Neil Gaiman & the FourPlay String Quartet (Instrumental Recordings, 2023)
Beloved author, graphic novelist, and screenwriter Neil Gaiman adds another genre to his repertoire with the release of Signs of Life, his first studio album with renowned Australian ensemble FourPlay String Quartet. The morbidly beautiful cover art shows you what you’re in for: a whimsical scene of tiny people planting gardens and making art beside a gigantic human skull. In true Gaiman fashion, Signs of Life has just as much to do with death.
Throughout this witty, dynamic, and genuinely exquisite collaboration, Gaiman turns his signature humor and tender scrutiny into a genre-crossing collage of poetry, prose, and even some singing of his own. From the initial ticking of “Clock,” against which Gaiman delivers a sonnet of Shakespearean eloquence about time’s relentless tear, we are dropped into a meditation on death as a gentle yet inevitable force coming for us all, as in “Signs of a Life”: “Like a dent on a pillow / Or breath on a window / That fades / And then we turn, and there’s nobody left to turn, or nothing / There’s no body. Just signs of a life that was spent.”
But death is also a human byproduct, wrought with malice (“The Wreckers”) or greed (“Poem first read on January 26th 2011 at the Sydney Opera House”) or vengeance (“The Problem with Saints”). It is a universal theme, but tracks such as “Möbius Strip,” which recalls a profound lesson from the narrator’s grandfather, and “In Transit,” a portrait of the astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, bring the universal into the particular, all against a pulsing musical backdrop that stretches tension to its limit before—usually—easing us out of it.
In a culture famously inept at processing or accepting death, Gaiman and FourPlay offer an aural avenue into doing so—and, therefore, into better accepting life as well.
This article also appears in the August 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 8, page 39). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.