfriend in the Caribbean with current beau Krishna, delicately reminding me at 3:23am that our lives could not be more different. “I’m having pena colada and sangria – on the beach!”
“You shouldn’t mix your drinks like that, Beth.”
“Why haven’t you e-mailed me with that advice?” she asked. “I thought you were dead.”
I am indeed alive and well, fret not loyal readers (or royal leaders). I do apologise for my absence but this is in no way an indication of my demise. Continuing with the theme however I present to you the third in the Burn It series, following ‘Songs to Fall Asleep’ and ‘Wake Up to’. A mix CD on the subject of death would therefore be called ‘Songs to Die to’, but deeming that a title too bleak I call this compilation ‘Songs in the Key of Death’. Enjoy, if you can.
Songs in the Key of Death (Total time – 1:14:08)
- ‘Sheep Go to Heaven’ – Cake
Chosen as the opener primarily as to avoid interrupting the compilation’s otherwise sombre tone. If you don’t know it, the refrain is “Sheep go to heaven/Goats go to hell,” which is about the most rational lyric in the song. Others include, “I just want to play on my pan pipes…” Don’t we all, Cake lovers? Incidentally, I know a girl whose younger brother sings in the chorus as part of a children’s choir. Bit of trivia for you.
- ‘Jenny Was a Friend of Mine’ – The Killers
A deliciously sinister update of ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’, in which Morrissey sang, “there were times when I could have murdered her…” Here lead singer Brandon Flowers does just that, and admits it in a police confession that sounds like a cross between Joy Division and the Cure.
- ‘Atlantic City’ – Bruce Springsteen
“Everything dies baby, that’s a fact,” sings the Boss. “Maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
- ‘Lullaby’ – Emitt Rhodes
I saw The Royal Tenenbaums again last night, and was reminded why I love it so much. Not least because of the two for one offer on the Wilson brothers, but the soundtrack too is amazing. I was listening to it this morning and the shifting balance effect of this song made me think my iPod was dying. Reason enough, I think, to include it on this compilation.
- ‘If You Go Before Me’ – Terence Trent D’Arby
If you can stomach the conceited little poem that precedes the song, in which D’arby, the artist formerly known as wanker sighs, “I’ve been the hermit and the love thief” and uses the word “extemporise”, this meditation on life after life is otherwise rather brilliant. It comes from his fourth and daringly titled album, Vibrator, which is more to do with death than sex but nevertheless connects the two on more than one occasion. “One day in the year,” he sings in his remarkable son-of-a-preacher-man voice, “a bullet screamed and ripped straight through you.” His performance is so believable you might just check yourself for exit wounds.
- ‘Rock N Roll’ – Ryan Adams
There is a chance that Adams, Ryan (not Bryan), will appear on every compilation I make without fail. And that it is because he is one of the most prolific and consistently good singer-songwriters in my collection. This, from perhaps his weakest effort, a mock-rockumentary of the same name, is not what the title suggests but a simple piano ballad. “I miss my best friend,” a girl can be heard sobbing, taped and looped as the track fades to a sombre close.
- ‘The Scientist’ – Coldplay
A break-up song that’s meaning is forever changed by a video in which Chris Martin, as if he didn’t look strange already, sings backwards and like the Superman of the first film, reverses the death of his Gwyneth. It nevertheless wins the Free Willy tear jerker award and I defy anybody who has ever been in a relationship to listen Martin’s falsetto refrain, “nobody said it was easy…” without a sniffle or goosebump.
- ‘What Will You Say’ – Jeff Buckley
Contrary to popular belief, April 5th 1994, when Kurt Cobain took his life, was not the day that the music died. Five months later and within a week of each other three classic records were released more complete and realised than anything by Nirvana. Those records were Definitely Maybe by Oasis, The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers and Jeff Buckley’s first and only complete album, Grace, which turns ten this month. It is a masterpiece of indisputable beauty, breadth and brashness, torn between themes of love and death, made all the more poignant but never overstated by Buckley’s death in May 1997. ‘What Will You Say’ is taken from a live album, Mystery White Boy, and is a dialogue with the dead, a conversation with his estranged father, renowned folk singer Tim Buckley, whom Jeff never met but never quite escaped comparison. “Father, do you hear me? Do you know me? Do you even care?” he sings. “What will you say when you see my face?”
