As AUK’s resident miserabilist (self-appointed, though there is clearly plenty of competition) I feel it is incumbent on me to offer some kind of alternative background music for the approaching doomsday scenario. Now I’m not saying that we are heading for the end of days, just that sometimes when you wake up and your day slowly blurs into focus, as you re-calibrate your circumstances it can certainly feel like it.
Perhaps then, rather than packing our bags for a final global trip across the river Styx we are in fact rehearsing the process for if/when that day does arrive. So, as with any dress-rehearsal, it is just as important to be fully immersed in the mood of the piece as it is to get the words in the right order. With that in mind what we have here is a soundtrack to help us capture how it might feel, or as one insightful Australian academic has it “Architecture for pre-disaster learning” (oh yes indeed!)
Please don’t, therefore, approach this music looking for relief or wanting to be uplifted and removed from the austerity of our current condition. These songs are not the feel-good hits of the spring, they are for those of you who will find comfort in wallowing; letting the gloom wash over you and surrendering to the inevitability of your isolation. In order to get us in the mood these songs in turn acknowledge the bleakness of the approaching doomsday and offer us (if we are willing to embrace the darkness) a sense of what the apocalypse might feel like, just before the music stops for good.
Don’t go, hey, come back. I’m not offering a list of Black Metal tracks. These selections all fit the A.UK template perfectly (almost!). There are some with which you will undoubtedly be familiar, some which may have only flitted past your musical window in an underappreciated blur and others that have been hiding away completely unnoticed. Whichever it is I urge you to give them a(nother) go, in the context of our contemporary world. You probably won’t emerge from the listening experience freshly invigorated and ready to face your socially distant world anew but you will hopefully have some insight into how others might be feeling about the end of days and you may, perhaps, be able to recognise the fleeting moments of hope present, even if the moment may pass by all too quickly to grab onto.
On to the songs then.
It can be tricky to discern the specific meaning sometimes – there is a fondness for the poetically opaque lyric here and a tendency to overuse the end of the relationship as end of the world metaphor. So this list concentrates on the feelings that these songs generate or that appeared to impact on their creation. What’s not in doubt is their generally bleak affect so if by some strange twist you manage to read them in a different, perhaps more positive, way then consider yourself lucky – and also expelled from the miserabilists club.
Mountain Goats – ‘The Plague’ Head ‘goat’, John Darnielle is a bit of a go-to performer when wanting a soundtrack for any kind of shitstorm and he doesn’t let us down here. A gentle but devastating metaphor nailing just how hopeless it will be “And all our great schemes and plans, will slip like fishes from our hands”
Eef Barzely – ‘My Dear Apocalyptic Friend’ Barzelay ‘comforts’ a friend over their fears of the end of the world. It’s easy to love this and Clem Snide too but, honestly, on this evidence I’m kinda glad he’s not my go to for solace right now.
Son Volt – ‘When the Wheels Don’t Move’ Here we get an actual target to blame as well as a bleak picture of how things will fail as we grind on towards the end. Farrar clearly points the finger at the greed and hubris of man – Western, technocratic, industrialist man if I read him correctly.
Lift to Experience – ‘These are the Days’ Not short of provocative self-belief ‘Buck’, ‘Bear’ and ‘The Boy’ proclaim this song’s home, the Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads LP; “a concept album about the end of the world with Texas as the Promised Land” and on this track regard themselves as “the best band in the whole damn land”. They must have this apocalypse thing nailed then.
Tom Waits – ‘The Earth Died Screaming’ Oh boy, no matter what happens over the next few weeks we can all be glad we don’t live in uncle Tom’s gruesome, Bunuel fabricated, fire and brimstone hell with those three-headed lions, army ants and skull cups.
St Vincent – ‘Apocalypse Song’ Beautifully crafted, beautiful sounding and yet more beautifully performed. Weird how so much beauty can feign compassion and present you with the stark crumbling of everything you know through the “look of a lunatic’s gaze”.
The Cramps – ‘God Monster’ As you might expect Lux, Ivy and the gang invite murderous intent, space invaders, atomic vampires and (worst of all) spiders in your hair-do to their end of the world party.
Skeeter Davies – ‘End of the World’ Again the doomsday scenario is really a metaphor for the end of love. If it was genuinely the end of days it’s doubtful it could feel much more desolate than this. Bloody hell though imagine if falling out with your boy/girlfriend was actually this bad.
Bright Eyes – ‘At the Bottom of Everything’ Oberst takes a sledge-hammer to 21C society sacred cows while his protagonists plunge headlong to their doom (or do they?) Setting all this to the happiest sounding tune in his catalogue he might just help us to find some meaning in our ultimate demise. Not keen on this Bright Eyes one – that intro’s a bit off I’ll grant you? You could just as easily go for ‘Four Winds’ or ‘No One Would Riot for Less’.
The Postal Service – ‘We Will Become Silhouettes’ Is it really Americana? Well it does have Jenny Lewis involved. It’s another tune that conflates broken hearts with broken worlds – and in so doing gives us the quintessential self-isolation playbook: “I’ve got a cupboard with cans of food / Filtered water, and pictures of you / And I’m not coming out until this is all over” because “All the news reports recommended that I stay indoors”. Listening to and following the guidance then, good work guys.
Arthur Russell – ‘Happy Ending’
Sufjan Stevens – ‘4th of July’
Midlake – ‘Head Home’
Rilo Kiley – ‘Picture of Success’
Bill Fay – ‘Time of the Last Persecution’
Father John Misty – ‘Holy Shit’
Whiskeytown – ‘Ten Seconds to the End of the World’
Have Gun Will Travel – ‘Standing at the End of the World’
Jill Sobule – ‘A Good Life’
Murder by Death – ‘Last Night on Earth’