“…better now and unimaginably changed.” – Nick Cave.
Death and grief are not subjects that we often like to face. However, the brilliance of music is that it lives on the loving mantra put forth in the film Pierrot Le Fou: “Life might be sad, but it is always beautiful.” In music, the grim realities of life are cushioned by this through poetry, melodies and everything else coalesced into song. They offer a balm that can clutch joy from despair or at least help to make sense of it.
Not all songs about death deal with grief either. Our ends are as multifaceted as the pages in between and as such, death has been dealt with in myriad ways by songwriters over the years. Whether that be mysterious tales or using it as a crux for the depths of love, the minor chords are never too far from a major.
Below we have collated songs that broach the grisly matter in a range of manners. From Mount Eerie’s raw realities to Nick Cave’s touching paeon and Bob Dylan’s caustic blaze. These are songs that above all help us look at things with hope in their own unique little way. Death is an inevitability and as such these are important for all of us at all times and that is far from a morbid truth to shudder at; after all, it is the greatest reality imparted in the fiction of art that even the figurative cold of suffering is not impeachable to comfoting warm sun.
The 10 best songs about death:
Mount Eerie – ‘Death is Real’
Mount Eerie’s album Death is Real deals with tragedy and grief in one of the most candid, raw, and heartfelt ways ever put to record. Mount Eerie is the musical moniker of Phil Elverum, who tragically lost his wife to cancer, very suddenly, when his daughter was only a few months old.
Unlike almost any other song ever written ‘Real Death’ is permeated with the realities of grief in a way that arrests attention and elucidates the everyday impact of loss. The following stream of consciousness verse is one of the most affecting in the entirety of music: “Crusted with tears, catatonic and raw / I go downstairs and outside and you still get mail / A week after you died a package with your name on it came / And inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret / And collapsed there on the front steps, I wailed / A backpack for when she goes to school a couple years from now / You were thinking ahead to a future you must have known / Deep down would not include you / Though you clawed at the cliff you were sliding down / Being swallowed into a silence that’s bottomless and real.”
The stark reality of grief is unabated. He hangs up poetry as a frivolous thing but simultaneous finds catharsis in the act of creativity itself, ultimately offering salvation with the final closing line: “I love you.” It might only be one line, but in the contextual outpouring that precedes it, the fact it ends on a simple declaration of love is a mark of defiance, no matter how humble it may be.
Johnny Cash (Nine Inch Nails) – ‘Hurt’
Sometimes a cover is so great that it seems the fate of the song all along was to end up in the hands of its grateful inheritor. That is not to besmirch the Nine Inch Nails original, it is just that the song seems to yearn for the weary tones of a careworn voice.
It is a tale of ageing that transitions from apathy to exultation. Consequences and regrets are considered and the pain of both is laid bare, but despite the lyrical content the upsurging chord change of the chorus offers a new lease of life as the song moves on, if not away from regret.
The song is perfectly embodied by a tableau depicted by Mark Romanek while directing the music video. He told The Guardian, “I went to the House of Cash Museum and found it in total disrepair. There was no time to clean it up so I decided that I’d just film it, and Johnny, exactly as they were. He was no longer in his prime – he was fading and that was what I wanted to show. While I was filming the opening segment of Johnny playing guitar in his living room, his wife, June, came down the stairs and watched. The look on her face was so complex: full of love and pride and concern for her husband.”
Much like Mount Eerie’s tear-jerking ballad, behind the sorrow of the song there is an enduring core of love.
Nick Cave – ‘Ghosteen Speaks’
Speaking about the loss of his son, Arthur Cave, Nick Cave wrote, “Language falls short before the immensity of grief,” adding, “One desperate morning […] I called upon my son by name […] I said ‘you are my son and you are beside me’.”
In the song ‘Ghosteen Speaks’, those four little words, “I am beside you”, hold the weight of all language, but emboldened by the lightness of the music and empowered by the actualised release from boundless grief, they soar transcendently, and four simple words bring comfort to those that need it most. They embody the cathartic and spiritual power of music that Cave has harnessed and sheltered throughout his records.
The album as a whole is a powerful listening experience that stands as the transfigured product of Cave’s grief and the comfort that comes with the power of memories and hope. “I am beside you,” is a mantra for those grieving to cherish, boldly put forward by an artist who understands the responsibility of his work.
Jackson C. Frank – ‘Marlene’
In ‘Marlene’, Jackson C. Frank sings about the harrowing incident in his youth when a fire broke out after a furnace exploded at Cleveland Hill Elementary School in Cheektowaga, New York. The resulting blaze killed fifteen of Frank’s classmates including his girlfriend Marlene.
