Tunesday: Dark songs for dark times

Illustration for Tunesday playlist, with a phone, vinyl record, and earbuds
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Doom, doom! Calamity ravages the planet, and the end of days is imminent! The sky is filled with flame; a disease ravages the land. The modern era is filled with catastrophes of biblical proportions. These songs weave together to address apocalyptic tragedy and provide a temporary distraction from the pain that is life.

“Omegaman,” The Police

Guitars tear across the soundscape as Sting sings of the loneliness of the last human on earth. Ghost in the Machine, the album this song comes from, is packed with criticisms of modern digital society and the way in which it seems to sap humanity of its soul. It is the perfect start to a modern apocalypse, entrenched in science fiction and yet real enough to sting.

“What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye

Today, Americans face a brutal world, with police violence, perpetual war and climate death weighing on the nation. But these problems aren’t new: Marvin Gaye was singing about them in 1970. Both the album What’s Going On and its title track are reminders that these notions of doomsday have plagued society for decades. The policies and problems humans face today are, regrettably, the same that have loomed large over the world for ages. 

“When the Fires Come,” Kero Kero Bonito

Destruction is not an “if,” but a “when.” Kero Kero Bonito paints a post-apocalyptic vision of the future, bitterly reminding the listener that the warning signs of climate destruction have always been present. Imagery of smoke strangling the land itself adds immense weight to the song, while the chorus is swaying and exaltant. It’s a hymn of finality, frustrated by the path that led to this fate, but serene in understanding the futility of the future.

“There Is No Food,” Have a Nice Life

Have a Nice Life’s Deathconsciousness, a reflection on mortality and fear, provides a number of songs suitable for confronting the end of the world. The slow, digital beeps of the song’s intro give way to what sounds like chanting crowds and howling sirens. The song builds through this chaos, delivering a destructive blast that is akin to the breaking of a dam. As guitars thunder menacingly, the beeps continue their steady march onward, undeterred by the collapse of humanity. There are no people in this song — no vocals, save for the ghostly wails and chatters of a forgotten civilization. When there is no food, the machines will get by.

“Tragedy,” The Bee Gees

The Bee Gees can make even the gloomiest lyrics seem vibrant and uplifting. With lines such as “In a world of tears I slowly drown” littering the song, “Tragedy” is similar to Gaye’s What’s Going On, reflecting an animated confusion at the discouraging state of things. It presents a world forever entrenched in conflict, constantly at war with itself. Barry Gibb even found this conflict in his own life: Speaking to the feud between him and his brother Robin, Gibb said, “Even right up to the end we found conflict with each other, which now means nothing. It just means nothing.” 

“The Titanic,” Lead Belly

The RMS Titanic, the unsinkable behemoth that sank and killed more than 1,000 passengers, is a perfect symbol for apocalyptic hubris. A society too full of itself brings about its own demise. However, this song is told from the docks, as prizefighter Jack Johnson watches the Titanic after being barred from boarding by a racist captain. There is a dark joy in seeing this corrupt and decaying society get its comeuppance, and a sneering glee in the line “Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!”

“Do You Realize??,” The Flaming Lips

These songs in this playlist are all very dark. They’re pure doomsayer paranoia, wrapped up in an overwhelming fear of death. Despite the strong beat behind “Who Will Survive in America” and the swirling steel guitar of “Farewell Transmission,” these songs carry with them hopelessness, anger and dismay. “Do You Realize??” moves beyond the truth of death, accepting it as fact and pushing still for love and compassion. Despite the inevitable terror of one’s demise, there is a comfort in the cosmic nihilism of realizing that none of this really matters and that all one can do is let their loved ones know that they are loved.

Contact Crew Bittner at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.