The artist offers a track-by-track breakdown of the album, which begins with “delving into questions of the meaning of life and the search for connection” and concludes with “a call to celebrate what life we have left to live.”
While music is the jam here at BdBk, as a lover of linguistics, I do always appreciate an opportunity to insert a language lesson, and today’s phrase of the day is going to be a Latin one.
Memento mori translates to ‘remember you are mortal’ or ‘remember you will die’. And admittedly this does sound dark at first glance. But hey… walk with me here.
In Everything is F*cked (also not as big of a bummer as the words indicate!) Mark Manson discusses the idea that some scientists believe that in the not-so-distant future there will be a “cure” for death, or a means to avoid its natural occurrence… that sometime soon, we’ll be able to better upgrade and optimize our bodies and find ways to avoid and fix problems, thereby, potentially, finding a way to live forever.
He believes this is a bad thing.
“If you remove death, you remove any scarcity from life,” he writes in Chapter 7. “… Death is psychologically necessary because it creates stakes in life. There is something to lose. You don’t know what something is worth until you experience the potential to lose it.”
Memento mori speaks to this same idea. It’s not about what you’ll eventually lose (life), but that the very value of the most precious thing we have (see also: life) is, ultimately, directly tied to its impermanence.
Or, to put it more simply, memento mori is pretty much the original YOLO.
This is a concept humans have struggled to grasp and attempted to cope with since the dawn of time. And, of course, as something we’re consistently seeking to wrap our heads and hearts around, it naturally informs not just our lives but our art, our right brains trying to express and expel the complicated feelings surrounding this final destination: one our left brain can logically acknowledge but we still can’t manage to fully fathom.
In May, Sam Zalta dropped Memento Mori—an album he says is influenced by everything from David Lynch films to the Bible to the Beach Boys—and it’s a piece of work (”the most pure or natural thing [he’s] done”) that’s focused on this particular premise, with themes that “revolve around the many definitions of death.”
And despite what that might indicate, much like the aforementioned book, this is not a project that’s designed to be depressing. Quite the opposite actually. After all, by exploring these endings, Sam is also, on the flip side, celebrating their existence.
Of the album, the artist shares:
“While not a concept album per se, Memento Mori has different through lines that get intertwined and evolve from track to track, with some of the first few songs in the tracklist delving into questions of the meaning of life and the search for connection (through love, spirituality and community), while the next batch deal with the complications those relationships bring; later on, the lyrics struggle with finding meaning to it all only to resolve in the inescapable fate of death; which in turn, becomes a celebration to take advantage of every second and dedicate ourselves to what make us happy. It’s a call to celebrate what life we have left to live.”
Memento Mori has been out for about three months now, and Sam recently sent over some thoughts on each of the album’s 13 tracks, which explore mortality through the lens of four relationships and, appropriately, features collaborations of sorts from all cycles and areas of his life, working in old recordings of his dad along with drums and vocals from his bandmates in Bambara.
MEMENTO MORI—TRACK BY TRACK:
“The story/concept behind Memento Mori is centered around the various relationships in a person’s life: the spiritual, the communal, the familial, the romantic. Our narrator spends the course of the album trying to navigate those relationships to try and understand life’s larger questions (ie – meaning, purpose, ethics, morality, mortality, etc.). I write songs and albums simultaneously, thinking about what the story (musically and thematically) needs to help the flow. Musically there are a lot of ‘themes’ and repeated melodies and chord progressions, so if you’re listening along while reading this keep an ear out for that.”
“This track and ‘Deep Within Mine’ are told from outside of the narrative, serving as an introduction and epilogue. On ‘My Prayer’ we’re introduced to the creator – the Wizard of Oz-like character filled with grandiosity and wonder. The lyrics play on religiousness – the creator being a God – and the music does its best to match the boisterous claim. This is the first song I wrote for the album, and was originally on an electronic dance EP I made. The plan was originally to do that EP with a counterpart that would be recorded with just acoustic guitar, mellotron and soft percussion.”
“Who We Are”
“The refrain of ‘search for me’ rings out throughout the song. This is where the journey begins. Musically, this is the densest song on the album. My computer would constantly crash while trying to make edits to it, because there were so many tracks and so much effects processing going on. The irony of that is I love playing this song live, but with just vocals and guitar. At the end, we’re introduced to the only named character in the album, right now known just by her first initial: Write your name on my back with your finger, and I believe it started with a ‘V’.“
“Where It Hurts”
“A flashback to childhood: this song explores the deeper psychological side, how the main character became this person. The earliest beginnings of this song (and many of the tracks on this album) came from a melody I had in my head after waking up in the middle of the night (the little piano line that hits around the 1:14 mark). Everything else was built around that melody and that HUGE drum sound.”
