If we were masters of our own fates, we might all have great exit lines. We’d plan them years in advance, store them up and exhale them with our final breaths. Yet in reality, most final words are more maudlin than literary: the names of loved ones, a whispered “I love you.” Not everyone gets Jack Soo’s “It must have been the coffee” (a reference to a running joke on Barney Miller, delivered to co-star Hal Linden) or Goethe’s enigmatic “More light!” Some are open-ended sentences: Henrik Ibsen’s “On the contrary …” Occasionally even a villain gets theirs: John Wilkes Booth’s “Useless, useless.” All of these closing statements and more are inspiration for Kaada‘s album of the same name, an album that despite all expectations sounds anything but sad; in fact, the composer calls it “fun.” And fun it is, because it sends to Google, where we search for Famous Last Words, and to thoughts of pre-planning our own meaningful or humorous farewells.
Norwegian pianist John Erik Kaada has been recording solo and collaborative music since the turn of the century, most recently turning his attention to film scores. The cinematic connection bleeds into the new album, whose songs feel like mini-stories in the service of a larger narrative. The songs are enhanced by strings and occasional electronics, but remain intimate throughout, like a small family at a bedside. “It Must Have Been the Coffee” sounds like a warm, peaceful goodbye, with bands of angels singing the soul home. This opening track sets the stage for the entire collection: in this realm, death is not to be feared, but accepted with dignity and grace. The subject matter shouts, “This is it!” The musical notes reply, “it’s going to be okay.”
Yes, there are some sad moments. In “Farewell,” the piano and strings seek to drench the listener in loss, but the bass synth and clip-clop of wood block horses deny surrender to that single tone. Death offers a myriad of responses, and Kaada does as well, creating alternate frameworks through which we might remember our loved ones ~ or even face death ourselves. Are we moving toward an afterlife of love and light? Have we lived long enough and loved well enough? When death approaches, if we have the time, what words might we want to leave ~ not just final words, but final letters, and to whom?
A sprinkling of holy sounds ~ bells in the third track, chimes in the fourth ~ imply a benign spiritual force, a benevolent hand. The struggle between life and death is clear, as is that between fighting and letting go, pressed into the Old West sounds of “Unknown Destination.” To quote the movie “Jacob’s Ladder,” If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth. How wonderful it would be to go out like Steve Jobs: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” Kaada captures a bit of this awe whenever he injects a small choir or a synthesized surge.
Lucky playwright Ibsen gets drums. Not everyone gets drums. But then again, not everyone gets a good death, or is remembered well. Does this mean that death is something to fear? Not necessarily. Some people arrive at peaceful ends, receive beautiful eulogies, cast not a lengthy shadow but an enduring beam of light. In Closing Statements, Kaada brightens the darkest of subjects, not from irreverence but its opposite: a deep-seated respect for life that leads, as the composer writes, to the importance of listening: not only to the parched final words, but to all the words that come before. (Richard Allen)