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On Our Way To Fall: Music in Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under

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Alan Ball’s criminally underappreciated HBO drama, Six Feet Under, was as much about learning to live as it was about coming to terms with death. And though the tagline for the final season was “everything ends,” the show was also a series of new beginnings.

The Fisher family is severely haunted by the loss of father and husband Nathaniel Fisher in the very first episode, but in their subsequent half-decade healing process they are also uncovering personal identities, goals, and meaning. And even as the characters age through five seasons of life’s cycles, it always seemed that the show itself wanted to push them towards eternal youthfulness.

The multi-faceted themes of the show are partially reflected in the soundtrack choices made by each episode’s directors. Whether or not creator Ball had a hand in every one of these selections it’s clear that there are threads that run through the entire series' musical backdrop. This perspective is particularly relevant to the idea of growing youthful, and within it there are a number of examples of the power of song to uplift, change and provide escape from our perpetually sinking lives.

In naming the entire series “six feet under” it was clear far before the first frame that tombstones would be carved. The strange fact that this family owned, operated, and lived in a funeral home only supported that inclination. Moreover, there was a prominent sense (especially in the younger Nate Fisher’s case) that with each passing day the characters were slipping further and further into their own future graves.

It’s not entirely surprising then that the first song we hear (other than the theme) in episode one, season one, is from an opera. In French composer Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875), the track "L'amour est un oiseau rebelled" is part of a larger meditation on the volatile nature of love. Here the song is juxtaposed against a faux-commercial for a “Glamorous Hearse” (these initial “commercial breaks” were later dropped in favor of more varied dream sequences and quite a few musical fantasies), which reflects the dark humor of the show as well as amplifying the implication of impending disaster. The tragedy is complete a few moments later when the elder Nathaniel is abruptly killed in his brand new funeral vehicle. In a sense the Fishers are consistently struggling to come to terms with the erratic spirit of life itself.

The operatic mood is sustained throughout the next five seasons, with particular early emphasis through the use of Vivaldi and Mozart. Yet the most unforgettable musical moments are decidedly more pop in nature, from Peggy Lee to Kelly Clarkson. Even as the show presents itself as a dark, brooding indie production, its use of mood is far more varied. The inclusion of lighthearted, uplifting or pop radio music (as well as the twisted humor of the narrative and dialogue) belies the tragic undertones of the work. The aforementioned Lee, a '50s pop jazz icon, is a thematic link for the character of Nathaniel throughout the rest of the show, providing background music for his scenes with Nate especially, and establishing him as a carefree yet romantic figure. This is a consistent choice on the part of Ball, but there are many other times when music, plot, and visual poetry sublimate a mundane current of tension into something far more powerful.

In season two Nate revisits his old flame Lisa in Seattle while recovering a body for Fisher & Sons. He takes his younger sister Claire with him, and during the trip the two have one of the few serious moments of bonding they’ve shared since Nate returned from Seattle (also since the death of their father). As they exit the car outside Lisa’s place, Yo La Tengo’s “Our Way to Fall” plays rather prominently over a close-up shot of Nate observing her house. It’s a fairly romantic song, with whispery vocals and hushed sounds; the lyrics recalling a moment of first love. Nate and Lisa were of course previously involved, and sparked by this moment, they will be involved again later.

Yet the song selection at this juncture is far more perceptive than simply foreshadowing the future or recalling the past; it underlines the emotion that Nate must be feeling upon approaching this place as well. He has recently had difficulties with his current girlfriend Brenda, and returning to Lisa reminds him of the innocence and youthful energy of the past – something Nate is constantly seeking throughout the show. This marks a major turning point in Six Feet Under, because what Nate decides to do in Seattle will come back to literally haunt him for the rest of the series.

In the season three opening episode “Perfect Circles” Nate is face-to-face with a completely new life that springs out of that desperation in Seattle. Coldplay’s “A Rush of Blood to the Head” is played twice in this episode, mainly as an indicator of the extreme shift in Nate’s life. His entire path has been altered before him seemingly overnight. The song also serves to prominently highlight the shift towards more popular selections that occurred as the show gained viewers.

Yet the inclusion of Beck, Steely Dan, and others can only partially be attributed to the ratings (if that). Even as the budget grew the show continued to demonstrate a keen eye for unique and meaningful song choices. At the conclusion of the very same season Hank Williams gets the limelight with “Jambalaya,” featuring the chorus “son of a gun, we’ll have big fun.” It shines as a wry underscoring of the dramatic tension between Ruth’s (Nate’s mother) wedding and the death of Lisa – which has driven Nate to the edges of suicide.