“This the ‘dream’ song, a prophecy of sorts. The main character croons and calls out to the interests of his obsession, and despite their lack of response, he ends with ‘Be with me just for a while now, and know I’ll always love you so.’ The recording in the beginning (and the main loop used as the backbone of this song) comes from a phone recording I did at my father’s house on an old out-of-tune piano. If you listen closely to the intro, you can hear him speaking.”
“What I Need”
“Probably the most pathetic love song I’ve ever written. Our narrator basically gives himself over to the object of his obsession, whose name is revealed to be Veronica. He offers all of himself (“take just what you need and soon I will receive, there’s hope when I concede your love will come for me”) and she finally accepts. From the time I wrote the chorus for this song, I knew it was going to be the first single. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever started a song with a chorus, because I wanted listeners to hear it right away. I was afraid the verses would sound too neo-soul/r&b-ish, but the only comparisons I get are Pink Floyd. I guess the lesson is be careful what you wish for.”
“The connection has been made, but the repercussions are felt swifty. The arguments here are portrayed in a more biblical way, playing on lyrics from ‘Amazing Grace’, the 13 attributes of Mercy and lyrics like ‘he made us all his way’ doubled with ‘we can’t go on this way.’ The original version of this song had a very different rhythm – it was more shoegaze-y feeling and sweeping, with a ‘Be My Baby’ type drum beat. I played around with some drum stems and eventually hit on that gallop-y beat that ended up on the record. Kudos to Blaze Bateh (of Bambara) for being able to nail the rhythm on those verses and the insane drum fills he adds to that bridge.”
“Sam Zalta’s ‘America’”
“I’m very referential in my work, so I thought it’d be fun to reference myself on the title of this one, especially while referencing so many different American works on this song (from Ginsberg to Woody Guthrie to the ‘Star Spangled Banner’). I had Reid Bateh (also of Bambara) sing the opening verse to this track for a couple reasons. First off: I love his baritone and thought it would match well with the female vocal response and my higher pitched vocals floating around him. Secondly, and most importantly, narrative wise, this is where our character loses himself, and it felt right to have someone else singing, almost like an imposter, someone unrecognizable.”
“After leaving home and driving across the country, our narrator finds himself even more lost and confused than before. He’s finally vocalizing his concerns, regrets and fears, calling out to Veronica who he still holds much affection for. This is one of my favorite moments of the whole record. It’s big, it’s loud and it’s where everything goes to hell.”
“The emotional peak of the album. This is the ego death song. Our narrator dreams about (seemingly) murdering someone, but doesn’t specify who. Is it God? Is it Veronica? Is it America personified? The more important note here is that he has reached a breaking point: ‘When I fall apart and kneel down I won’t call you.’ This is the last song I wrote for the album. It really felt like putting in the final piece of the puzzle when I finished it up.”
“How To Fall Apart”
“This is the first of the two breakup songs on the album. The moon that Veronica pointed to on ‘Who We Are’ has turned into a rising sun. The night is over and it’s time for a new day to rise. The choice to use an accordion here was inspired by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Black Hair’ which feels narratively similar. I told bassist Tony Solis that I wanted a Carol Kaye-inspired bassline for this and he did such an amazing job on that second verse. His talent is felt throughout this entire album.”
“When Your Eyes Close”
“The second of the two breakup songs. There’s a more upbeat quality to the music, almost as though things are moving in the right direction. Despite being fed up, there’s an understanding here, an optimistic finality. With this song I wanted to take a basic blues chord progressions, but match with instrumentation that looked a little more towards the future. Mix the past with what’s to come.”
“As I Need You”
“The last song within the narrative arc. It takes place some time after these breakups. I don’t want to speak too much about meaning here, as I think the lyrics speak for themselves. I wrote the first half of this song in tandem with ‘Shadows’, and the second half is a chord progression and musical idea I’ve been playing around with since 2009.”
“Deep Within Mine”
“Remember I said earlier on that the original plan for this album was actually to be an EP with acoustic guitar, mellotron and soft percussion? This is the song that made me nix that idea. It started with the chord progression and the two-note descending melody, so I recorded those two elements, looped it on Logic and the musical and lyrical ideas just poured out of me. It’s the second song I wrote for the album, but almost everything thematic idea in between this track and ‘My Prayer’ started right here. If ‘My Prayer’ is The Wizard of Oz with flames and grandiosity, then ‘Deep Within Mine is what happens when Toto pulls the curtain back.”
Sam is about to wrap up a two-week US tour with Mary Shelley and you can grab tickets to the homecoming show THIS WEDNESDAY (8/23) here. After all, to loop back to our Latin phrase: remember you will die. So hey… you might as well get out there and enjoy this life.
Feature image (provided by the artist): Ash Bean