Kids in their last semester of college are prone to grand theorizing. They’re approaching a Life Moment, an inflection point where they cease to be pure potential and start to become a defined, specific version of themselves. Ideas have a special draw at that moment. Without much concrete life experience, abstraction is all you’ve got. And with decisions suddenly foisted on you, there’s a tendency to flail for anything that might help you cope with the new terrain.
That was the case for me, anyway, and for my roommates in an off-campus house we’d christened the Kremlin. (We were ironically-inclined leftists before that blossomed into a full-fledged generational trait.) Probably sitting around the kitchen table, Niral and I spun one such theory about competing approaches to nihilism. We took it as a given that life had no inherent meaning, partly because of philosophy & literature & all that and partly because we were angsty post-adolescents. As we saw it, this bedrock belief in nothing left us with two options—“sad nihilism” and “happy nihilism.” Sad nihilism meant despairing at the meaninglessness, at the revelation that the universe has written us no great story or offered us any sense of destiny. Happy nihilism accepted the same premises, but framed them as a burden relieved rather than a cosmic tragedy. Without any destiny to fulfill, all that’s left is to build lives and communities that matter to us, and to care for one another as we do it.
It was PBR existentialism, so it’s probably fitting that “Soon We’ll Be Dead,” by the junkie crustpunk outfit Leftöver Crack, became the happy nihilist anthem. The song is a collaboration with the World/Inferno Friendship Society, whose accordion and string section provide a defiantly merry tone even as LC’s Scott “Stza” Sturgeon and WIFS’ Jack Terricloth spout bleakness like:
I'll pass out at dawn
And dream of friends gone
As the morbid embrace warms over my face
And soon we'll be dead, our brains and our heads
The song is inarguably dark, but it doesn’t feel that way. With a melody as jaunty as an Irish drinking song and a big group of half-talented backup singers belting out the chorus, lyrics that read as bleak on the page hit the ear as a communal celebration of mutual support. Even as we’re all “tarnished and scarred” and left wondering “when did life get so hard,” a pointedly collective “we” can gather to “drink to auld lang syne with fortified wine.” At its core, it’s a humanistic vision, where people build relationships in the face of—and in spite of—life’s pain and, ultimately, its brevity.
Across albums and through at least three different bands, it’s a thematic concern that the lead songwriter Sturgeon has returned to again and again. Mutual care in a fallen world is explicitly or implicitly celebrated in “The Broken Branches,” “Vicious Constructs,” “Drowning Out Another Year,” a cover of Blackbird Raum’s “Last Legs,” and, maybe most articulately, in “Empty Lives.” In that one, Sturgeon screeches with palpable pain about his dead friends, his guilt, his mistakes, and, yet, a “will to survive / with an inborn devotion.” Then there’s the refrain, where Sturgeon and his band offer hope for a way forward:
I'd say to you "just try to change"
Empty lives can fill again
We're not doomed by any fate
And it can never be too late
In lesser hands, it could sound syrupy and hackneyed, but here, in that guttural growl, it feels sincere and hard-won. It’s one of those musical moments that continues to give me chills even though I’ve heard it literally thousands of times. Still, though, “Soon We’ll Be Dead” got there first for me, and I listened to it so relentlessly at the end of college and the beginning of the thereafter that my friends jokingly (I think?) asked if I was okay. I mostly (I think?) was, but the song helped me deal with the parts that weren’t. It still does.