Good Grief
Music as Therapy and Remembrance

Am I ready to talk about music again?

I’m not sure. The past two weeks have felt like an extended wake, like swimming through grief. I know that sounds melodramatic, but two weeks ago, I thought I knew what the country I live in and love was. We were basically good, caring people who would see the racism and xenophobia proffered by one of our candidates and we would certainly, certainly not choose to side with it. We were conscious of our place in the world, and conscious of the harm such a vote could do it. We were mostly kind to people, looking out for one another, and sure, there were plenty of people stuck in a time of old prejudices and hatreds, but that wasn’t most of us. Most of us would stand up against that.

And now I just don’t know. We’re clearly not who I thought we were, and it hurts to find that out. With every white supremacist and anti-gay activist added to the cabinet, with every policy-level discussion of a national registry of Muslims, with every step closer to unthinkable horror, I’m just not sure what America is anymore. I’m sure some of you think this is hyperbole, and those of us asking these questions should just calm down. But this is real grief, and it feels like something important has been lost. I’m actually terrified of where we will go in the next four years.

So am I ready to talk about music again? I’ve had difficulty concentrating on anything but my sadness and anger lately, as those who know me can attest. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two weeks angry, and trying to push on through. Music always helps with that – if I can have an outlet, a way to let some of those emotions out without inflicting them on anyone else, it’s like therapy. I’ve been listening to Marillion’s FEAR a lot lately. It sounds prescient to me now, like it predicted this storm. We’re living for the new kings, indeed.

And there’s a new Metallica album out. I’ve been a metalhead since I was 14 years old – my first real obsession in that realm was …And Justice for All, which I still have memorized. The Big Four (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer) occupied a huge chunk of my developing brain, and I’ve kept track of all of them. Perhaps coincidentally, all four of them are now riding late-career-defining albums, thrashing like it’s 1988 again. Metallica is the last of the four to step forward with something new, and the one I worried about the most. Sometime in the ‘90s they lost their own plot, paving the way for Nickelback with slower singalongs and doing whatever the hell that was with Lou Reed. (The less said about Lulu the better, honestly.)

It would take a lot to come back from all that, and Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, the band’s 10th album, gives it everything it can. It’s 77 minutes long, split up over two discs (for some reason), and it features some of their loudest and fastest material since the ‘80s. The first disc is tightest – listening to “Hardwired” and “Atlas Rise” back to back helps me scream some of that shaking rage out. “Moth Into Flame” does it for me too, Lars Ulrich and Robert Trujillo locking into a killer groove. The second disc is a little harder to get through – the more progressive tendencies come out here, with long songs that stick to a slower tempo. Songs like “Here Comes Revenge” and “Murder One” blend into one another, and take too long to say too little.

But like all classic Metallica albums, this one ends with its heaviest piece. “Spit Out the Bone” is pure snarling fire, its lyrics imagining a mechanical dystopia in which humans are chewed up and discarded. This is exactly what I needed right now – the metal heroes from my past giving me something scary and relevant to shout along with. Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is not exactly a healing balm, but it’s Metallica’s most convincing slab of anger in years, and right now, I’ll take it.

* * * * *

Honestly, though, if people would stop dying, that would help me with the being less sad thing.

It’s only been a couple weeks since Leonard Cohen left us, and that wound is still raw. His You Want It Darker is destined for my top 10 list this year, and is a completely new experience now that he’s left us. Since Cohen’s exit, we’ve also lost Leon Russell and Gwen Ifill. My parents had Russell’s Carny on LP when I was growing up, and it was one of the first albums I heard. The cover still makes me think of my mom’s basement, where the turntable lived. He was one of a kind. And Gwen Ifill, well. My previous chosen career has lost one of its brightest lights.

And just a couple days ago, Sharon Jones died. I owe my Dap-Kings fandom to Jeff Elbel, who introduced me to Jones and her authentic old-school soul. I knew Jones had been struggling with cancer for a while, but she seemed on the rebound. Her loss, at a mere 60 years old, is a massive one for fans of real, down and dirty soul music. She kept that flame alive like few others. Last year Jones and the Dap-Kings put out what will likely be their final album, a Christmas platter called It’s a Holiday Soul Party. In her honor, I broke my rule about not listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving, and spun it three times. It remains wonderful. I’m going to miss Sharon Jones like crazy.

Add these names to a list that includes David Bowie and Prince and Alan Rickman and Merle Haggard and Keith Emerson and Lemmy and Gene Wilder and George Martin and so many others. And of course, that list includes Phife Dawg of the immortal A Tribe Called Quest. Tribe’s influence on the evolution of hip-hop in the ‘90s can’t be overstated, and like a lot of people, I figured their legacy was set in stone with Phife’s passing. Little did we all know that, like Bowie and Cohen, Phife spent his last days working on what he knew would be the last album of his life.

And now it’s here – Tribe’s sixth and final effort, blessed with the year’s best title: We Got It from Here, Thank You 4 Your Service. I’m not sure what kind of posthumous hodge-podge I was expecting, but this is a full-blooded Tribe album, one that sounds quite different from anything they’ve done, but still stands with their best work. Phife and Q-Tip sound like they’ve spent no time apart since 1998, falling into their easy and impressive lyrical camaraderie. Eschewing the more modern method of file-swapping across long distances, We Got It from Here was recorded all at Q-Tip’s house, and you can feel the energy – the emcees dart around each other, finishing each other’s thoughts, rolling and tumbling together. Everyone involved knew this would be the last dance, and they made the most of it.

Even the guest stars, like unofficial Tribe member Busta Rhymes, are on fire here. The list includes Anderson Paak, Andre 3000, Jack White, Talib Kweli and Kendrick Lamar, and they all seem honored to participate. This is a typically socially conscious Tribe album, addressing the state of the world with trademark ferocity. It’s interesting to hear a song like “We the People,” which must have been written before Trump’s election, but feels so much scarier now. “All you black folks, you must go,” Q-Tip sings, taking on the persona of a racist dictator. “All you Mexicans, you must go, and all you poor folks, you must go, Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways…” Phife laments “the fog and the smog of news media that logs false narratives of gods that came up against the odds…”

Phife’s impending absence is mentioned more than once, too, giving this album a hollow, ghostly feel. “Lost Somebody” is Q-Tip’s goodbye letter to his friend (“No more crying, he’s in sunshine”) and is a tough listen for those who grew up with this team. (Can I mention how absolutely amazing Q-Tip is here? He makes the case for himself as one of the best and most interesting rappers alive, spitting fire when he has to and spreading tenderness when he can.) The album ends with a song called “The Donald” that has nothing to do with Trump – it’s a reference to Don Juice, one of Phife’s many names, and the song is a final tribute to him. “We gon’ celebrate him, elevate him, give him his and don’t debate him, top dog is the way to rate him,” Q-Tip raps. The final words on the album are, fittingly, Phife Dawg’s name.

Does this help with the grief, to look it right in the face? I think so. I connected with the likes of Cohen more than with Phife, but listening to both of these final statements has been illuminating. Both men knew they were pushing out the boat for the last time, and swam through pain to complete one last bit of beauty. That’s the best we can hope for – to add as much beauty as we can to the world, and to stare down death while doing it. Grief is good, grief is healthy, but after a while, grief fades to a dull ache, and life moves on. Those who came before us can inspire us, but we’re the ones who have to do the work, and we have a lot to do.

Next week, Christmas music.

See you in line Tuesday morning.