Jamie Lee has never shied from the hardest problems. “Death is just an illusion — a high wall,” he wrote in the description to his band’s first single on YouTube, whose algorithms peg his music with ads for literal money bands. “It is not the end. There is no such thing as ‘the end’. It is the beginning.” The song, “So Long (God Is Dead)”, weighs heavy with Nietzchean overtones, but Lee undercuts them with his commentary: God may be dead, but life goes on forever.
Four years after Money started disseminating their strange poetry through Manchester venues and the music-obsessive corners of the web, Lee still thrives on philosophical contradiction. The band’s second album, Suicide Songs, carries despair and hope in equal volumes, finding light in desolation and desolation again in light. If their 2013 debut, The Shadow of Heaven, diluted Lee’s dramatics with watery, almost tropical production, then Suicide Songs lays out more fertile ground for his melodrama. It’s not hard to imagine him slumped over a piano, drunk and wailing, for the length of the record, even though his band backs him up with delicate arrangements of strings, guitars, and hand percussion. He is clearly not alone, but he sings as though his nearest confidante were lightyears away across cold, empty space.
An ugliness fringes Lee’s delivery, and it’s what keeps Money’s music from dipping into the saccharine. The band crafts especially pleasant melodies, with plenty of warm, sunlit air between each instrument, but Lee forces his falsetto into a ragged strain, as if he’s fighting off the loveliness around him. His lyrics tend to hinge on the frustration inherent in the condition of individuality — the phenomenon of being near others, but never really with them — and the dissonance in his singing underscores his words. In the swooping “I’m Not Here”, he concludes a string of Beatles references by insisting on his own perpetual absence: “I think I’ve earned the right to say it/ I’m not here/ I’m not here.”
Singing about loneliness and being heard undoes some of that loneliness, and Lee sings as though he’s desperate to be heard. To stave off his own smallness, he reaches for affinities with powers much larger than his own: the sky, the night, God himself. “Night came very fast/ As if it had fallen over drunk,” he sings on the eight-minute ballad “Night Came”, then names himself the night three tracks later. “I made a deal with the sun/ That if it died out/ I would carry on,” he sings on “I’ll Be the Night”. If you’re the absence of light, in essence, then even the cold death of the universe can’t kill you. But you’ll get very lonely as you linger on.
Non-devotional music that casts God as a character tends to focus on his imagined humanity, the utter solitude in which he must find himself. Lee indulges God’s loneliness with album opener “I Am the Lord”, though not without equivocation. “I don’t want to be God,” he sings. “I just don’t want to be human anymore.” Among humanity, he wrestles with his own death drive; as a deity, at least death would be out of the picture.
There’s a joke I heard Daniel Johnston tell at a concert: Man goes on trial for attempting suicide, gets the death penalty, screams “no!” from the back of the courtroom as the gavel goes down. The death drive is tied inextricably to the life drive, and suicide, as a philosophical problem, can reveal as much about the endurance of human will as its failure. I don’t think Jamie Lee means Suicide Songs as a collection of music to kill yourself to. It’s more like: In case of existential agony, break glass.
Essential Tracks: “I Am the Lord”, “I’m Not Here”, and “I’ll Be the Night”