Tunng - Presents ... DEAD CLUB
Dead Club is more than just an album. “It’s a discussion, it’s a podcast series … it’s an examination,” says Mike Lindsay of electronic folk band Tunng’s ambitious project to unpack the topic of death.
Their vocalist Sam Genders became fascinated with the subject after reading Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a poem by Max Porter in which a mother dies and her husband and sons are forced to confront the unspeakable.
The author’s rage against cliché, the tectonic shifts in emotion and uncensored way he challenges how we grieve gave Genders the inspiration to take these feelings and put them into music. From here the band set out to explore ways to talk about what to many of us is an impossible subject.
We caught glimpses of Tunng’s journey towards the album in a series of weekly podcasts leading up to its release: interviews with artists, philosophers and forensic anthropologists, in which the band talk to experts on death and navigate feelings they themselves can’t quite put their finger on.
The conversations are humanised and distilled into Dead Club, an album that leads us into a strange environment and gives us the space to decide what it all means - a place where visits to death cafes are spun into spectral folktales; bodies, objects and memories are devoured (‘Eating the Dead’); and the Swedish Death Cleaners come to brush away the things that are left behind (‘SDC’).
Straight out of the gates, ‘Eating the Dead’ asks us to get up close as it launches into the opening line “Lay me on the kitchen table / cut me open tenderly”. It's the first in a series of images inspired by the Wari tribe in Brazil who eat their dead, an example of the diverse inspiration that went into the project.
Its surreal atmosphere is reminiscent of Thomas Newman’s score for Six Feet Under - the HBO series that similarly dealt with repression, taboos and the death care industry. Like that soundtrack, piano melodies are both heavy and miraculously light. Wind and electronic instruments blow around like the ghosts of a fractured memory, entwined with static and ethereal vocals. The combination of sounds just resonates with the uncertain feeling we have about something that is impossible to experience directly.
The words are a mission statement for the album, just as the dreamlike, spinning-plates production sets the tone for the music to come. Dissection sounds cold and hostile, but Dead Club is the opposite – it wants us to be part of the conversation and openly invites us in.
From here, tracks like ‘Death is the New Sex’ mix fantasy, (“laser light zapping through her fingers”) with deadpan humour (“Death is the new sex / coming soon to fuck us all”), flicking between escapism and visceral realisation.
The buoyant rhythm of tracks like ‘A Million Colours’ and 'The Last Day' take off on a weightless flight, as the lyrics nestle themselves among the sound of crackling bones and breathing. A revolving set of instruments adds wisps of sax between sudden bursts of tension, keeping the music as constantly inventive as its stories.
It’s no surprise the album sounds so rich and diverse - Tunng have lavished their tracks for years with the scrapes and squelches of the most unusual objects. What is a surprise is just how much these melodies can get under your skin.
Dead Club sees the band move further away from the dislocated rhythms that made their earliest "folktronica" albums sound comparatively cold. Still, the tendrils of their past endeavors reach up to take some of their most accessible tunes ever (‘Scared to Death’ and ‘Fatally Human’) into a surreal climate. It gives the album the perfect balance between instant accessibility and depth, one which a universal topic like death desperately cries out for.
Flipside stories ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ bring the project full circle, as Max Porter delivers the album’s last lines in spoken word. We hear different perspectives on a life and what this person's gestures may mean when she holds up her hand. Is she asking for help or telling us to stop?
We arrive at the conclusion - “she made a hand sign asking us ‘let me rest’… and she made it, and made it, and alas we will not”. We believe everything Porter says, as his control over the rhythm of language is second to none.
Stories like these work because we don’t know the details. Tunng utilise their palette of natural and synthetic instruments to create a mood and let us linger there, leave us to decide what to make of it all. It’s an openness not just towards the topic of death, but to storytelling itself. A free approach to creating music that's so successful it’s a shame to dissect the tracks and reduce them to anything less.
Dead Club may bring you comfort during difficult times. It may help you think about grieving in ways beyond the unspoken pain of a funeral or the cliché of a departed soul. It separates the skeleton from the skin, the flashbacks and the futures, and makes a plea for our voices to be heard while they still can. It acknowledges death as a part of life, celebrates that life, and invites us to confront death and grief on our own terms.
Both conceptually and musically, it's a resounding success and deserves a spin along with its accompanying podcast.