In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of all the horrors, we’re picking our favorite songs about death.
A songwriter whose torch songs teetered on the precipice between desire and despair, Jacques Brel was a master of the chanson, a theatrical form of music that’s suffused with the romance of existential emptiness—in other words: very, very French. Brel’s song “La Mort” is a prime example of his bruised beauty. It approaches death itself with a flippant sneer, marching headlong into the abyss backed by jaunty swirls of fife, brass, and drums like a foolhardy young soldier. “La Mort” is the sound of recognizing life’s end, then raising a roguish toast in its direction.
Like a lot of Brel’s songs, “La Mort” has been covered by other artists—most famously David Bowie, who poignantly worked a solo acoustic version into his farewell performances as Ziggy Stardust. But when it comes to interpretations of Jacques Brel, no one holds a somber, solitary candle to Scott Walker, a Brel obsessive who practically made a career out of it. And in the case of “La Mort,” Walker’s version (from his 1967 solo debut Scott) may well be the definitive one.
Walker’s take on “La Mort,” like Bowie’s, was actually derived from “My Death,” a translation by Mort Shuman for the off-Broadway production Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, and one of the few that retained its original fire. Whereas so many transfers of Brel from French to English sucked out all the cynicism, humor, and evocative imagery and replaced it with banality (see: Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In The Sun”), Shuman’s rendition of “My Death” remains darkly brilliant. Delivered in Walker’s deep, demigod croon, its lines remain as haunting as the eerie runs of strings that surround it—as haughty as the huge drums that kick in, opening the song like the swinging door to oblivion Walker sings about.
Over the course of “My Death,” Walker compares his own to a cleverly knowing seductress (“a patient girl who knows the score”) and lingering threat (“a witch at night”); acknowledges its indifference (“a beggar blind who sees the world with unlit mind”) and inevitability (“a bible truth at the funeral of my youth”); and above all, recognizes that “there’s nothing much to do.” In his boldest moments, Walker hoists a glass and cheers, “My death waits to allow my friends a few good times before it ends.” In the song’s tender refrain, Walker slips into a soothing tremolo to declare he doesn’t care about “whatever is behind the door… for in front of that door there is you.”
For all the fire and brimstone, “My Death” is ultimately a song about making the most of the time we have before it’s gone—a song that’s been sung a million times, in varying degrees of platitude. But in the hands of two of music’s most expressive storytellers, it becomes every bit as terrifying yet invigorating as confronting death itself. Let’s drink to that.