And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
~~~ excerpt from Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
Dylan Thomas’ poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, was more than a tribute to his father and his passing. It was a rebellion against the inevitability of death, an ode to the resiliency of the human spirit, and the realization of humanity’s vulnerability. The poem’s powerful messages and unfettered emotions have made it one of literature’s most iconic pieces, if not its most recognizable.
While music has had its share of songs that have addressed these subjects, very few albums have been entirely dedicated to them and evoked the same feelings. David Bowie’s Blackstar is the last great LP of this archetype and before that The Antlers’ 2009 Hospice. Both were deeply thoughtful and dense but undeniably great. The third solo album by Emma Ruth Rundle, Marked For Death, is similarly remarkable and belongs alongside them on this exclusive list.
Like Thomas’ poem, Marked For Death is frighteningly real, raw, and poignant with the lyrics reaching majestic and often emotionally crippling levels. The closer, “Real Big Sky”, epitomizes everything that the album is and Rundle’s wonderful artistry. The most stripped back and minimalist of the album’s eight songs, the track features just Rundle and her distant, acoustic guitar. The storyline takes a similar approach to Dylan’s poem, but in this case it is a mother speaking to her fallen child and Death. The song possesses some of the most gripping lyrics of the year, which will fell you to your knees.
I don’t want to be awake when it takes me, but I can’t wait to see you smile on the other side.
I can’t wait to kiss the face of the Big Sky, I don’t want to say goodbye to you, my child.
This just one of the several powerful vignettes scattered throughout Marked For Death. The title track, which opens the record, is a Bonnie & Clyde-like journey, except the two individuals are Death and the person on her death bed. The mournful electric guitar, the stirring cello, and the heart-pounding drums create the haunting soundscape. Rundle’s lyrical approach, however, is devastating, as the song is an exchange between the two characters. As Rundle sings, “Who else would ever stay? Who else is gonna love someone like me?” To which Death replies, “Who else is gonna be with you when you breathe your last breath?”
“Protection”, which has a PJ Harvey radiance, is a brooding, stark rocker, as the dissonant guitar and wave of percussion collide together. Rundle’s vocals, meanwhile, move seamlessly from a whisper to a purposeful tone. Like all the songs on the album, the Los Angeles-based songwriting is what brings you to your knees, as the song speaks to oppression and dominance. Who is the authoritarian body is unknown, but the religious undertones are unmistakable.
God and death are once again the focal points on the melodic and methodical “Hand Of God”. Rundle’s message is different, though, where she seeks grace and intervention to ensure humanity’s salvation. On “Heaven”, Rundle reveals a redemptive quality in her songwriting. The song has the protagonist coming to grips with her fate, as her purpose has been served. The imagery in the track is beautiful, and the entity could be anything – human, spiritual, animal, plant, or even inanimate. The arrangements accentuate the track, as “Heaven” begins as a serene, string-led ballad before building into a gritty, brooding rocker a la Alanis Morisette.
Combined with the spine-tingling “So, Come”, the songs lead into the mesmerizing “Furious Angel”. The bleak guitar work is outstanding, and Rundle’s vocals take on a merciful tone. But from whom is she seeking forgiveness and the love she seeks? Similarly, “Medusa” is an unlikely love song. Akin to her work with Marriages, “Medusa” re-interprets a well-known myth and gives it a sense of humanity. It is a masterful piece of introspective songwriting, as Rundle turns a villain into a vulnerable, grieving character. A person who has the same desires and wants as most individuals.
“Medusa” is just a microcosm of the power of Marked For Death. The album’s strength lies in Emma Ruth Rundle’s ability to create songs that have listeners empathize with each story’s characters, whether they are real, mythical, or fictional. It all sounds gloomy, but it is far from it – Marked For Death is a cathartic and visceral album unlike any other this year. Like Dylan’s iconic poem, Rundle’s third album won’t be soon forgotten. Not this year nor next. Not even several years from now because Marked For Death is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the year. It also is among the very best of the decade. Marked For Death is Rundle’s masterpiece and a treasure to behold by all.
Marked For Death is out now via Sargent House. Purchase it at her Bandcamp page or the label’s US or UK stores. Rundle is currently on tour in Europe, and dates can be found here. A North American tour will hopefully follow shortly.
Featured photo by Adam Gasson.
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