In pop stardom there’s only one inevitable in life, since they’ve worked out how to avoid taxes. And death isn’t all that bad either. Everyone reveals that they secretly thought you you were brilliant all along, you’re guaranteed a magazine cover or two every five years and, for 10 golden minutes, you’ll finally trend.
If there’s a downside it’s that, in career terms, you’ll often be suddenly and unexpectedly removed from the decision-making process. Just at the moment when your currency has never been higher and demand for your music is at its peak, it’ll fall entirely to a third cousin you last spoke to in 1973 to decide what your next album will consist of. And if we’ve learned anything from the ragbag of posthumous albums over the decades, they’ll simply hack your laptop, grab the first bunch of demos out of your ‘For Mercy’s Sake Never Release This’ file, whack your moodiest in memoriam photo on it and call it ‘The Real Me’. Then they’ll chuck it at the charts and get on with contesting the changes to your will leaving everything to your guru.
It will be some comfort to fans and family of Soundcloud rapper 6 Dogs – aka Chase Amick – who died aged just 21 in January, that he’d completed work on his forthcoming third album before his death and will thus be spared the indignities of the average posthumous release. “The albums is as Chase intended it to be,” an Instagram statement read, and there can be no greater send-off for an act than a rounded arrival point to their artistic journey. Some of the greatest albums of all time emerged from beneath such clouds of tragedy – Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’, Joy Division’s ‘Closer’, Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Life After Death’. Most posthumous releases, however, only serve to diminish an artist and dishonour their legacy, and often seem to exist simply to wring out any remaining value in their name.
Death being such a notoriously unpredictable blind date, they’re usually half-recorded albums cobbled up into full release with raw demos or unreleased tracks recorded live. Handled with all the caution of a creative sarcophagus, they’re made to sound as if the act’s regular collaborators think the deceased genius probably might have wanted them to sound, negating any chance of a final fuck-conformity swerve into cosmic rhumba and delivering what’s basically a half-baked homage to the self, like pretty much any Woody Allen film this century.
Little heed is ever given to the fact that if a demo or recording is languishing unreleased, it’s generally because the artist didn’t want anyone to hear it. Prince’s legendary Purple Vault might not be so much a treasure trove as a containment facility for his most toxic waste, and opening such chambers risks releasing the musical equivalent of the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
The result is a plethora of legends tarnished after they’re gone. John Lennon could have bowed out on the revitalised ‘Double Fantasy’ if he hadn’t been too famous not to see his follow-up rehearsals and rough takes tarted up for 1983’s ‘Milk And Honey’. Amy Winehouse and Juice WRLD left canons too scant to avoid being artificially padded posthumously, but while ‘Lioness’ and ‘Legends Never Die’ (respectively) bristled with raw talent, they lacked the personal focus that made ‘Back To Black’ and ‘Death Race For Love’ such riveting disciple gatherers. Even a record as great as Jeff Buckley’s ‘Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk’ came with a mild sense of anticlimax, too unfinished to live up to the promises of ‘Grace’.
There’s a natural demand to hear what a lost legend was working on next, of course, and the internet gives us the perfect opportunity to release half-recorded albums and demos for what they are, without primping and packaging them into a façade of a finished product. But how can an artist ensure that, the second they’re loving angels instead, their mercurial canon isn’t laced into concrete boots and dropped off a pier in darkness for the insurance?
Preparation is the key. You could either make every record assuming you won’t survive to see the reviews, or you can start working on your posthumous album now. Just tuck a solid song or two aside from each album session from this point on and use them to air regrets, bury hatchets, make final wishes that can’t be refused or tell your bandmates what you really think of them. Leave them all in a folder on your laptop called ‘Bitcoin Stash’ to make sure someone opens it.
Then, at the first inkling of a persistent cough, start a comprehensive reissue campaign to clear the backlog of shonky demos – and your legacy is secured. Not for you the indignities of Michael Jackson’s ‘Xscape’.