Not too long ago, I wrote a handful of obituaries for the New York Times, mostly of scientists.
I liked obits because, rather than the usual journalistic pursuit of conflict and novelty, they required mostly curiosity about a human life, and usually some warmth. Reporting them after the fact could be a strange exercise, since the living often had imprecise memories and the only real authority was … unreachable. Calling up scientists to comment on their own advance obituaries—whether they they refused to collaborate or talked for hours—was even stranger.
At the time I was also trying to write pop songs for my third record. I found that many got stuck in the early stages, owing to a critical sense that seemed to be blocking the music. I had been piecing together a workflow that allowed me to get out of my own way, spitting out wordless melodies in bulk, without inhibition, and later piece them together with words into real songs.
This roundabout method seemed to be working, but there was a problem: I had no idea how to write lyrics that were about something. Drawing from my life felt vulnerable, potentially boring. What I wanted was to lure characters into my songs, real people with all their flaws and prejudices. I wanted to write songs that sketched out stories, or at least fooled you into believing they had.
By chance I discovered that the obits had what I needed. Each morning, after pouring out the music, I would power up my phone and see whose spirits were in the air. When I sat down to write the words, I would try to channel the minds we had lost, seeking their energy and charm from every angle, and the history and landscape around them.
This album is certainly about death: there are songs about a euthanasia-boosting doctor, a reluctant nuclear scientist, a genocide survivor, a public servant who turned to public suicide. It also shows many varieties of buoyant life: a boy dreaming of flying a model airplanes across the ocean, a love-struck cowboy, a late-career ping-pong comeback.
But, to my surprise, the strongest character on this album has turned out to be the 20th century. From 1940s wartime hobbies, through the gender wars of the 1970s and tabloid kidnap and murder of the 80s—you could say the album is a sort of technicolor obituary for an American era, one that is slowly fading.
“The Afterneath” is a name that came to me, with a strange sense of rightness, when my grandfather was dying. I hope these songs encourage you to take a long view of this strange pattern we call human life, to see how quickly we sweep from birth to death, and how much wonder and bullshit can fit in between.
You can hear the songs, and watch some videos, at afterneath.org.