“Death Is Real”: Musicians Give Voice to the Wounds of Finitude

Death is real. Yet why write about this subject? In my personal history, death is something that has carried qualities of the unreal and the very real. That hardly makes me unique. I imagine it describes all of our stories eventually. I have approached it in varying ways: utter dread, a detached numbness, and various strategies of avoidance. Death is such a mystery because it is the testament to our complete lack of control. Effort cannot stave it off indefinitely, and it is the great cessation of all our activities consequential and trivial.
The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman

When I was a kid, I had a vivid terror of death that psychologists would term “death anxiety.” It is probably inaccurate to confine this anxiety to the past tense. I remember going to my great uncle’s visitation as a child, utterly terrified of being out of my mother’s sight. Something about the whole experience upset and unsettled me. Perhaps it was sharing the same physical space with a lifeless body, a genuine physical witness to the rest of us, that every bit of our daily taken-for-granted activity was not indefinitely guaranteed. It had an expiration date. As a child—and honestly for most of the years after—this realization did not act philosophically, giving me a grateful wonder for the everyday, nor did it engender a deep appreciation for the gift of each moment.

Instead, I experienced it as an existential threat, an enemy to be avoided or, failing that, anaesthetized to its reality. There was an inchoate aversion in me to the entire experience beginning—for my conscious memory at least—in that funeral parlor. The lighting was unnatural. I didn’t realize until much later that this was an intentional attempt to mask the pallor of the departed.

Like the make up, the rose tinted lighting was a move to mask the truth. Nature gives clear signs of the boundary between that which lives—and that which has ceased to live and thrive in its natural form. In this sense, what happens in the funeral home is symbolic of the larger culture’s fixation with denying that life ends, which subsequently cuts us off from true openness to the natural world of which we are a part and not an exception.

Psychiatrist and author Irvin Yalom frames it this way, “Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.” If true, it must be noted that our dominant popular culture is mainly designed to keep us distracted from this idea, and thus, from a sense of salvation.

“Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not.” So begins the Mount Eerie song, “Death is Real,” an agonizing and unsparing opening to a raw, unfiltered response to the reality of life’s end, collected as the album, A Crow Looked at Me. The album is the work of Phil Elverum, the songwriter and producer behind Mount Eerie; in it, he bares his soul in the wake of his artist wife’s death from pancreatic cancer that left him a widower and single parent of a toddler. It is one of a handful of songs from singer/songwriter acts on the indie and Americana spectrum that serve as difficult but essential guides to navigating our grief and facing our limits, in the midst of a plastic culture, hell-bent on anaesthetizing us to life’s limits.
Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum with his daughter
image credit: Ingeborg Husbyn Aarsand
Our inability to embrace these mortal limits (and the wounds such avoidances inevitably inflict) results in lives that sow death among the souls of a fragile culture of connectedness. As the Franciscan friar Fr. Richard Rohr puts it, “All great spirituality is about what we do with our pain.” The way in which our popular culture fastidiously avoids the pain of limits causes one to wonder if any great, or even good, spirituality can emerge from it. In this desert of the real, some artists may help show us a different way.

The songs on A Crow Looked At Me carry no pretense of easing us into this idea. In fact, the power of their naked grief and pain lies in part in that they are not addressed to us. They are an open window into the unvarnished raw wound of loss. Elverum follows the arresting opening line of “Death is Real” with the admission that this idea is “not for singing about/It’s not for making into art.” There is no move to set it in a larger meaning. “I don’t want to learn anything from this.”

He confesses that, when death enters, all poetry is dumb, simultaneously meaningless and mute. This is why a concern with death looms so large in religion and philosophy. It is a liminal experience that exposes the boundaries of language and thought.

His protest notwithstanding, this song (and album) offer a performance-art piece of profound vulnerability. If acknowledging the idea is the first step in our journey to wholeness, this plunges us into deep recognition, without filters.

The work of Americana singer/songwriter Jason Isbell picks up this theme of death, relationships, and complex intertwined themes of meaning and meaninglessness; we find this in his body of solo work as well as in his work with the Drive-By Truckers. Songs like “Dress Blues,” “Elephant,” and “Speed Trap Town” trace the lines that death carves into the landscape of community, relationships, and coming to one’s own with honest grief and longing.

But it is the single “If We Were Vampires” from his last album that unlocks another facet on this idea. Sung to and with his wife Amanda Shires, Isbell’s song is a love song about their relationship and the specter that death will eventually bring it to an end, at least in terms of face-to-face communing together. But mid song, Isbell delivers a gut-punch of spiritual impact with these lines,

If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

Here Isbell brings into focus the spiritual malaise of our time. We are a culture of would-be vampires, play-acting an imperviousness to death that robs us of authentic relation to others. To deny death is to miss the power of human connection in the moment. “Maybe time running out is a gift.”

