So It Goes: On Artists and Their Final Songs

Will Hagle explores the final tracks by artists before their untimely deaths.
By    September 17, 2018


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Will Hagle wrote this while parked in front of a hydrant.

The last song on Elliott Smith’s Figure 8, the last finished album he released before a fatal knife entered his chest, was called “Bye.” Whether that was an ominous harbinger or a poetic coincidence could only have been known in Smith’s own tortured mind. Yet somehow, given the context of Smith’s downtrodden yet cavalier approach to life and art, the track’s title is a fitting tribute to his entire career. Not even his suicide note—a simple “I’m so sorry — love, Elliott” scrawled on a post-it note—included a farewell. Smith said “Bye” to us on record, and then he was gone.

Elliott Smith’s “Bye” lasts less than two minutes. It contains a simple, building piano riff that could be described as upbeat and rollicking if it weren’t smothered in reverb, room tone, and the painstaking 20/20 hindsight of knowing what happened to Smith before he ever had the chance to say hello again. The track lacks what makes most Smith songs great: the hushed, sweeping vocals, the delicately strummed guitar, the introspective lyrics. Yet, simply by being the last song on the last album released during his life, it embodies the melancholy spirit that characterized his career better than any of his best hits.

The circumstances of his death following the song’s release make us perceive the track differently.

The onslaught of obituaries and online playlists often posted in rapid succession after notable deaths show that we begin reprocessing an entire artist’s discography immediately after they leave us. Once a life’s over, it’s over. The only thing left to do is look back. In the process of looking back, however, we tend to recontextualize the artist’s discography in terms of their finite trajectory and ultimate fate. Last songs, like “Bye,” reveal not only the depth of an artist’s humanity around the time they died, but broader inferences and themes about their careers as a whole.

In the past week alone, it’s been difficult to listen to any of Mac Miller’s lines about addiction, pain, or death without thinking about his entire career since the beginning, and the small steps that led to its untimely end. In the blink of a TMZ headline, what once may have been perceived as forgettable lyrics instantly transformed into coded omens. Mac Miller, it turns out, left as prophetically as Elliott Smith. The last song on Swimming is “So It Goes,” a nod to the deterministic refrain about death that Vonnegut used in Slaughterhouse Five. It’s impossible to listen to the song now, knowing Mac’s fate, without feeling the same sense of prophetic dread that permeated Figure 8.

This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Elliott Smith or Mac Miller, and it’s likely happened ever since artists started recording music and then dying. Death is a common theme with which artists wrestle, so there are obvious threads of foreboding in any musician’s catalogue that can be retroactively described as ominous. Any artist’s final albums could be construed however the listener wants to perceive them. It could have been a coincidence, for instance, that Jeff Buckley’s lone studio album, released a few years before he drowned in the Mississippi River, included a song called “Last Goodbye” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s funeral staple “Hallelujah.” Even “All Apologies,” the last track on Nirvana’s last album In Utero, could have taken on a new meaning after Cobain’s death, if anyone cared enough to dissect it in that manner.

Yet, like death itself, these artists’ true intentions with their final songs remain out of our control. We’re left to grapple, in our own individual ways, with how their final records impact us. It’s impossible to deny, however, that at least some subtle shift in our perception of an artist’s music takes place once the artist has passed.

Part of what’s fueled the ongoing morbid allure of Biggie and 2Pac’s respective passings is the imagery of death that they incorporated into their music while they were still alive. Life After Death, for example, came out about two weeks after someone shot Christopher Wallace dead in Los Angeles. The album contains several references to death, a theme which was expected from Biggie following Ready to Die, but seems completely different when taking into account that he actually did meet his fateful end more quickly than anyone might have expected.

According to Snoop Dogg, “Somebody’s Gotta Die” is the last song Biggie ever recorded. If Biggie had lived, the song might have been viewed as another example of his mobster-rap prowess, a darkly threatening tale inextricable from the mythologized coastal beef of the time but still more of a fantasy narrative than a depiction of reality. It still sounds that way, for the most part, but even a few lines from the hook sound entirely different considering what happened thereafter: “If I go, you gotta go / Somebody’s gotta die / Let the gunshots blow.

As is the case with Biggie, there’s too much death, violence and retroactively prophetic imagery in 2Pac’s catalogue to discuss so short-handedly. “To Live and Die in L.A.” barely even has anything to do with death compared to the rest of his discography. Still, the song can be viewed as more than just a catchy ode to the West Coast city, especially considering 2Pac recorded it for his Makaveli album shortly before he was shot dead in (not LA but still) Las Vegas. The point is, as soon as 2Pac died, all of his references to death and dying became real and our perception of his music changed forever, even if none of us intended for that to happen.

Although many artists seem to accidentally leave behind prescient warnings of their impending demise, some musicians have the benefit of doing it on purpose. Following the progression of Alzheimer’s that obliterated his memory and threatened his life, Glenn Campbell decided to call it quits with a final album entitled Adios. The title track, in name as well as tone, recalls Elliott Smith’s final song. Both put a cap on impressive careers while bidding farewell to the fans. The only difference is that Campbell intended his song to be perceived that way.

Several other aging artists have taken a similar approach, because the impending end of a real life always coincides with the impending end of a career. Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” gave completely new meaning to an old song when he released it on what would be his final album, and the recording’s poignancy evolved further still once Cash passed away a year later. David Bowie stunned the world with Blackstar, the purposefully final album he recorded in secret while concealing a secret disease that claimed him two days after the LP’s release. In true Bowie fashion, the album contains explorations of the thoughts and feelings the artist was going through as he knew the end was drawing near, left for the fans that remain behind to dissect on their own terms. Bowie and Cash’s attempts were subtler than the route Campbell took, but they all still achieved the same effect.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of being a music fan is coming to terms with the fact that musicians are human like us after all. Even though they do all the time, our favorite artists aren’t supposed to die. Music is timeless. It appears to be as difficult for artists to come to that realization themselves. Even artists that claim to retire struggle to abandon their passion once it becomes a profession.

If an artist fades from our regular rotation, or releases new music that we don’t particularly care for, there’s always some comfort in the fact that they’re still living and creating on this earth at the same time as us. Their musical output is ongoing concurrently with our own lives, with a definitely finite yet seemingly infinite path ahead of them. Then, once they die, their (non-posthumous) discography becomes complete. We’re forced to confront it as a single entity, a depiction of an artist’s complete life and career arc. The circumstances surrounding the death, which we know but they don’t, then inform a renewed perspective of our consumption of their old material.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from any of this, it’s the fact that any song at any moment could become an artist’s last, whether they intend it to be or not. Musicians are people that just so happen to leave behind recorded artifacts of their relatable human existence. Many people who experience the loss of a loved one remind others to tell their friends and families that they love them, before it’s too late. We can do the same for musicians, rather than waiting until they’re gone to celebrate their work. It would also be nice if every artist and their fans had the chance to say to each other, in one form or another, “Bye.” Much like real life, however, not even praise and affection can alter the inevitable. So it goes.

 

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