Dying words: when musicians turn their last albums into self-eulogies

The release of Sharon Jones’s final album, recorded while she had terminal cancer, is the latest example of an artist saying goodbye through music

We all know we’re going to die. But only some of us have a sense of when. If those haunted with that knowledge seem cursed, in another way they’re privileged. They have the rare chance to write their own eulogies, to make a statement that gives their final days shape.

Lately, musicians have taken special advantage of this. Actuarial tables, and bad circumstance, have placed an increasing number of them in mortality’s path – and, over the last two years, many have seized that opportunity to speak from the precipice on their final albums. They’re not the first to write from this perspective. In the past, doomed stars like Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash, and Freddie Mercury have put their final thoughts and feelings into song. At the moment, however, the list of musicians in this poignant group is starting to seem as long those who belong to the dreaded “27 Club”, the coterie of artists felled at that tender age from drugs.

This week, the list of musicians who have sung from life’s last stage will add the name of Sharon Jones as her band, the Dap-Kings, release Soul of a Woman, which they recorded with the singer as she faced a spreading cancer in 2016.

Here’s a look at those artists brave enough to record their thoughts as their days ran short.

David Bowie – Blackstar

Few rock star deaths have seemed more finely scripted than David Bowie’s. Two days after releasing his final album, on his 69th birthday, the announcement came that the star had died after having faced liver cancer for the previous 18 months. After that acknowledgment, Bowie’s last lyrics became the subject of Talmudic scrutiny. While his words, like many in his career, leaned towards the elliptical, his last seemed clear enough. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sang in Lazarus, referencing the biblical figure raised from the dead. “Something happened on the day he died,” Bowie intoned in the title track. “Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.” The jazz-inflected avant-rock sound he and his band created mirrored the words’ hallowed mystery. In life, Bowie always seemed otherworldly. Yet in the commitment he made to his final music, he seemed entirely present.

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

Several months before his death last November, Leonard Cohen gave an interview to the New Yorker in which he announced he was “ready to die”. Only later was it revealed that he had been diagnosed with cancer. After his death, at age 82, a prophetic letter he wrote came out. It had been penned several months earlier for an ex-lover made famous by his song So Long Marianne, who had just died from leukemia. “I think I will follow you very soon,” Cohen wrote. “Know that I am so close behind you that, if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

Death has always been a muse to Cohen, inspired by a favored theme of one of his idols, the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Nineteen days before his own death, Cohen issued the album You Want It Darker, whose title track found him singing:

“If you are a dealer

I’m out of the game

If you are a healer

I’m broken and lame

I’m ready, my Lord.”

Past Cohen songs often stressed humility in the face of mortality, but this time the sentiment gained in urgency and authority. The music he matched it to – the deepest, darkest and slowest of his career – had a sepulchral resonance. As always, Cohen seemed accepting of life’s arc. “I better hold my tongue / I better take my place,” he sang. “Lift this glass of blood / try to say the grace.”

Glen Campbell – Adios

The Rhinestone Cowboy had dealt with advancing Alzheimer’s disease for seven years before his death in August. As much damage as it inflicted on his memory, Campbell never lost his hold on music. He performed a “farewell tour” in 2011-2012 and, over the past few years he pieced together a final album that appeared two months before his death. His wife said he sought to capture “what magic was left” and it’s amazing how much of it there was. Campbell chose songs he had long loved but never recorded, including ones as tailor-made for him as Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’. Four of the songs came from the catalog of Jimmy Webb, who had penned many of the star’s most indelible hits. The most poignant cut, Adios, was written back in the 90s about letting go of love. In Campbell’s hands, it addressed letting go of life itself.

Gregg Allman – Southern Blood

According to Gregg Allman’s manager Michael Lehman, the singer knew he would never record another song after he finished Southern Blood, an album released earlier this fall. Allman wasn’t even sure he’d survive long enough to complete its sessions. Though he had been diagnosed with liver cancer in 2012, he remained strong enough to continue touring for three more years. Early in March 2016, Allman spent nine days recording songs that would amount to what Lehman calls his “final statement”. Some of the song titles alone tell the story: Going, Going Gone (a Dylan cover) and Once I Was (by Tim Buckley). The album’s opening track, My Only True Friend, penned by Allman for his late brother, Duane, hinged on the refrain “I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul when I’m gone”. Ill as Gregg was, his singing never sounded more impassioned.

To complete a circle, Allman cut his final tracks at Muscle Shoals’ Fame Studios, the same facility where he made some of his first recordings. The album’s most shattering song came at its close: a cover of Jackson Browne’s Song for Adam, which addresses a friend’s suicide. When Allman approached the key line “it seemed he stopped his singing in the middle of his song”, his voice caught. He couldn’t complete the line. The producers decided to leave that absence in. On 27 May, the morning after approving the song’s mix, the midnight rambler moved on.

Gord Downie – Introduce Yourself

At the start of 2016, the celebrated leader of Canada’s the Tragically Hip received the diagnosis of aggressive brain cancer. One year later, he went into the studio to record his summary thoughts for a work released at the end of last month. The 23 songs he created didn’t address death per se but, instead, captured key memories from his 53 years of life. Downie’s songs spoke directly to specific friends, family members and past flames. Because he didn’t want any metaphors in the way, his words relied on the purity of literalism. His music mirrored that plain resolve, pairing the voice with just one or two instruments. In his final songs, Downie savored all the pivotal human interactions that had made his life rich.

Leon Russell – On A Distant Shore

Russell survived highly invasive heart surgery five months before he died in November 2016. Though the legend expected to live beyond his final recording, he grappled with the whims of mortality throughout the material. “Sounds like a funeral / for some person here / and I might be the one,” Russell sang in the title track, which opened the album. What followed had a valedictory feel, as the songs ticked through the many styles Russell’s earlier catalogue contained. He also revisited a pair of standards he had written: This Masquerade and Song for You. The latter, first cut in 1970 for Russell’s debut, never sounded more rapturous than in this late rendering. The lyrics present music as an offering. Russell’s final one distilled his lost life into a gift that fans can keep.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Soul of A Woman

The final album by the queen of neo-soul will come out one year to the day after the star died of pancreatic cancer. Several months before she died, Jones stopped taking the drugs the doctors had given her. They drained the energy she required to fulfill the mission that gave her life meaning: to sing. In Jones’s final recordings, her voice sounds improbably robust. Always a high-energy artist, she idealized that power in the end, while also finding in the material a new depth. Pushing beyond her usual commitment to old-school soul and R&B, she tapped a gospel faith. It’s a Matter of Time anticipates a better future for society, while Searching for a New Day posits positivity as its own reward. The songs build to the final Call on God, a piece which emphasizes Jones’s devotion to the church, leaving in her wake a deep well of belief.


Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

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