“No Hard Feelings” by the Avett Brothers is also a song about death, specifically about making peace with dying. Thus, in this trio of considered songs, it is the most self-consciously spiritual, some parts Buddhist Zen and some parts Christian kenosis. It is a further elaboration of Isbell’s insight that life is fraught with beauty precisely because it ends.

The Avetts embrace the idea that the physicality of death destroys us and ultimately lays waste to our projects—“it’s ash and dust”; this facilitates the spiritual practice of letting go. It is seen poignantly in the recent HBO documentary on the band: as Seth finishes the recording of this song, he and Scott retreat from their home studio to the porch where, wordlessly, and in stuttered conversation, they work to reconcile themselves with the vulnerable confessional nature of the song.

But producer Rick Rubin’s excitement over its potential to resonate as a hit transforms it forever into a commodity, another piece of life of which they must let go. With no hard feelings.

No one of these songs alone captures the idea of death in its totality. Mount Eerie’s song is right, in facing the reality that all words fail. And yet. The artistry of these ruminations point to what Yalom names as a path to our salvation. The embracing of the full realization of our limits is a full throated embrace of our life. A life, as Seth Avett croons, faced in “...its loveliness and all of its ugliness. Good as it’s been to me, I have no enemies.” Hear our prayer. 

These artists beckon us to a fuller embrace of life in all its complex mess and glory; an embrace of life that is incomplete if it fails to honestly face the idea of death. Yalom’s aphorism is good guidance for the journey and Mount Eerie, Isbell, and the Avetts able companions.

But is there space for a further word, however tentative?

In Christian parlance that word is resurrection. In a culture imprinted by Christianity’s influence, most of us are aware of the claim of resurrection, whether or not one affirms it and how. The issue—and one exposed in the work of these artists—is that American cultural religion has rebranded resurrection hope in a way that supports the denial of death, and subsequently, devalues the life we’re given to live.

Cultural Evangelicalism has commodified the Christian message into a simple transaction: a few performative acts and words that result in the guarantee of infinite perpetuity of the individual self. Our mansion. Our place in glory. Our escape from life as we know it. When the focus is on an existence which bears no resemblance to lived existence, the latter is rendered unimportant.

Cultural Christianity spawns would-be vampires, enduring lived existence as a way station and lacking empathy for the beauty of fragility to which these artists beckon.

Resurrection is hollowed out of any relevance in the day-to-day. It is only a ticket to the by-and-by. Deferring abundant life makes salvation a utopia—literally no place. It is the hidden rationale to assure the underside to endure their place for their reward is elsewhere that also erases accountability for the powerful.  After all, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

I’ve always been struck with how theologian Jurgen Moltmann frames the gospel narrative. There is no understanding of the resurrection that is not at the same time an embrace of the crucifixion. The opposite framing is simultaneously true. Resurrection, he proclaims, is not an opiate to soothe us with the promise of a better world in the hereafter.

It is instead the energy for rebirth in this life. Yalom, Rohr, Elverum, Isbell, and the Avetts are singing from the same sheet music. Life includes death and cannot be embraced without it. Resurrection says no to any promise of escape through avoidance.

To proclaim resurrection is to be clear-eyed that we are undone, but that the very site of hopelessness is the dwelling place of hope. God, if you will, dwells and acts in god forsakenness. We are not rescued from, but plunged back into life.

To attend to the incredible event of hope in the midst of real hopelessness is both protest and proclamation.

Musically, I hear it in the closer of U2’s Pop, an oft-overlooked album that speaks to the question of spiritual depth in an infotainment culture.

The song “Wake Up, Dead Man” is a plea to Jesus, fully aware of the ways in which culture has tried to put him “in show business,” entertaining us with a facsimile to draw our attention away from divine presence in the streets. Proclaiming resurrection in a “fucked up world” that commodifies Jesus is already an awakening in the midst of death.

The very capacity to lament, to pray, to demand for the dead to awaken (ourselves? Our culture? Jesus?) is a witness to resurrection. It is the paradox of Mount Eerie rendering in poetry and song the claim that death strikes poetry dumb.

The paradox of crucifixion and resurrection. The tension in which life abundant dwells. The physicality of death in all its forms may destroy us, but we are still surprised by the song from the tomb.
Rick Quinn