Tim Heidecker’s Fear of Death: a narrative on our current and future destruction

If you’ve heard of Tim Heidecker, you most likely know him for his slew of comedy shows, such as Tim and Eric: Awesome show, Great Job, Tom Goes to the Mayor, or the more recent Moonbase 8. But he is also a very accomplished, though far lesser-known, musician.

Fear of Death is his third studio release of a non-comedy album, and I have barely stopped listening to it since it came out in September. As a bonus, the album was done in collaboration with Weyes Blood, who I’ve come to believe, after listing to her album Titanic Rising, is actually a reincarnation of Karen Carpenter.

Folk rock and country are not usually my taste in music, but this album has grabbed me so hard not only because Heidecker really knows how to write an earworm, but also because the lyrics are such a perfect mirror of the times we are living through.

As I’ve been listening to it repeatedly, I’m starting to see a narrative that links all the songs together. It’s possible that, being a writer, I’ve just made all these connections myself, but I’d like to think there is intention in the ordering of these songs.

Come away with me.

The first real song on the album (second track, after the prelude) is an upbeat, seemingly optimistic tune about moving out of a stinking city into the country, where there are “green hills and golden fields, and lakes that are made for swimming.” The lyrics capture the hope that many of us feel for a better, cleaner, more affordable life. “We could live like kings, if we move out of the city” and we could “make our own honey from a family of bees.”

The song builds to a crescendo of almost religious fervor, repeating the line “the green hills and the golden fields, and lakes that are made for swimming” with increased intensity and what sounds like a choir of backing vocals. The overall impression is one of a desperate hope that the grass will be greener somewhere else.

Backwards

The third track on the album, this one is more low-key and country. It opens with a description of children playing and laughing in the water, with no idea that “we’re moving backwards.” In the next verse we find out what is meant by this, with lines such as “grass is getting browner, trees are falling in the heat” and “don’t it make you cry, don’t it make you wanna lay down and die.”

This song for me perfectly captures the hopelessness of watching the natural world die around me. In the previous song, the lyrics described someone trying to escape the heat and stink of the city, and now, we find that even in the country the trees and grass are dying. The next verse follows with the lines “the sun is setting on the good times, oh no,” and “funny, when I was younger we loved the future, but the future knew we were moving backwards.” These lines really struck me because I have such strong memories of imagining the amazing future when I was a kid, and even into my late 20’s. All the advances in technology and discovery had convinced me that only improvements and incredible things lay ahead, and I had always been excited for what came next. But that feeling died sometime in the past ten years or so. The future now seems to be nothing but death and wearing down, and it’s hard to think about it with any kind of hope.

The song ends with a description of moving to a cabin in Canada and skipping rocks at a lake, and the repetition of the line “Oh Canada, our bald eagles are moving up there for good” followed by the closing line “the rest of us suckers would be moving up there if we could.” This is an echo of the previous song, with the singer moving on to somewhere else, where things may be greener and happier.

Fear of Death

The title track of the album is a happy, upbeat song about having nothing to live for. With lines like “I’ve learned all I am gunna learn” and “I don’t see the value in having fun” and the earwormy chorus “I think I’m done growing, fear of death is keeping me alive” the song seems to follow directly from the previous two, describing someone who has given up on a world that is crumbling around them, and has lost all value in their life, and only continues to live because they fear the end. This use of bright, happy music combined with depressing or morbid lyrics is a signature style of Heidecker, as seen on his previous album ‘What the Brokenhearted do,’ and it works perfectly for this song.

But behind the cheery sounds is a truth that hides in many people: they don’t have an answer to the question What is the reason for living? Is it simply to stay alive? It’s something many of us shrink away from thinking about. I’m reminded of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, contemplating on how even if he were confined to a single square-foot on the peak of a mountain, where any motion would cause him to fall to his death, he would still feel impelled to try to stay alive, up there in the icy wind, unable to move, with nothing to do but struggle, to use all his energy to simply keep living.

Nothing

The sixth track on the album is a Heidecker and Weyes Blood duet, featuring a solo piano and a haunting melody. It opens with the memorable and devastating chorus:

“Nothing, that’s what it amounts to, they say. A black void waiting down the road for us one day. We’re all gunna die alone, there ain’t nobody gunna carry us home, and there ain’t no place where the angels roam.”

This feels to me, again, to be the next step in a progression from optimism to dread, to finally simply waiting for the black void at the end. This singer has gotten over his fear of death.

The lyrics swap between the chorus, posted above, and snippets of the singer’s life, such as meeting hollywood friends for drinks, or going to a big premier, but they are presented as mundane, pointless, and hard to focus on. And for the average listener who is not a movie star, these lines are even more disconnected and difficult to identify with, giving the feeling of ‘who cares’? Which, in the world of this song, is all that’s left to feel about life.

“Ain’t it overwhelming breathing in? Ain’t it overwhelming breathing out again?”

This song might be my favorite on the album, and perfectly captures the disillusionment of accepting mortality–both our mortality, and nature’s.

Property

The most rocking song on the album, in my opinion, asks the question: “Are there gunna be cemeteries a hundred years from now?”

The character-the idea of a personality that I’ve got in my head up till now-in this song, is someone who has lost all hope, and has accepted death, and is now contemplating that not only is his body temporary and mortal, but even his gravesite won’t last, because “we won’t resist the urge to turn it into property.”

The chorus of Property calls back to the chorus of the very first track we mentioned, Come Away With Me. In Come Away With Me the singer extols the green hills and golden fields that he could enjoy if only he could get out of the city. In Property, there is no hope for those fields to last, because “property is all we’ll see in those fields of green.”

The lyrics go on to describe the construction of a highrise over the gravesite, singing that “the dead won’t care, they’ll just be lying there” and also noting that “we did it to the Native Americans.”

This seems to be the final letting go of all hope of meaning, the acceptance, if bitterly, that not only will life end, but your legacy will be erased, and probably sooner than you think.

Oh How We Drift Away

The final song on the album, and the only one in which Heidecker doesn’t sing, is written and sung by Weyes Blood. The song is about how we become disconnected from our friends over time, until we don’t know each other anymore. “You can take me out of your phone, if you come knocking I won’t be home”

The first two verses are down to earth scenarios about trying to catch up with an old friend, but the third and final verse pulls back to a cosmic view and shrinks the previous scenarios into meaninglessness:

Twenty thousand years ago — can you even imagine
In the Chauvet caves women painting on the wall
Pictures of their memories, pictures of their stories
Pictures of their love affairs, pictures of their worries
I wonder if they ever dreamt of us at all

Oh, we stand on their bones and walk on their souls
And the children who lived grew into women and men
And painted over their mothers’ work again and again
Again and again

In this final image of the song and of the album, human history is seen to be a fleeting dream, a fragile handprint on a cave wall that will be covered up, if not by other paintings, then by dust, or moss, or graffiti of the proceeding centuries. Everything will be forgotten.

This is another kind of death, the final death. The final end of a person is not when their breath has stopped, but when all memory of them is gone.

And farther out from that, the true death to fear is not the death of any individual, but the death of humanity. A death that seems, sometimes, to be rushing toward us with increasing speed.

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