A few weeks ago I had a tricky conversation with my children about death. We had watched Onward, Pixar’s latest film, followed a couple of days later by kids’ classic The Land Before Time. They were quite angry with me. Onward is about a dead dad who is briefly reanimated but only from the waist down; they were just about ok with the weirdness of this but not the ending, which – mild spoiler – doesn’t quite offer the proper reunion it seems to promise, a bold creative decision which I admired but they hated. I thought The Land Before Time might fix things, being a cute, sentimental classic about adorable dinosaurs, but I’d forgotten that the mum dinosaur gets killed off early on and just upset them again. Afterwards they demanded I find them a film to watch in which NOBODY DIES.
Except it turns out there are hardly any children’s films like this. After struggling for a while to find an option, I pointed this awkward fact out to them by listing some of their favourite films. The Lion King: dead dad. Finding Nemo: dead mum. Frozen: both parents dead. Paddington: dead uncle. Ice Age – dead mum. ‘ICE AGE?’ they exclaimed. They hadn’t even noticed, because it is subtly and sensitively implied rather than shown, but yes, the entire plot hinges on a dying woman handing over her baby to three animal saviours before she drowns in a river. ‘She’s gone,’ gasps Sid the sloth, as if the woman has magically got up and breezed off while nobody was looking for no reason whatsoever, but it’s very clear what’s happened.
Having got this far, I then attempted to explain that something sad or scary needs to happen at some point otherwise there’s really no story. Even when there’s no death in a children’s film there is an absence, usually of a parental figure, like the ill mother in My Neighbour Totoro or the missing father in ET. Most stories are about facing your biggest fears. They’re tools to help you grow up. They got it, kind of, but still wanted to see a film with no death in it.
If this sounds a bit much for a conversation with children, bear in mind that these ones lost two of their grandparents very early in their lives and have already had to process this, which was often a remarkable thing to witness. ‘Your dad is dead,’ my older son would often say, while I was in the middle of getting him dressed or pouring him some cereal. ‘When I’m a grown-up you will be dead,’ he would occasionally add, trying out the idea for size, testing my reaction. Sometimes he would experiment with different ways of saying it. ‘After all of the days we will disappear,’ he announced one day. Which is how my new album, and this website, got its name.
I mention all this because I’ve realised, while doing this song-by-song diary, that the thing I write about more often than anything else is death. At first I told myself this must be to do with the death of my parents. Medicine, the opening song on the new album, was written immediately after my mum’s funeral and sets the tone for much of what follows. Much of my last album, The Winter of 88, was a response to my dad’s deteriorating health and, in hindsight, emotional preparation for losing him. This is most apparent on The World is Just Noise, a song about the impossibility of resolving old differences with someone whose memory is fading as they approach death, and Findhorn, an imaginary journey to the north of Scotland to scatter someone’s ashes, narrated by the person who’s just died. It’s also addressed symbolically on the album’s opening song, The Last House on Holland Island, which I’ve already written about elsewhere.
Actually though, I’ve been writing about death right from the beginning. In the press release for Swimmer One’s first single, We Just Make Music For Ourselves, I described it as something like a ‘euphoric pop song about the pointlessness of life and the crushing inevitability of death’. It was a joke, but also a reasonably accurate description of the song. Drowning Nightmare One, the opening song on Swimmer One’s first album, was set on a sinking ship whose passengers are all doomed. Dead Orchestras, which opened the second album, was about what we leave behind for our children when we’re gone. I could list lots more, but you get the idea. Death death death. In fact I could probably pick a song I’ve written at random and it would turn out to be about death in some way.
When I realised this I was tempted to do a death inventory of other people’s songs for comparison. It can’t be that unusual, surely? Instead I found some reassurance in the fact that, if I’m obsessed with death, then so are the people who wrote Frozen and Ice Age.
What matters, I think, is how you write about death. Ideally you should do it in a way that makes your audience want to hold more tightly onto every moment of their lives, to live them to the full. I’m not sure I always succeed in that, but I’d like to think I have my moments. However, if, like my kids at one particular moment in time, you’d rather not hear those kinds of songs at all, then fair enough, I have a Kate Bush cover you might like.
If you’re up for it though, The song that says they’re gone perhaps pushes the subject as far as it can go, in that it’s about human extinction. ‘The song that says they’re gone’ is the silence in the absence of all human activity, which, if you’ve spent any length of time in the countryside, you know is not silence at all but the hundreds of sounds you hear when you let your mind become quiet – animals, insects, plants, water and rock. I wrote this song over a decade ago but it resonates all the more with me now that I live in one of the quietest places in Scotland. I think of it, in particular, when I’m on the shore below our village, on a beach of countless stones that has been shaped, over millions of years, by the cliffs on either side of it slowly crumbling into the sea, the tiny fragments of rock gradually smoothed out by the water. When it’s warm enough I like to leave my bedroom window open at night and listen to this beach, the mighty crackle as the tide pushes the stones back and forth, sometimes damming the river that flows down to it, sometimes clearing a path for the water to rush through. Musically speaking, any sound made by humans during our existence here is just a tiny fragment of this infinitely bigger hymn, less than a single note.
A few months ago I made a wee video for the song while walking the dog up on the cliffs. The abandoned RAF base that’s up there seemed like the perfect setting for it. It’s a beautiful place, somehow all the more beautiful for the concrete structures spread across it, small monuments to human activity that has now ceased. Sometimes I think they look like gravestones, other times like skyscrapers, the biggest buildings people have ever made, but seen from the air so they look tiny, dwarfed by a vast landscape. The RAF base was a radar station, a place designed for watching and listening. It still is, but now people come here to look out for eagles and whales, and the only sound is the wind, the sea, and the birds.