High Rotation Special: Apocalypse!
Just having finished The Pesthouse, a love story disguised as a post-apocalyptic novel, and having my interested piqued by Nacho’s new project, I decided to join in the fun and present a list of the best cataclysmic or apocalyptic songs. Also, there is a giant high pressure system just squatting over the entire Gulf region and the past week has felt like I’ve been reliving the same 104 degree day over and over. Even the dog doesn’t want to go outside. My brain is mush. So no glowing stories or insight today, just an improvised playlist!
Muse: Apocalpyse Please. The most obvious choice to start off with. This song, like many Muse songs, is big and scary, starting off with a perfectly threatening piano stomp that builds into the first line, “Declare this an emergency/Come on and spread a sense of urgency…” When the chorus to your song is “This is the end of the world!” you know that song has to be big and scary. I think as soon as this song was released every movie trailer editor creamed in his pants.
Arcade Fire: Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels). As a breakout song on a breakout record, Neighborhood #1 is not just a moving song with a perfectly created buildup and explosion, but the lyrics are moving also. The images present a world without parents, a vanished adult world. The town occupied by the leftover children is malleable, conquerable. Tunnels can be built between windows, chimneys are modes of transportation. “And since there’s no one left around/we let our hair grow long/and forget all we used to know/then our skin gets thicker from living out in the snow.” The children rename things, reinvent the world, try to hang on to the past but can’t. For me, it provides a kind of bridge song that covers a gap that always bugs me about post-apocalyptic visions of the future: what happened to the first generation, how did the culture and language get so distorted? How did everyone forget “the event” or the way things used to be? Neighborhood #1 sees it as a kind of purification, a rejection of the old world’s self-destructive tendencies. Good riddance, now the kids are in charge.
Gorillaz: Last Living Souls. Demon Days, Gorillaz’ second real album, is a kind of end-of-the-world, or, at least a fin-de-sciecle album, featuring songs like “O Green World (Don’t Desert Me Now)”, “Kids with Guns”, and “Every Planet we Reach is Dead.” “Last Living Souls” kicks the whole batch off, a somber dub/discobeat song that would be good as a soundtrack to survivors emerging from the sewers and basements where they’ve hidden, but also, to me, expresses the dread of the current population, wondering if they will be the last generation, the final witnesses, the period on the sentence of human history. Kind of unnerving when you think about the song that way.
Tom Waits: And the Earth Died Screaming. With drums that sound (purposefully) like tribal people beating skeletal xylophones or shaking bags of bones, Tom Waits portrays a dreamlike apocalypse that has more in common with biblical plagues than sci-fi: “The moon fell from the sky/it rained mackerel, it rained trout.” A Broadway version of the Book of Revelations. Yet the narrator of the song ignores the calamity, walks between the bloody raindrops, distracted by sleep and the dreams of his woman. Sounds like the type of hero we don’t get enough of in the movies.
Tool: Aenima. Ah, the late nineties. When a song hoping for an Armageddon that destroys Los Angeles and all its crazy, self-centered subcultures can top the charts, get played every hour on the hour on rock radio, and becomes summer fuel for undersexed high school kids. Try doing that in a post-9/11 world. This song rocks, that’s about all you need to say. Justifiable anger, meteors, tidal waves, kick-ass solo, and, of course, the creepy combination of threat and advice: Learn to swim, learn to swim, learn to swim, learn to swim!
David Bowie: Five Years. Apparently Bowie wrote this song at the age of 25, viewing thirty as a death sentence. Five years to accomplish, five years left to rise before the inevitable fall. But, being Bowie, he also ties “Five Years” into the mythology of Ziggy Stardust, the alien advance guard who comes to earth ahead of his fellow spacemen and preaches love and gets seduced by rock and roll. Or something. Five years for earth to shape up before the aliens come back! As a concept album, it’s not great. But as an expression of a personal apocalypse, as an anti-death urge anthem, this song comes through. Bowie’s scattered images and maniac yell end the song with a bang.
Jason Molina: Alone with the Owl. A song that could be about being the last man on earth. And, of course, the last man on earth is going to have some regrets. If anyone should be doing the soundtrack to The Road, it should be Jason Molina. Always haunting, always soul-heavy. His voice is the lone voice of memory, and his heart is big enough and, apparently, lonely enough to store the whole world, even if the rest of us are gone.