After the end of every year, I find myself thinking about other endings that occur throughout the course of a life. As I often do, I generally begin more regularly listening to music concerning the experience of such endings. Whether such songs focus on the end of a given time period, relationship, life, or other circumstance, I find comfort in the reflection and consideration of the instability of all that is, the expression of what was and could be, and the multitude of ways emotions, selves, experiences, ideas, and symbols all come together and fall apart in the course of any given ending.
Thinking about these things the last couple days, I began thinking about the two songs I listen to the most in these times. For me, each one both exceptionally captures the nuance of endings and effectively demonstrates the lasting impressions left by the moments where our ultimate instability becomes visible. I am often surprised to learn from others that songs of this type are interpreted as sad or otherwise melancholy because for me they are hopeful, beautiful articulations of the whole point of bothering to exist, and the tremendous effects that lasting and shifting circumstance may have upon a given person or set of people.
The song I typically turn to first in this regard just celebrated its 10 year birthday in various publications, and concerns what it feels like to be left behind after someone important passes away. Initially released on an album titled 29 by Ryan Adams, the song is called “Elizabeth, you were born to play that part.” I have loved this song since the first time I heard it a decade ago this month, and the part that always speaks to me is it represents an attempt to say goodbye, to make sense of an ending, to make peace with something difficult even when it feels like none of these endeavors are actually possible. I especially like the final refrain – “and I’m not strong enough to let you go, and I have tried everything but that” – because it flips a common social script wherein we often define strength in relation to acquiring or keeping things even though it often takes just as much or more strength to let go of things, people, or other entities we desire.
The second song I generally turn to when thinking about endings is a song by Death Cab for Cutie called “What Sarah Said.” This songs takes listeners on a trip through a hospital or other medical setting as the narrator struggles with the experience of caring for and supporting someone dying or otherwise in serious health distress. While I have heard others focus on the details of the narrative or the sadness of losing someone, for me this song is about what it means to actually love someone. The narrator expresses a sentiment I believe in deeply myself – “love is watching someone die.” While we often focus on the tremendous beauty and joy of connecting with someone, this song points out the other side of the coin – these connections are like all others temporary and require opening one’s self up to tremendous pain and loss. I always think of this line because love is easy in the best and even moderate moments of a life, but for me it is the most difficult moments that truly to give meaning to the notion of loving another person.
I could talk about a bunch of such songs, and the ways they help me think about and reflect on endings that occur in the course of a life. Rather, I simply wish to turn the question to others. After the end of a year, at the end of other life events or experiences, what do you think about, what do you listen to, and what role (if any) does music play in the interpretation of such times? Related, what songs speak to you about endings (and beginnings), and what do you gain from or see within these songs? At least in my case, these questions spur quite a bit of useful self reflection about and appreciation for the ongoing moments that make up a life.