The latest album from British folk collective, Tunng, is part of a much wider project exploring our uncomfortable relationship with death, dying and grief. As one of the band’s lead songwriters, Mike Lindsay says, ‘It’s not even just a record, it’s a discussion, it’s a podcast series, it’s poetry, it’s short stories, it’s an examination.’
It’s certainly an ambitious project, and you’d be forgiven for assuming that an in-depth multimedia exploration of death and grief would either be hopelessly morbid or blandly academic. But ‘Tunng presents…Dead Club’, the album that grew out of the Dead Club Podcast, which was orchestrated by members of the band, is neither of those things. It is at turns touching, funny, informative, and at times, deeply moving.
Perhaps what emerges most clearly over the course of the 12 richly textured compositions is the paradox presented by death – how it juxtaposes the banal and the profound – which is handled in the band’s song-writing with a combination of humour and unflinching honesty. In most Western societies at least, death is one of the last great taboos, a subject we feel intensely uncomfortable about broaching even with those closest to us. And when confronted with a friend or colleague who is bereaved, finding the rights words is so difficult many often resort to awkward silence.
Tunng’s lead songwriter, Sam Genders is perhaps expressing his aspiration to break this taboo when he sings ‘Death is the new sex, everybody’s talking about it’, on the ironically titled ‘Death is the New Sex’. Our refusal to face the inevitability and universality of death, which is coming for everyone, after all – or rather as Genders jovially reminds us, ‘It’s coming soon to fuck us all’ – seems even stranger in 2020. A year whose progress has not been marked by the usual milestones of birthdays, festivals and sporting events, but by the steadily increasing tally of people who’ve died from Covid-19. Each one, a new member of the Dead Club. But this is the way death is so often presented in the media, as a bare number that tells nothing of the human story.
The idea for this project took root after Sam Genders happened to read Max Porter’s novel, ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ and was so moved by the book he passed it round the rest of the band. This led to a podcast series featuring an impressive range of guests including Porter himself alongside the philosopher AC Grayling, Derren Brown, as well as experts in the field of death such as a Forensic Anthropologist and a Palliative Care Physician. Snippets from these conversations are interwoven throughout the album, tethering the quirkiness of the songs and fostering the sense that this project truly is a collaboration that goes beyond these 12 tracks.
Tunng are usually described as ‘folktronica’ – a much maligned label, maybe because it manages to irritate two distinct camps, electronic and folk, neither of whom enjoy the association. In Tunng’s case however, I think it’s a fair description, though they tend much more to electronic folk rather than folky electronica. The band have a history of incorporating unusual instruments into their sound and on Dead Club they employ synthesisers, programmed drum beats and all manner of chirping, twinkling electronics to add detail to their compositions. The integrated electronic elements also help temper the band’s more whimsical tendencies and prevent the folky melodies from coming across as twee.
The album opens with Eating the Dead – a reference to the custom of ‘funerary cannibalism’ practiced by the indigenous Wari people of Brazil. Despite the sombre piano chords and ghostly harmonies, the track is not as macabre as the title implies. The lyrics run through an inventory of a relationship, ranging from the prosaic to the profound: ‘the day we swam at Whitby’, ‘the days the kids were born’, ‘the films and fucks in bed’ – all served up alongside the nakedly physical, ‘your heart and eyes and mouth’. Thus reminding us of that other paradox of death, how it represents the transition that occurs when a person with an identity, a unique character, and a soul becomes simply a body – an object, ‘laid out on the kitchen table’. The same physical features are there but something ineffable and fundamental has gone.
This transformation from subject to object is addressed again later, on a track simply titled ‘Man’. Intricate acoustic guitar-picking accompanies word reads by Max Porter, half poem half short-story, describing the final moments of a man’s life as he lies on a hospital bed surrounded by family. In simile-laden prose, Porter describes the ‘sad old miracle’ of death, accompanied by the functional paraphernalia of ‘dressings, tubes, fentanyl patches’ and the bickering family members gathered round. The man sheds all the qualities he had in life, ‘officious, stubborn, witty, dedicated, kind’ until he becomes simply a body, which at the end lets out a fart – ‘the kind of fart you do when nobody’s there – because nobody was’. It’s these abrupt incursions of humour that bring us together in times of tragedy. And Tunng have done well to find so much humour in their subject matter, ensuring Dead Club is anything but a self-pitying misery-fest.
Sdc stands for Swedish Death Cleaning, and is a song celebrating the custom of decluttering one should undertake late in life in order to make things easier for your family after the inevitable has happened. The track begins with a jerky melody, which is then filled out by layered guitars and a music-box symphony of chiming and popping electronics topped by beautifully harmonised vocals. In a way symbolising the very process it describes, the song declutters itself as it builds. The xylophones and tinkling percussion condense down to a pumping 4/4 beat; the intertwined guitars meld into a soaring synth line which by the end is reduced to a fizzing pulse that wouldn’t sound out of place in an acid techno track. The whole thing feels like a joyous and uplifting celebration of life.
With its cast of guest voices and rich tapestry of cultural references, Dead Club packs an awful lot into an hour, but thanks to the band’s pop sensibilities, the pace never lags. Death is never going to be an easy subject to tackle and there’s no denying this is an emotional record – maybe overwrought at times. And I can imagine if one wasn’t in the right frame of mind, the folky melodies and cutesy electronics could feel a little cloying. But that aside, Tunng have achieved something highly impressive with Dead Club – a richly detailed and thought-provoking album. I don’t know if death is the new sex just yet, but hopefully it will get more people talking.
This review originally appears at Still Listening Magazine.