Part of the problem with Tim Heidecker’s Fear Of Death is that, immediately, it states its premise. On “Prelude to Feeling,” the album vows to make its listeners feel, promising an emotional journey guided by its title. It is about fear, death and aging. In its pursuit of interpreting such deep, complex topics, it adapts an old school rock sound. The problem? This record has very little feeling to it at all.
It’s an enjoyable album — don’t get it twisted. If the listener is looking to ignite the same flames lit by ’70s rock, Fear of Death is a perfect spark. The album rolls smoothly over green hills and through sunny pastures, applying bright songwriting to its luxurious instrumentals, assisted by acts including Weyes Blood, The Lemon Twigs and Foxygen.
“Backwards,” in particular, emphasizes the brightness of the songwriting without downplaying its tone. The light, cheery guitar and backing vocals disguise the lyrics focusing on climate change and national despair. Sunsets, laughter and trees are all sung of with troubling undertones, like vipers waiting in sunflower fields.
The lyrics on Fear of Death have a healthy range of flavors. There are childlike lines about families of bees and lambs. There are personal lines, such as on “Fear Of Death,” where Heidecker sings that he thinks he’s done growing, carrying a weighty implication of the stagnant nature life tends to take on after long enough. And while the album doesn’t often deliver emotionally moving lyricism, Heidecker’s voice on “Someone Who Can Handle You” is perfectly suited to the song’s forlorn nature, a rare moment of vulnerability and real emotion.
This vocal success isn’t terribly common. Heidecker’s vocal performance is shaky. He doesn’t have control over his singing, and it seems that his voice is mixed just a little bit louder than it needs to be. The album’s backing vocals are harmonic and complimentary, but they, too, feel just a little loud. This is unfortunate, because it takes away from the sweet subtlety of Fear Of Death’s lyricism.
While the lyrics play up Heidecker’s ability to embed and conceal the meaning behind his work, the instrumentals on the album leave a lot to be desired. They are aggressively familiar to the point of being trite, perhaps attempting to play to feelings of nostalgia and memory. They are like souvenirs from another era, and this has an even chance of working throughout the record. When Heidecker builds upon the album’s sounds in new ways, it is wonderful, but he does it so rarely that it is hard to even compliment the album’s base structure.
This familiarity doesn’t totally demolish the album’s impact, even if it does dilute its appeal. “Someone Who Can Handle You” features a moaning steel guitar, intimate and tragic. As it whines across the song, it pulls at heartstrings and only roars with force in the song’s final moments. The piano on “Nothing” isn’t special, but it works. And the western, moonshine cover of “Let It Be” is a pleasant reprise from the album’s occasionally boring instrumentation.
“Oh How We Drift Away” might be the biggest problem on Fear Of Death. Not because it is a bad song — in fact, quite the opposite. Weyes Blood breaks into the song with an ardent voice, and the drums, guitar, bass and piano work together excellently to score her vocals. What this song reveals is that Heidecker’s voice may be the album’s greatest problem. It is, in a way, a barrier to the emotions on the album.
This vocal problem, along with the album’s rather bland instrumentation, seem to be irredeemable issues. Heidecker is no Paul Bufano. And yet, the fresh mix of cynicism and cheerfulness that Fear Of Death offers provides a healthy antidote to the pessimism so dominant in the world right now. It is not ignorant of the world’s problems — in fact, it tackles them head on. But it preaches a positive approach to rank negativity, a kinder reaction to the world’s suffering than simply letting it all burn down.