This morning, I got to the office and found a copy of the new Muppets soundtrack in my inbox, which pretty much instantly slapped a smile on my face. About five songs in, I was asked to write a blog about the best death-related songs. Nothing like a morbid way to kick off a rainy Wednesday, eh?
London’s Southbank Centre are hosting a four-day event at the end of the month called ‘Death: Southbank Centre’s Festival For The Living’, which “confronts questions of mortality head-on” through talks, concerts, performances and installations. So we thought we’d weigh in with some of the best songs on the subject of death. Granted, it’s tough to compete with Jack Black’s picks from High Fidelity, but we’ll try our best.
Despite the fact that this song is said to be about band member Steven Drozd’s heroin addiction and the death of Wayne Coyne’s father, it has kind of become a Flaming Lips set-closing, confetti-filled, inspirational staple (with lines like “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die / And instead of saying all of your goodbyes - let them know / You realize that life goes fast”).
It’s a song that’s so stripped down and basic that you’re left with nothing but a bit of piano, Thom Yorke’s vocals and lyrics about reaching the “pearly gates” and “This is my way of saying goodbye / Because I can't do it face to face”. It’s no wonder he described the process of creating it as “absolute agony”.
Back in ’96, Nick Cave brought us a collection of songs about death and crime, but there’s something about this one, recorded with his then-girlfriend PJ Harvey, that makes it the most lingering track on ‘Murder Ballads’. It’s based on a folk song about a distraught woman who stabs a man to death, but what’s even more haunting watching Nick and PJ dance in the video.
While the Romeo and Juliet reference has triggered some speculation that this song’s about suicide, it’s essentially about (as the title suggests) not fearing death and accepting its inevitability. Any song that can do all that plus feature some cowbell deserves a spot on this list.
From the clangy piano to the shaky uncertainty in his voice, it’s nearly impossible to listen to this song about self-destruction, drug abuse and death and not think about Elliott Smith’s untimely passing.
Brian May penned this song about Freddie Mercury’s illness and it was recorded during the frontman’s final days of life. There’s no denying that Freddie was one of a kind, and down to his very last days, he was still, first and foremost, a fighter and a performer. The show still went on for him.
There are quite a few songs by Rufus that make my eyes tear up, but seeing as we’re sticking to a theme here, ‘Memphis Skyline’ seems most fitting. Written in honour of Jeff Buckley, this is probably one of the most touching tributes out there.
Ben Folds has always been reluctant to discuss the meaning behind this song, but has revealed that it’s about an abortion his girlfriend had while they were in high school, and the aftermath of the unborn child’s death.
This 1964 song is about a girl who falls in love with the leader of a motorcycle gang, is forced to break up with him since her parents don't approve, he speeds off on his bike and then he crashes and dies. The subject matter's pretty devastating, yet The Shangri-Las still somehow manage to make it sound sugary sweet.
So the original 1961 version by Wayne Cochran was a bit of a flop, but nearly four decades later, Pearl Jam took a successful stab at it, with their version entering the Top Five of nearly every US chart at the time. But even if you’re not a Vedder/Cochran fan, simply reading the lyrics (detailing a car crash and subsequently losing a loved one) will make your stomach turn.
Which songs did we miss? Which ones hold the most meaning to you?
Listen to these songs as a Spotify playlist
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