This Halloween season, I’ve made a point to surround myself with an assuredly unnerving assortment of music that should carry me through the month of November. For those of us who harbor an abnormal desire to build festivity through music, there’s nothing specifically indicated for our holiday amusement during the year’s 11th month.
Halloween sneaks up on us in all its commercial glory, suddenly, and — for those of us in our college years — at the peak of that uncomfortable intersection between overindulgence in sugar and alcohol.
We’re left with hangovers and a vague dissatisfaction as we realize it’s about to get very chilly outside, with nothing to comfort us but the distant glimmer of Thanksgiving and Christmas and the hope that exam season will merit some sort of reward.
But there’s something special about November. Though the dead and undead seem to arrogantly preside over All Hallows’ Eve, Nov. 2 is the Christian calendar’s All Souls Day, a day of remembrance of all those deceased.
In spite of its European roots, some believe the event is tied to worldwide practices of a variety of cultures and religions, relating to the concept that our ancestors have the capacity to influence the future of the living.
The Mexican holiday Día de Muertos, which takes place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, involves traditions which carry through the entire month of November in some places.
This month, in my opinion, embodies a sense of finality and macabre. From a meteorological standpoint, it is hardcore, requiring stamina and self-preservation of those who wish to continue their work and play on the wings of summer’s dying light. I do this through music, through reiteration of the messages of a handful of songs I only resurrected from the depths of my iTunes a mere week ago. Here are just a few.
The Cranberries – “Zombie”
The lead single off this Irish rock group’s 1994 album, “No Need to Argue,” is debatably the fiercest female-led alternative jam of all time.
It pays tribute to the two children killed in the 1993 bombings in Warrington, England. Carried out by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, they were intended to intimidate the occupying British troops by targeting sites of infrastructure- and commercial-related workplaces and thereby inciting general unrest.
Local police had received warnings of the attacks but intentionally failed to inform the public. The song’s message — that “it’s the same old thing since 1916” — can be applied to armed conflict everywhere even today. We have to wonder: Why are we still fighting?
Pixies – “I Bleed”
From the first somber bass notes plucked out on this number off the band’s 1989 “Doolittle” record, the spookiness of this track is undeniable. Framed around a simple yet eerie melody, two vocal lines overlap, echoing and unorthodox as one is sung and the other spoken.
As an independent listening experience, the message of this song is mysterious. Front man Black Francis had his infamously warped mind picked in an interview with British magazine New Musical Express the year of its release, suggesting something spiritual. Outside of the drive of its theoretical form, he explained that it was inspired by a famous cliff dwelling in Arizona. “It’s about 900 years old,” he said, “and you can still see the handprints from the people who pressed the plaster onto the walls.” Spooky, indeed.
The Beatles – “She’s Leaving Home”
There’s something incredibly moving about looking in on the tragedy of a stranger’s life. That was the inspiration for this tune off the Beatles’ 1967 “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Paul McCartney and John Lennon read a story in the newspaper about a 17-year-old girl who had run away from home, and had been struck by the account of her parents who had been completely confused, claiming they had given her everything she could have ever wanted.
The song’s use of just a small string orchestra and real-life dialogue gives it an almost filmic quality. I find it gorgeous, and it makes me cry almost everytime I hear it — and I don’t really know why.
St. Vincent – “Surgeon”
Outside of the immediate danceable material of this 2011 release, it offers an emotional history lesson. The line, “Best finest surgeon/ Come cut me open” is taken from the diary of Marilyn Monroe in an entry that recounts a nightmare she had had.
In it, she is being operated on by a couple of psychiatric doctors in order to find whatever deep-set ailment that afflicts her. But they find nothing resembling a living thing’s insides — only sawdust.
The details Monroe provided on the doctors’ subsequent feelings in her dream reveal her fears of appearing inadequate to those who adored her and are undoubtedly linked to her depression and eventual suicide. Annie Clark’s song immortalizes this darker side of America’s sexy pop icon, and is one of many on the album that are viewed as significantly more personal and more telling of Clark’s own experiences with depression than any of her past work.