The wisdom of the crowd has it that there are some subjects utterly inconceivable as the stuff of musical treatment. And that judgment is completely correct until the day some musical genius wakes up with a scrap of a notion that turns into a bit of a melody that vaults into a juggernaut of a song which populates our sonic landscape with new and suddenly integral ideas. Of all the concepts that seem ill-suited for popular song treatment, none seems quite so obviously unthinkable as The End of Human Civilization. And yet, both Shelley Segal and Tombstone da Deadman, within the space of this last slim year, have managed it, and beautifully.
Segal’s An Atheist Album (March 2013) is a seven-track marvel that hits some notes familiar in the pop landscape (the awful position of women in world religion, the grotesque effrontery of Salvation) but more often sets off all on its own into the depths of the thematic jungle. I’m going to stick to my particular favorite song, an ode to the end of existence that makes you feel warm all over, “Apocalyptic Love Song.” Over a simple and frail strummed guitar Segal’s voice ponders the following by way of opening:
One day the sun is going to die.
For us that means no more sunsets.
For the universe, just one less star in the sky.
I admit getting goosebumply when those lines first hit me – I paused it before letting the song move on to try and figure out what exactly this new thing was. I’m still wondering, but I think a large part of it is this – Segal is giving us a vision of inevitability and nothingness that is tinged by a fragile human sweetness, a Muss es sein? resignation that still keeps with it a snatch of something lovely and worth the while, if only for the while.
One could write an extinction song with the aim of paralyzing the listener with awe and dread, and in some settings, like a Mahler symphony, that works beautifully. But something different is required for our times, and Segal found it – extinction as a creature of final whimsy, deserving of a sort of half-smile when we look up from our loves of the moment:
And yes I understand that my whole life is just a blink of an eye
in the history of the earth, as with each moment that goes by
but this moment that I’m with you
It feels like time has stood still
It feels somehow like it matters
And that it always will.
Is that not one of the most beautiful thoughts set to song? Not time has stood still, not that our time together does have eternal significance that the heavens above take note of, but that it all FEELS like it does, and that there is something somehow more precious about knowing that it’s just a feeling standing against a mammoth reality, and letting yourself be warmed by it for a bit anyway.
It’s Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” taken to the next level. I won’t follow you into the dark, but while it’s light, I’ll be with you and you’ll be with me, and there is something to the positive nothingness of that which we must smile about and love.
Living in quite a different tonal world is the new album, Entropic Man, by Tombstone da Deadman (October 2013), the follow-up to his much-beloved Rise of the Infidel (2012). It features two tracks that take as their subject not only the end of human existence, but the end of existence generally under the cool and indifferent watch of thermodynamics. In the concluding tracks, “All Things Must Pass” and “Death Speaks”, Tombstone assumes the guise of Entropy and Death themselves, surveying from those perspectives the progress of the universe and man’s small lot among it all.
As entropy, he introduces himself with a power and force that suggests John Milton crossed with Carl Sagan:
I’ve seen the laws of physics sort out themselves
I’ve seen stars and planets form from out of gravity wells
even galaxies colliding with others in cataclysmic wonder
I caused destruction on levels too high to have a number
part of reality’s fabric, attached to it like a magnet
I’m not a villain there’s no reason to panic
but see I’m not a hero either, I’m both but still neither
transcending all your names Anubis to the grim reaper.
And it’s perfect – that realization that we want to personify every immaterial thing with spirit and purpose, when in fact there are just events guided by laws quite outside of heroism and moral remark. And, like with Segal, the sheer massiveness of the universe’s indifference is the very thing that frees us as humans to enjoy life as humans do and must:
so when the day comes that I put an end to it
reflect upon your life in the last minutes that you spend with it
just think about the people that you have touch and ones that you loved so much
accomplishments and failures fun times and all the such
or not….cause you can choose to go into the darkness screaming
disturbing all your people but to me it has no meaning.
All Things Must Pass, the chorus intones, and in those moments that the song in all of its imagination-defying scope drifts past you, that fact seems genuinely okay. From Entropy, then, we pass to Death, which begins rather chummily with, “Hello Humanity, it’s your boy Death… I think it’s time that we had a little heart to heart.” And then it’s down the rabbit hole as Death lays the simple and unadorned facts of existence before us and wonders about how we’ve taken those basic facts and twisted them into the various ecstatic death cults that have spotted, and continue to drench, our civilization:
Why romanticize stories of species-wide genocide,
Why not just celebrate the limited time that you are alive?
See, I’ve been watching you monkeys for many years
Your history is full of deceptive thoughts and red tears,
I’ve reaped the benefits of your murderous ways,
And laughed and even enjoyed the lies about the soul
You think you have.
The whole song crackles with the exasperated laughter born of frustration that comes with perspective. And it’s terribly sad too – it is painful to ponder how much of our time as a species we have spent denying our basic worth and denigrating the time given us in the name of What Is To Come, wasting away while anticipating a next world or an Armageddon when there are problems to be solved, people to be fed and the occasional kitten chin to be scratched.
Atheist music is a tough thing to pull off, as is any music driven by ideas possessing a certain degree of intricacy. Like songs of social justice, there is a tremendous capacity for it all to go horribly wrong, with an end product sounding more snide and superior than earnest and heart-felt. But we have the immense good fortune of having not one, but two (and more every day) songwriters of superb instinct showing us the way, not just to what atheist songs can do, but what depths of insight songwriting in general can achieve.