Tim Heidecker and Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering have chosen an alarmingly on-the-nose year to release a mostly sunlit album about death. Although the duo and a host of collaborators recorded Fear of Death in 2019, the absurdity of the album’s release amid a global pandemic, overdue uprisings against police brutality, raging West Coast wildfires and the 2020 election cycle only amplifies these songs’ often upbeat morbidity.
Heidecker and Mering certainly aren’t strangers to the absurd and its accompanying hilarity. Over Heidecker’s 20-or-so-year career, he’s developed a distinctly surreal, ironic brand of hipster humor through the cult Adult Swim shows Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Decker. Even before Mering jumped to the forefront of the chamber-rock pack with last year’s apocalypse-themed instant classic Titanic Rising, she was singing about how bizarre the world’s end will look.
Both also share a passion for ’70s soft rock, as do some of their Fear of Death collaborators. After the duo sang an impromptu duet on Heidecker’s Office Hours Live podcast, Weyes Blood keyboardist Drew Erickson had the idea to book the two a studio space to flesh out a full album—and just four days later, they started recording. Erickson also recruited a 14-piece string orchestra, bizarro-rock duo The Lemon Twigs, Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa and Titanic Rising co-producer Jonathan Rado of Foxygen to join the core duo. This ensemble cast conjures a varyingly bombastic and vulnerable sound throughout Fear of Death, and sometimes Heidecker’s moribund lyrics contrast the music so strikingly that it’s hard not to laugh.
If 2017’s well-intentioned but misguided Too Dumb for Suicide: Tim Heidecker’s Trump Songs was a comedy album and 2019’s What the Broken-Hearted Do… partially distinguished Heidecker’s comic talents from his musical ones, Fear of Death suggests that he’ll never fully untangle the two. “Put your headphones on if you dare / You’re about to feel,” he and Mering sing jocularly on the album’s soft-rock opener “Prelude to Feeling,” and they’re both entirely serious and completely joking. On the piano-rock ballad “Nothing,” they sing, “Nothing, that’s what it amounts to they say / A black void waiting down the road for us one day / We’re all gonna die alone.” While this sentiment bears the album’s full thematic gravity, there’s something undeniably comical about how much heart the two put into this almost hokey bout of existentialism against the song’s simultaneously somber and jovial music.
Heidecker, who wrote all of Fear of Death’s lyrics (though Mering co-wrote two songs), best discerns his comedic impulses from his death obsession when he’s unsparingly honest. “I don’t wanna sound too moribund or too depressing / I don’t see the value in having fun,” he laments forthrightly over a soft, faintly Americana guitar growl on the sprightly title track. On “Someone Who Can Handle You,” which is as symphonic, sparkling and gradually crushing as some of Mering’s best Titanic Rising moments, the two sing about being carved down and worn out far too transparently to elicit a smile.
Flattening contrasts to these openhearted highlights abound, especially when Heidecker opts for exaggeration instead of sincerity. “Property” is among the catchiest, most ferocious songs here, but as Heidecker shouts the title and lambasts gentrification atop mournful but bouncy pianos, immense horns and lush strings, he sounds less enlightened than goofy. This contrast between the larger-than-life and the ludicrous likewise manifests on “Come Away With Me,” Heidecker’s commentary on growing older and leaving the city for the suburbs. As he shouts “City’s hot, and it stinks / I don’t care what everyone thinks,” even the song’s snappy, vaguely Southern arrangement can’t stop him from sounding comically petulant instead of profound.
There is a moment on Fear of Death that transcends any question of a commitment to earnestness. “Oh How We Drift Away,” the album’s sole Mering-led tune, is a closing showstopper that could well be a Titanic Rising outtake. Mering so deftly transforms Heidecker’s tale of longtime friends growing apart into a gorgeous, operatic suite that even lyrics such as “You can take me out of your phone” feel just as heavy as the terrifying weight of this tragic year. If Heidecker instead sang this lyric, it might sound ironic, and that’s a stark reminder of Fear of Death’s defining paradox: All these albums later, Heidecker still struggles to escape from the grip of his own humor. His inability to set himself free of his comedy sometimes undermines his darkest lyrics’ gravity, but in a year so defined by life crumbling to pieces, there are worse things than laughing amid the wreckage.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Follow him on Twitter for almost no original content and almost entirely retweets of truly mordant viral content or something funny Phoebe Bridgers said.