There are other musical themes that relate directly to characters, like the Peggy Lee commentary on Nathaniel Fisher. Though almost every character gets a chance to sing, David is most memorably associated with show tunes. Bands such as Built to Spill, Stereolab, and Yo La Tengo accompany scenes involving Nate and Claire, mirroring both their youth and their optimism (initially, in the case of Nate). Claire especially tends to be surrounded by indie music, further emphasizing the rebellious/artistic spirit that seems to drive her to and away from art school. In fact the majority of the memorable songs in the last half of the show are Claire’s moments.

Season four’s “Parallel Play” episode finds the Fishers holding a garage sale, attempting to rid themselves of many painful memories. At the end of the day they pile everything that is left and set it aflame. Claire turns her boom box up as Radiohead’s “Lucky” comes slipping out the speakers, and the entire family gathers to watch the cathartic burning (which includes Lisa and Nate’s old bedsheets). While Thom Yorke croons that his luck “could change” and that he’s “waiting on the edge,” one could feel hopeful, but there is always a hint of doom in his words. Thus it’s not completely surprising that the bonfire helps only momentarily, with the rest of the season sinking deeper and deeper into turmoil.

The turn in musical focus from Nate to the younger Claire is the same turn the narratives and themes take in the show. In the end the show passes the mantle to Claire, hoping to find some future in her spirit and creativity. In the second to last episode the mood is almost completely taken over by the dark angels of the present – Interpol, Juana Molina, and Arcade Fire.

The Arcade Fire song is notable because it was written specifically for the Six Feet Under soundtrack (later nominated for a Grammy), and appears at one of the more climactic moments of the entire show. As Claire comes back from her horrific experience in the desert, Brenda is giving birth to Nate’s child and there is inexplicably a hint of optimism in the air. Much of this comes from the song, which plays through the end-credits. As lead singer Win Butler sings, “something ain’t right” a chorus of voices answer rather triumphantly, “yeah yeah yeah.”  It is precisely this moment that Claire looks out into the night and first realizes that some cataclysmic change in her life might need to be made if she is going to avoid the fate of her brother.

But it’s the episode before, titled “All Alone,” that is the most musically intriguing of the five-year drama. It also happens to be one of the more gut wrenching, with the death of Nate fully realized. In a flashback Claire recalls the day Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain killed himself and Nate comforted her with a joint. Cobain’s “All Apologies” plays on her stereo, and this marks another pivotal moment of bonding between the two. It’s clear that music is a definitive way in which these two characters could relate, but it’s also a moving tribute to the power of the singer to unite. Like Tupac or Morrison, Cobain represents a figure that moved beyond music to become almost saintly after his death. Nate, like his father, continues to exist in the show as a ghost in the minds of those he touched.

Later, during Nate’s funeral service, Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” plays (it was Nate’s request) while the guests enter. As you watch the scene you can’t help but notice how fitting the song is for Nate particularly; a man constantly troubled by thoughts of death, faith, and guilt. Nate has also literally been near death’s door since his AVM diagnosis a few years prior.

During the same episode, as Claire and her new boyfriend Ted take a drive to escape the pain, Ted puts on some Kelly Clarkson. Even amidst her extreme grief Claire has her indie-radar on and questions Ted’s musical taste, but his rebuttal is quick – sometimes pop is exactly what you need to release these types of emotion. There is a small smile on Claire’s face, which is mirrored at the very conclusion of the show as she drives off into the sunrise to the sounds of Ted’s mixtape.

But Six Feet Under revealed that there is much more to music than simple escapism. From David’s show choir to the random outbreaks of song and dance throughout, the series often threatened to break into an all out musical – and for good reason. For a show that seemed to be decidedly fighting the masses – emerging out of left field with oddball characters and an entirely unconventional premise – it was always really about finding one’s place in the unity of everything. What could be more unifying than a sing-a-long? At the end of the episode Claire puts on her headphones and listens to that Nirvana song again, with the final lines, “all in all is all we are.”

Show Finale, Featuring: "Breathe Me" by Sia on Six Feet Under Vol. 2Everything Ends

Complete music credits for Six Feet Under

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About Imran Siddiquee

  • Peter

    wow, amazing essay. now i have even more reason to love that show!