Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
“Funeral Blues” - W. H. Auden
In Memoriam has a long and heavy history. I can remember when it began. I remember back in 2011 when I first heard of Amy Smith’s heart-wrenching death. I remember that when I was a senior in high school I spent much of my year with her son, the freshman with the red beanie. I remember the pathetic, (un)condolent text-message I sent him—yet, this is not ultimately a story about myself.
In Memoriam, being a concept album, is to be taken holistically, as a narrative of sorts. It can be understood as a take on the classic Orpheus myth, a descent into Hades in order to retrieve something lost by the sojourner. For both Smith and Orpheus the loss was nothing less than a loved one, the greatest of all losses. Such tragedies threaten the very fabric of reality; they are moments when the foundations of our being start to shake wildly, when the darkness threatens to consume us. In these moments reality—the warmth of the sun and comfort in a loved one’s arms—seems as little more than a brief and collapsing cavitation in a thalassic void. We struggle to make sense one way or another of the world. It is existential crisis.
The first song establishes a powerful image for the listener—stagnant water. We can imagine the unending stream of tears that are shed with the loss of a loved one as forming a great body of water. However, rather than a life-giving and idyllic oasis, these waters have stopped moving. Nothing enters and nothing exits. They are a void—an endless, black hole that, instead of reflecting the beauty of heavenly bodies on a starry night, consumes their light.
The album is about the descent into the depths of these waters to discover how to give the sun and moon, the stars, back their light. The water metaphor is taken up again at the end of the album, where the sojourner has returned from these depths. Having risen from the ashes, he claims that the streams will now flow. At the depths of the valley of tears he found the answer he needs to continue living, he has found how to give back to the sun and moon their worth. And so the waters of the valley begin to flow again. Instead of a consuming death they have become life-giving.
For about three years Scott and I lived together, one of which was spent high in the Sierra Nevada working for a camp and living on the top floor of a converted barn. Those years were spent wandering in the forest among the giant sequoias, scampering across frozen lakes in the winter, engaging in the general insanity of 20-something-year-olds (the amount of late-night, 30-minute-one-way trips to the nearest Taco Bell remains unparalleled), and spending time with lots of weirdos (we’ve yet to discern exactly what was so funny about Tri-County Airport).
In the meantime Scott had rigged out an old cabin as a makeshift studio to work on demos. It was during this time that a number of the songs on In Memoriam were coming together. In the innumerable moments we spent together we never talked about his mother much or about what he was going through. Therefore, as I listen to the songs on this album, they bring a new depth and range of color to those days with him in the mountains. Now I have a fuller picture of what he was going through. And I think I know also the silence of which he speaks: among those trees there is noiselessness so deep that it has its own presence. I can only imagine that their silent speech taught him how to heal.
While the first and last songs of the album provide its foundation and framing, the central two songs form its climax. Here we have come to the depths of those stagnant waters. “Little Things” takes the listener to this full point of descension. At the bottom of the valley of tears lives the ever-presence of that fateful day, and as an impenetrable prison-cell that moment in time remains locked up in the depths. Here the clocks have stopped turning. Smith paints for us a melancholy and heartbreaking portrait of that cell. The sheets remain ever-wrinkled; the cement ever-stained. Here the father’s face can never shake free of its pain-filled contortion and the son’s tears never stop flowing. The nothingness that fills this prison cell at the depth of the waters begins to seep through the warp and weft of the little things in life.
Next, in “Smoke II,” everything begins to fall apart. Those little things in life, the threads of fabric that make up daily reality, have become meaningless in the face of tragedy. Now the sojourner is left out in a darkness with no cold—that is, not merely the alienation of nightfall, but utter nothingness. And now, when all of reality has become so sheer that all there is left around him is the void of nothingness, all that the sojourner can cry is “What has all this happened for?” It is a desperate attempt to find meaning, to force the clocks to begin turning again, to give back the stars to the sky.
This cry is met with only one cryptic answer: “What does the sun rise on?” Here the song turns to a cathartic major key signaling the section as a prolepsis of the album’s final triumph, a beam of light tearing forth from the darkness. Here we find the question that is also the answer. It is the mystic response that the sojourner has found at the depth of his tears. We cannot give back to the sun its worth. We can only realize its presence, its reality, and acknowledge that it rises on us also. Then we find our place back under its warm rays.
In the end In Memoriam is many different things to different people. For Scott, I am sure that creating these songs played a critical role in his healing. They have helped him to realize just what it is upon which the sun rises. And I am sure that they have helped his family find their own way through Hades. For his close friends, they are a powerful and moving insight into one they love. And for anyone who is willing to sit with him a while it is a powerful lesson about death, tragedy, and the fullness and beauty of life. May we all learn to live with arms open wide.
Tyler Forrest Nunley
23 Sept 2018