By Phil Scarisbrick
Death is perhaps the most abstract concept that the human mind can conceive. As our lives rattle on relentlessly towards its inevitable arrival, we rarely give it a second thought. Our brains cannot comprehend the magnitude of such finality, so much so that we ignore it until we can no more. Religious dogma rationalises it as merely a step in an eternal journey between the physical and spiritual, deeming the former as a phase before you’re judged by an omnipotent deity. Death of the body is not death at all, simply a transition into a new unknown. The comfort that this gives those edging closer towards it, and those who ultimately will be left behind can be heard in the songs and elegies that soundtrack these existences.
Everybody’s life has changed this year. We have been unable to see loved ones, some of us have been unable to work, and for a lot of families there has been the pain of suddenly losing someone close to us. The added anguish of people dying alone, or without the company of loved ones has made the situation exponentially worse. Death’s steely gaze has been transfixed on humankind to such a degree it has been impossible to avoid.
There comes a point where we as humans come into our own though. Unlike animals, we have the capacity to analyse data, accept nuance and create conclusions that may be at odds with our instincts. We adapt to the new world we find ourselves in and also find new beauty.
There is perhaps no more beautiful country on the planet than Iceland. Marketa Irglova, the Oscar-winning singer/songwriter, has lived there for several years, and its beauty has seeped its way into her always elegant songwriting. Earlier this year, she collaborated with Emiliana Torrini and Aukai for the wonderful Quintessence, and now returns with another collaboration. The Icelandic Siggi String Quartet, and Aida Shahghasemi come together with Irglova for the Among The Living EP. Much like The Microphones in 2020, it is a format that is unusually a collection of songs presented as one single piece of music. Also like that album too, it deals with the complexities of life and death, although is presented in a very different way. Where Phil Elverum uses an autobiographical approach to his writing, Irglova allows an array of stunning imagery and conversational language to deliver her message.
This more than thirteen minute elegy is a life-affirming experience to listen to. Its lyrics contain all the vulnerabilities that those left behind feel in the aftermath of loss. The sense of helplessness that we all feel is expressed in heartbreakingly frank delivery, with lines such as ‘When I see nothing but fog now all around me/Pillars of smoke rise where our dreams burned to the ground/There is no light to be found.’ There is also vivid religious imagery with references to ‘Mother Mary’ and the ‘mercy of God’ amongst them, to provide the theological comfort blanket that provides so many with solace.
It isn’t all mournful reflectivity though. There is a cast iron resilience that offers hope amongst the darkness. ‘Though I grieve now, though I cry, this is not our last goodbye/ We will meet again, I am sure/ Another time, another life, brother, sister, mother, wife/ For love does even death endure.’ This simple message is really what is at the heart of this piece of work. It is about healing. It is about enduring even when you feel like you cannot. Most of all, it is about love.
People talk relentlessly about ‘getting back to normal’, but what is normal? I think that our up close and personal experience with mortality has forced most of us to face up to the one thing we constantly ignore, thus freeing ourselves of its weight and unleashing an even bigger thirst for life. The bonds of love are strengthened by absence. The bonds of friendship are strengthened by the support we give each other through dialogue and shared passions. The joy of life is amplified by the reality of its inevitable demise. Hard times will come again, but in what form we can only predict. We should never let go of the lessons that we have learned during this period though. Cherish your loved ones, cherish your friends, but most of all cherish life. You never know when it will end, so enjoy as much of it as you can. That is what is at the heart of this EP, and the world has never needed to hear that message more than now.
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