The 2016 Review of the Year of Things #1 Music: Jason Lewis surveys the years' great albums and noting so many, compartmentalized, as men do. So, here, first of all, albums so profoundly impacted by Death.
"Merry Christmas..." I'll say that now because I need to get the pleasantries out of the way because what follows is a review of a year in music that involves such party ruining topics as death, loss, massacres, violence and dementia. There's also an album by Radiohead too. So 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year'. Let's begin.
Part 1 - Death at the Party
It would be disingenuous to not start with David Bowie. His was the first major release of the year, yet it feels that Bowie released two albums - both called Blackstar, both with exactly the same music and lyrics. The one we woke up to on Friday 8 January was his most beguiling work since stationtostation, both starting with a multi-sectioned 10 minute title track, dazzling in its scope, brimming with obscure and occult references. There were the mournful saxophones of Lazarus, the droog inspired Girl Loves Me (with the startling "where the fuck did Monday go?" chorus). And the cryptic closer "I can't give everything." Meanings? Who knows? We were too busy celebrating his birthday. We didn't expect a death at the party. The Blackstar we woke up to on Monday 11 January was a different creature entirety. The 'I' in Bowie's song was never him (he never wanted to swim like the dolphins could swim or to sit in a tin can far above the earth...) and now we're exploring his latest work for autobiographical hints. 'Look up here I'm in heaven...' sounded harrowing, the Lazarus video now appears like the most unflinching and heart-breaking goodbye since Hurt by Johnny Cash. 'Where the fuck did Monday go?' Well, we spent it poring over his work. It would dictate how we felt about music in 2016.
The narrator of 'You Want it Darker' is close to the person we feel we know as Leonard Cohen. It is another chapter in his bleak but beautiful story. His questioning of faith may have reached its conclusion as the 'Maybe there's a God above' of Hallelujah is now replaced by the 'Million candles burning for the help that never came' of the title track. The album starts with the choir of the Montreal synagogue where his family worshipped and the role of faith in his life runs throughout this album, yet his weary defiance is ever-present. 'I sit at your table every night, I try but I just don't get high with you' he admits on Treaty, accompanied only by a sad piano and a minimal string arrangement. It's one of his most unflinching songs. 'I'm tired and angry all the time... I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.' A reprise of the song appears again at the end of the album, with only a string section behind him, bringing his life's work to a haunting end.
The subject of death is never far away in the work of Nick Cave. But with 'Skeleton Tree' and the accompanying 'One More Time With Feeling' documentary there was a cruel twist, the death is real as Cave's son died in cliff top accident last year. Although much of the album was written before the tragedy, Cave's life is forever changed and his tone aches with the loss and confusion that now define him, his art is now personal. The sparse arrangements are solemn, dark and uneasy, the growling ambient tones and humming strings of the opening Jesus Alone sets the mood. But it's the arrival of Danish soprano Else Torp on the serene Distant Sky that tears at the heart. Cave responds to her solo with the poignant 'they told us our God's would outlive us, but they lied.' Like Leonard Cohen, the questioning of faith is an ongoing theme. Here, he is at his most defeated. There may have been concern that Skeleton Tree would be voyeuristic, but it's as far removed from the mawkishness of Tears in Heaven as it's possible to get. It is far and away Cave's most affecting work.
Pt2. Love and (even more) Death
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.