by Baruchi Malewich
I find it much easier to curate a playlist when the topic or theme is given to me. I’m afraid to get repetitive otherwise, and need someone else’s input to knock me out of my musical comfort zone. This is why all the playlists I’ve written so far were based on topics that were offered to me. This week it’s a bit different. With the horrible incidents we’ve witnessed in Syria, in Sweden and Egypt—and due to a whole other, personal set of events—I chose to focus on loss for this week’s playlist. Loss is an interesting phenomenon. We all experience it: we are bound to, it’s a vital—if not the only certain—part of life. Most of us have lived, and will live, to see loved ones ageing and dying, to see relationships fade, or to see parts of ourselves stripped away from us. And yet we all rebel against the very concept of loss—if by trying to struggle against it, or by embracing it so that we become emotionally resilient. Loss oftentimes leads to more loss: out of frustration we lose respect to our fellow human beings, or in trying to protect ourselves we become oblivious to the environment or to the planet. Loss is highly political, and is often used to promote a political goal. Loss can cause hatred, strife and even war. But loss also has another side, that of solidarity, of empathy, of interconnectedness. And in then, when faced with loss we are also faced with a choice on how to lead our lives. We are given a choice to cast political constructions aside and focus on the human experience—that of ourselves and of others—and do what we can to avoid the type of loss that is unnecessary, and to console each other when loss is inevitable. Loss can remind us that a different way of life it possible, and in that it stands at the heart of justice, politics and ethics.
Many of Elliott Smith’s songs deal with loss and with death. That might be expected from a singer-songwriter who violently took his own life at the age of 34 and at the peak of his creative career. “Fond Farewell to a Friend” (a song off his post-mortem release “From a Basement on a Hill”) is often considered a song that foreshadowed his suicide, and while interpreters are split on whether it’s about suicide or about heroin addiction, this song definitely describes a very profound sense of loss. I would say that the main theme of the song is self-alienation, the feeling of losing parts of oneself, of no longer recognizing the person in the mirror—and in that it doesn’t matter if it’s about drugs or about life as a whole. Elliott Smith expresses here his anxieties, and his will to escape by any means necessary in an almost too intimate manner, speaking to himself in the third-person and reasserting over and over again that “this is not my life // it’s just a fond farewell to a friend”.
King Crimson—Starless/ Epitaph
One of the greatest progressive rock bands of all times, King Crimson were also quite fixated with death. And my dilemma on which of their songs I should add to this list was so unresolvable, that I had to go with both. The two are quite different in their vibe, and have been released in albums five-years apart, but definitely share a common theme. “Starless”, the later to be released, is a 12-minute piece with only three short verses of somewhat vague lyrics. In contrast, “Epitaph” was released in King Crimson’s debut album (“In the Court of the Crimson King”) and is quite more explicit in its lyrics, even though not entirely. They both paint a grim picture, but if “Starless” refers to a highly personal experience, then “Epitaph” is more socio-political (and some will even say ecological). The verses of “Epitaph” paint a picture of a dystopian reality, but it’s the chorus that really drives the message home: “If we make it we can all sit back and laugh // but I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying”.
I really don’t know why I’m so well-versed in artists that are obsessed with death. The Antlers, however, is another such band. Their 2009 album “Hospice” tells the story of a romantic relationship between a hospice worker and a terminally-ill cancer patient, and is perhaps one of the most depressing concept albums I know. According to rumors—that have been ignored by the band to date—it is based on the personal experience of the band’s front man Peter Silberman, which makes it even more depressing. But since I couldn’t really choose an entire album, I decided to go with a song off the Antlers’ 2011 “Burst Apart”, a song with an extremely sad and personal tone. While taken from a later album, “Putting the Dog to Sleep”—written as somewhat of a dialogue between a dog and his owners—is actually the real epilogue of “Hospice”, and is about reconciliation with the events depicted in that album. It’s a beautiful and sentimental meditation on death and separation, and on parting ways with loved ones.
Beck is one of the most innovative artists of our time, in that he manages to invent himself anew with every release. Yet until his 2002 “Sea Change” his innovation and musical style focused on electro-indie, sample-heavy tunes, the type you might find in “Odelay” or “Midnite Vultures”. “Sea Change” was indeed, for Beck, a sea change—following a break-up, Beck suddenly released an indie-folk album, transforming his nonsensical lyrical style to a pensive-contemporary one. “Golden Age” which opens the album is—for me—the perfect night driving song. Its atmosphere really captures that feeling you get when the entire world goes dark, you are alone in your car, and everything is pitch-black apart from the lonely cone that is your headlights. The kind of thoughts that arise in these moments, reflected well in Beck’s song, are usually ones of harsh separation from the world, alongside—in stark contrast—a loss of all sense of self.
I mentioned earlier that I couldn’t fit an entire album into this list. Well, I lied. What I meant to say was that I couldn’t do it twice. Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell” is a fantastic concept album, inspired by the period following the death of Stevens’ mother. I still scold myself, ever so often, for not falling for this album the moment it was released. It took me about a year to fully give in to it, but it’s been in very heavy circulation since. In fact, only recently I talked to a friend about whether or not we can crown any albums from the past decade as instant classics, and we were in full accordance that “Carrie & Lowell” is possibly the strongest candidate in such a list. “Death with Dignity” and “Should Have Known Better”, the two opening tracks of the album, are—to me—inseparable. If the first deals with forgiving a loved one, the second mirrors it by showing some resentment (as Stevens’ mother suffered from depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse and even abandoned him when he was very young—a fact also mentioned in the song Romulus, taken from an earlier release). Both songs, and in fact the album in its entirety, are wrapped in heavy musical effects which emphasize the pensiveness, and the feeling of childish hopelessness which envelope Sufjan Stevens’ sense of loss. It is truly a beautiful piece.
Baruchi Malewich is an Israeli expatriate currently residing in the UK. He completed his BA is Government and Diplomacy from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya and his MPhil in International Relations from the University of Cambridge. He was a DJ in the student radio of both schools, and is an avid music fan. He is currently working on PhD applications and on an online publication devoted to researching the role of theory in the