Music has the ability to be completely transformative and pull you into a story or soundscape. It triggers emotions, it changes our brain chemistry and it can spark our imagination. Music has evolved with us over thousands of years and continues to be an essential form of communication.
Musicians often write albums with particular storylines and moods in mind, or with a coherent narrative they tell throughout. Those narratives often mirror our human fears, hopes and doubts (among others). Yet few topics are mirrored in music as much as death. From folk heroes, bank robbers, pet loss and cancer diagnoses, the stories these musicians tell reflect our fears and hopes and our intimate knowledge of death.
Music About Death and Dying
Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree
Skeleton Tree is a powerful album, and that is saying a lot given what we’ve come to expect from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. During the writing of the album, Cave’s 15 year old son died after falling off a cliff. The album is raw and its production style reflects the many themes about death, loss and grief in the album itself.
Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
The only thing on my mind is death.
Earl Sweatshirt is a rapper from Los Angeles who is (was?) part of the Odd Future collective. His work is introspective and innovative, touching on mental health, masculinity, loss, and death. Some Rap Songs is his latest album, but it is worth buying his Solace ep, and his last album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not, and it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art. When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb.
Geneviève Castrée, an illustrator and musician, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer after the birth of her daughter in 2015. She soon died. Her husband Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie, The Microphones) is an influential and prolific indie music artist. Elverum has dedicated his last album, The Crow Looked at Me, to Geneviève. The result is a grief-laden, melancholic and altogether honest album about loss, love, death and bereavement. The album is a retelling of their final moments together, and widowed life with his daughter.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Oh, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird
Before David Bowie passed away at the age of 69, he released his final album Blackstar. Since Bowie’s cancer was held a secret, many did not realize exactly what Blackstar meant. Bowie’s manager revealed after his death that Blackstar was a ‘parting gift’ for all his fans. Much of the album reflects of themes of mortality and illness. The two music videos which were released for the album are dark, introspective and reflects a quiet realization of his own mortality and human frailty. Not an easy listen at times, but well worth it.
Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
Everything dies baby that’s a fact But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Bruce Springsteen’s first acoustic album was not for the light hearted. Following his massive, radio friendly pop hits, Nebraska was slow, sad and self-reflexive. Nebraska had its folk heroes suffering through the tediousness and futility of life and hit upon themes of loss and grief. The title track featured strong themes of death, telling the story of a man sentenced to the electric chair. The song is based on the true story of 19 year old spree killer Charles Starkweather. An album steeped in death and tragedy, it is hard to find a better Springsteen.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – Soul of a Woman
I made up my mind to be with Him all the time/And I won’t let nothing turn me around
Soul of a Woman by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings is their final studio album, and was released posthumously. Jones died of cancer in 2016, a year before the albums release. The album was recorded in spurts as Jones would sing when she felt well enough. This is a powerful album that confronts mortality and disease through a celebratory joy that is unique to Jones. She does not go gentle into that dark night.
Sufjan stevens – Carrie & Lowell
And I long to be near you But every road leads to and end.
Sufjan Stevens has always been a little eclectic and emotional. The 39 year old artist has been making impressively powerful music now for well over a decade. Revolving around the loss of his mother in 2012, Carrie & Lowell is interspersed with sonic landscapes that call back to Sufjan’s childhood, the summer trips he would take with his mother and step-father and the trauma of dealing with her eventual death. The despair and honesty mixed with hope makes for an unparalleled album and one that anyone who has dealt with the loss of a parent can connect to.
Joni Mitchell – Mingus
…because when Mingus dies there’s gonna be the same funeral they had for Duke Ellington
This album was a departure of Joni Mitchell. It is experimental, influenced by avant-garde jazz, and even features a soundtrack of wolves. Mitchell collaborated with Charles Mingus on this album, who died a few months before the album was released. The album is honest and powerful, with Mingus and Mitchell musing about death and loss.
Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night
‘Cause people let me tell you It sent a chill up and down my spine When I picked up the telephone And heard that he’d died
Released in 1975, this album is grief in it’s purest forms. Young was grappling with the drug overdose of friend and fellow guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. A deeply personal album, Tonight’s The Night grabs you from the first note and never releases. Young has stated in interviews that this album was written during a period in his life where he was completely lost and taken over by grief and despair.
Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West
I’ve changed my mind so much I cant even trust it My mind changed me so much I cant even trust myself
Modest Mouse’s second album, The Lonesome Crowded West has long been considered one of the best albums of the 1990s and for good reason. From songs of loneliness and despair, narratives of downtrodden cowboys to the heart wrenching Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset – a song about regretting suicide that is often difficult to listen through completely. Death and contemplations of the afterlife permeate this album.
A Silver Mt. Zion – He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms
Don’t tell me that I am free Cause I have not been well Lately
The debut album by Montreal super-group A Silver Mt. Zion is rich in layer and rich in meaning. Singer Efrim Menuck was touring with his band Godspeed You! Black Emperor when he found out his dog Wanda had died. Wanting to memorialize his best friend, Efrim set about writing this album. The album is rich in Jewish tapestry and might be best described as a sonic Shiva(the Jewish mourning period). The title of the album is itself an ode to the inability to put grief into words and the album is the musical equivalent of the destruction of death.
The Antlers – Hospice
I’m trying to dig you out but all you want is to be buried there together
Indie rock group The Antlers from Brooklyn, NY released Hospice in 2009 to critical acclaim. Written and sung by frontman Peter Silberman, Hospice is about the relationship between a male hospice worker, an unnamed woman and a hospital patient suffering from terminal bone cancer. The album is dark, depressing and bleak however it wraps the listener into its storyline and makes it hard to stop listening. The album is rife with sentimentality and the explosive instrumentals and has repeatedly been named one of the best albums of 2009. The album drifts from the autobiographical (though never confirmed), to third person narrative and tells a dark and beautiful story of collapse, illness, death and human relationships.
What is your favorite album about death and dying? Share it with us in the comments below!
Electro-Shock Blues by Eels. Thanks so much for this list.