Frank was in 6th-grade music class at the time. He emerged from the inferno with scars, both physical and emotional, that would pain him for a lifetime, in which he grieved the loss of Marlene throughout. “My friends in the bars, they only see the scars” he sings, “and they don’t give a damn that I loved you.”
This reflection after the fact is made all the gut-wrenching given the fact that from promising folk beginnings his health capitulated when success was met with drinking and he struggled to cope with it all. Even by folk standards that is a life with enough culminated hardships to make a thousand hard-luck artists rejoice in their relative good fortune and shun the four cursed chords of the acoustic in favour of disco-pop. So, when Frank sings “I am a crippled singer,” it captures an eerie resonance.
Jimi Hendrix – ‘Hey Joe’
For better or for worse in modern society death is not always dealt with from a moralistic standpoint. However, ‘Hey Joe’ isn’t overly gratuitous about it for the sake of it either. Instead, he takes a blues tale and exposes the grim realities of it in a blunt fashion that shows how flippantly society sometimes is about violence.
This message of callous vengeance rides home on some of the most blistering guitar work ever put to record. It is a song that has been done a thousand times over, but Hendrix being Hendrix, he makes it seem like it is his track alone in what is undoubtedly the definitive version.
What’s more, the simplicity of the lyrics are elevated by the imagery that he creates around them. Along with his rousing riff, the track unspools like a sonic short film.
Bob Dylan – ‘Masters of War’
Naturally, ‘Masters of War’ was never going to be a tale of sunshine and rainbows. With Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell message of guarding against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military-industrial complex” still ringing in the air, the song was set to be a million miles from some sanguine songsmiths hopeful rally cry, but when this final verse lands the bluntest bludgeon in the history of music, it almost shakes the needle off the groove, as death takes a turn for the disdainful.
“I hope that you die,” is a line that will simply always cut, and Dylan spits it out with as much caustic rage as he can muster. The lyric is neither screamed nor hysterical, it’s just a thing of unflinching fury that lands with the sound of a bowling ball being dropped on the porcelain heads of power.
It is a track that says (or rather screams), that when young people are dying in the mud there is no place to talk about death with decorum as Dylan yields his pen like a loaded gun.
Bobbie Gentry – ‘Ode to Billie Joe’
Bobbie Gentry is one of the greatest songwriters of all time and that has been said nowhere near enough. With ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ she crafted a mystery for the ages that alluring begs a million more questions than it answers, but unlike some Netflix series it leaves you the antithesis of frustrated.
The death, in this instance, is dealt with the same jejune everyday air as table salt, only adding to the mystery itself. Fortunately, Gentry did offer up a clue as to why, stating: “The message of the song revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. The song is a study in unconscious cruelty.”
Adding: “It’s entirely a matter of interpretation as from each individual’s viewpoint. But I’ve hoped to get across the basic indifference, the casualness, of people in moments of tragedy. Something terrible has happened, but it’s ‘pass the black-eyed peas’, or ‘y’all remember to wipe your feet.'”
The Smiths – ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’
As the aforementioned Nick Cave once beautifully said, “It seems, that if we love, we grieve, that’s the deal, that’s the pact,” and while that isn’t at the forefront of most of our minds at the point when we’re falling head over heels, that didn’t stop The Smiths from celebrating love in a rather morbid light.
On the surface, the song might seem somewhat glib about things in classic Smiths tradition ala the ironically upbeat ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’, but somehow ten-tonne trucks have never sounded sweeter. This juxtaposition brings a refreshing levity to fatality as everything becomes wrapped in the boon of sanguine smitten joy, much like the song itself and Marr’s transcendent melody.
David Bowie – ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’
More than an album closer, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ was the last line of an entire back catalogue. And that wasn’t a matter of happenstance either; David Bowie was well aware that this track would be his last, and, in the most Bowie way possible, he made art out of death and parted with a sparkling statement.
With refrains from his career gone by he wrote his own epitaph. It sums up his life and works with courageous finality, however, as the title of the track suggests, there is still restless creativity despite the comfort of the now. He was always spiritually seeking out ‘A New Career in a New Town’.
Leonard Cohen – ‘You Want it Darker’
Leonard Cohen looked at death like almost nobody else. He stared it down unflinchingly, weakened its defences and, in the end, just sort of cosied up to it as a sort of benevolent final chapter to life. He penned a heart-touching letter to Marianne on the subject, and he also illuminated its ways in this tower of a song.
Often singers lose their vocals in later years, but age enriched Cohen’s baritone with a deep sense of wisdom and drama. And often, when more mature artists dabble in new-fangled production techniques, they come across as lost old folks who have stumbled into the wrong room. Still, Cohen’s taste remained true to the last, making a beast of the soaring soundscapes available to him and adding a befittingly weary yet powerful voice to a subject that straddles both fields.