Recording artists sometimes get a rather unique benefit from their chosen vocation: the ability to say goodbye on record.

Image provided by Allmusic/ISO

It doesn’t happen all that often. But once in awhile, artists who know their time is short rally to create a final album before the end. Such elegies can be both moving and disturbing. There’s a kind of power to such final words, but also an inescapable sadness listening to them.

The “goodbye music” phenomenon has popped up twice in recent months, which isn’t usual. Country duo Joey + Rory just had what would otherwise have been the best week of their careers. Coming off of a Grammy nomination, the husband and wife team’s album Hymns That Are Important To Us netted them their best sales week ever. The album topped both the Country and Christian album charts and came in 4th on the Billboard 200. But it’s a bittersweet moment for the pair. Joey Feek is in the late stages of an untreatable form of cancer. After her diagnosis, the couple recorded their “dream” album, composed of hymns that have special meaning to them. It’s how Joey Feek wanted people to remember her.

Only a few weeks earlier, the death of glam rock icon David Bowie stunned the world. Rumors of illness had leaked out, but no one knew how sick Bowie actually was. He died only two days after the surprise release of his final album, Blackstar. Knowing that his time was short, Bowie crafted a farewell for his loyal fans. It can’t be poignant and sad. The video for key cut “Lazarus” is particularly haunting. Bowie’s death so soon after Blackstar’s release drove awareness of the album and netted Bowie his first #1 album in the U.S.

Image provided by Wikipedia/Gaither

After Warren Zevon received his terminal lung cancer diagnosis, he crafted his own final musical statement. For the most part, The Wind didn’t dwell on Zevon’s impending end. The poignant “Keep Me in Your Heart” was probably the cut that addressed it most directly. Zevon’s goodbye was to make an album that summed up his career.

When Johnny Cash began his celebrated American series, recorded with producer Rick Rubin, it wasn’t intended as a valedictory project. Though the passage of time and the awareness of mortality was present in many of the albums. It was the sixth and final entry, released after the legendary singer’s death, that provided his farewell to fans. Cash died not long after the sessions captured in Ain’t No Grave and his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, passed away unexpectedly during them. Cash, who suffered from Parkinson’s, was aware his time was short. Ain’t No Grave allowed him to cap his lengthy career on his own terms. It was stately and meditative and all the things fans might want from a final Johnny Cash record.

Image provided by Allmusic/American

Sometimes goodbye music isn’t necessarily driven by death. Veteran singer/guitarist Glen Campbell said his own kind of goodbye with his final studio album Ghost on the Canvas in 2011. Campbell was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and was already struggling with its effects. With that in mind, he rallied to record Ghost, in order to leave a strong final musical statement before his illness left him unable to communicate musically.

These kinds of goodbye albums can be very difficult for fans to hear. It’s never easy losing an artist whose work has meant a lot to you. Taking in songs recorded with the knowledge of an impending end can be a devastating experience.

But this kind of music can be quite powerful. In the end, the opportunity to say goodbye is an odd kind of gift for the artists and their fans.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on February 29, 2016.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store