- ‘Fruit Tree’ – Nick Drake
Like Buckley, Nick Drake died before his career was fully realised. His records have since sold far more than they ever did in his lifetime, articles have been written, books and films proposed. The attention and respect his music now commands is justified. (Just listen to Five Leaves Left.) But the quest to understand Drake and his music is all the more intensified by his prophetic lyrics and eerie foreshadowing. The words of ‘Fruit Tree’ have become a reality: “Fame is but a fruit tree/So very unsound/It can never flourish/Till its stalk is in the ground/So men of fame/Can never find a way/Till time has flown/Far from their dying day.”
- ‘Speedway’ – Counting Crows
Long before Counting Crows joined the likes of Phil Collins and Bryan Adams to record songs exclusively for children’s animated films, they made some very brilliant very unchildish albums. This from their third, This Desert Life, is not their first to hint at suicide as a topic. The hint comes with the lyric, “I’m thinking about breaking myself” and continues with the line, “I’m thinking ’bout getting out,” which is repeated into the song’s fade.
- ‘I Know It’s Over’ – The Smiths
Morrissey at his most morbid delivers a sensitive and intelligent song that brings the best out of his band mates – Mike Joyce (drums), Andy Rourke (bass) and Johnny Marr (guitar) – and a performance more expressive and honest than anything he’s done before or (possibly) since. The image laden song about the end of a fictitious relationship is brilliantly framed by the lyric, “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head,” and explained by a middle section, in which the singer equates his forthcoming death with a feeling of utter helplessness.
- ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’ – Radiohead
While on tour with Alanis Morissette in September 1996, Radiohead was sent the last half-hour of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and asked to write a song for the closing credits. Impressed by the clip, Thom Yorke wrote this for the film. His original plans to use lines from the Shakespeare play were (thankfully) scrapped, and he instead took inspiration from the scene in which Claire Danes’s Juliet holds a Colt 45 to her head, whilst keeping in his its 1968 film outing. “I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13,” Yorke explains. “I cried my eyes out, because I couldn’t understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away. The song is written for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts.”
- ‘Whatever Happens’ – Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson’s sales, despite his record breaking bad publicity, better reflect the state of the music industry than the quality of his work. He may not shift the units he did in the Eighties (when Thriller became the world’s biggest selling album), but for a ‘has-been’ it is a remarkable feat to outsell new albums by Beyonce and OutKast with a second, hastily compiled greatest hits package (Number Ones), released the day police raid his house with allegations of child sex abuse. His last studio album, Invincible, is sadly overlooked in favour of the tabloid details of those allegations, but on closer inspection reveals a focused, highly polished – if over produced – R&B record. Here is an aging Michael Jackson, facing his mortality, no longer dancing with the dead with the vigour or youth seen in the landmark ‘Thriller’ video. “Whatever happens,” he sings. “Don’t let go of my hand.”
- ‘Fields of Gold’ – Eva Cassidy
Alone, it’s a remarkably peaceful ballad. As the soundtrack to a Cancer Research television campaign, it’s haunting. Sung here by Eva Cassidy, the Washington, D.C. singer who died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 33, it’s even more poignant, and an evocative example of the singer’s ability to cut straight to the emotional core of her music.
- ‘Hold On’ – Spiritualized
Even Spiritualized’s back-to-basics album, Amazing Grace, has the odd moment of grandiose. Here it sandwiches Jason Pierce’s simple chorus: “Hold on baby to those you hold dear/Hang on to the people you love/’cause death cannot part us/If life already has/Hold on to those you hold dear.” Listening to this song, as I seldom do, transports me back to a candle-lit apartment bedroom on Rue Bugeaud, where, with Pierce’s instruction, I slow danced with an American in France, before life – and my return flight home – indeed parted us.
- ‘Higher Ground’ – Stevie Wonder
Stevie’s fascination with Eastern religion produced something far funkier than Christian Rock could ever manage: “I’m so darn glad he let me try it again/Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin…” Beat that Christian rockers.
- ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’ – Prince
Not quite what you’d expect from the funk-lovin’, pint-sized Musicologist, ‘Sometimes It Snow in April’ is as beautiful as anything I’ve ever heard, a love song for a dead friend that rewards upon careful listening. The one word in the chorus dissonant to the song’s melody is “wish”, since wishes, perhaps Prince is suggesting, can be incongruous with the lives we are forced to live. “All good things, they say,” he sings, “Never last.”