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.
Death Cab For Cutie has released some brutally depressing songs over the years—“death” is right there in the name of the band—but “What Sarah Said,” from 2005’s Plans, might take the sadness cake. Written from the perspective of a dying man in a hospital bed (that’s the prevailing theory, anyway), the lyrics recall the awful scent of a hospital room (“piss and 409”), the care of rationed breaths, and the pain of watching your loved ones suffer and leave. But it’s less about the physical pain of the dying than the emotional pain of the living, both the discomfort of everyone around him and the realization—what Sarah said—that “love is watching someone die.” It’s possible to take that as a kind of positive: If you’re lucky, when you’re on your death bed, your loved one is there with you, expressing their love by sitting with you through an incredibly difficult time. But in “What Sarah Said”—again, prevailing theory—the dying person comes to another realization: His love is going to watch him die, but who’s going to be there for them, when their time comes? About halfway through the song, the music fades to almost nothing, then returns with a bright, hopeful guitar strum. It’s followed by three minutes of build and release, with only the lyric “So who’s gonna watch you die?” repeated until the fade. Taken one way—with the narrator despondent about leaving his partner alone—it’s absolutely gutting. If you’re open to a kinder interpretation, I guess “What Sarah Said” is a call to action to find somebody you can go the distance with. But somehow I think Death Cab For Cutie wasn’t necessarily looking for platitudes here, but rather a frank (though soaringly pretty) examination of death.