For as long as there has been protest, there have been protest songs. Yet the greatest threat to humanity’s survival, an existential emergency facing every last one of us, has wormed its way into relatively little of our music. While Neil Young watched ‘Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s’, Joni Mitchell warned ‘you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’ and Marvin Gaye lamented ‘things ain’t what they used to be,’ the majority stayed silent as destructive fossil fuel capitalism ran rampant over our planet.
But music is not the only artform to struggle to find a place for environmental protest within its canon. Literary critics Mahlu Mertens and Stef Craps explore the difficulty that writers face in depicting climate change in fiction. The crisis, they claim, ‘exceeds human perception […] both in time and in space.’ To comprehend climate change, they argue, ‘one needs to go beyond normal human experience.’1 Thus, the novel, with its focus on experiences of individual humans within a limited time frame, fails to capture the scale and severity of the emergency the world faces.
A similar thing could be said of the conventional Western pop song. The attention it pays to interpersonal conflicts and relationships and the emotions of individuals makes it difficult to imagine songs that ‘go beyond normal human experience’ without losing a vital connection with their audience.
But in the last few years, as school children have taken to the streets and increasing numbers of people have joined the call for climate justice, so too has music begun to find ways of depicting the unfolding reality of climate change. And in 2021, this trend came to a head in the form of an emergent phenomenon: the climate change concept album.
For her part, Tamara Lindeman, aka the Weather Station, navigates the difficulties of covering the scope of the ecological crisis on her 2021 album Ignorance by creating a work of art that is not so much about climate change as it is about climate grief. ‘Thinking I should get all this dying off of my mind, / I should really know better than to read the headlines,’ she sings on ‘Atlantic’. The album grapples less with the question of how we should respond to climate change on a global scale, instead principally questioning how individuals can get their heads round the severity of the emergency and still stay sane.
‘How do you manage having that knowledge and still wanting to love the world and appreciate it and see its beauty when you know what’s going to happen?’ Lindeman ponders in an interview with Stereogum. Her album’s foundation is in the emotional rather than the political, she explains. But Ignorance is undeniably a challenge to the values underpinning our current status quo; it merely sets this challenge using the language of feelings and relationships.
‘Every other part of you hurt / from inside the confines / of the story that everything would be alright,’ Lindeman sings on ‘Loss’, hinting at the climate change denial we all engage in every day, never fully accepting the scale of the emergency we are facing.
Even tracks which grapple with human relationships are steeped in natural imagery that evokes a sense of the impending storm. ‘With blood on your hands from the river inside / you try to deny it, you never felt the tide / of the moon pulling closer.’ Rather than attempting to ‘go beyond the human’, Lindeman interweaves climate change and human emotion until they are inextricable from one another.
Other artists, too, sought to draw connections between humanity and nature in their lyrics. American musician and daring experimenter Spellling opens her nature-entranced opus The Turning Wheel with an assertion of the kinship between herself and other animals: ‘Little deer, little deer, I see myself inside of you.’ Similarly, on her latest studio album, Tori Amos turns to nature for solace: ‘Speaking with trees / I’m almost sure / that they are grieving with me.’
Some may argue that is all a song needs to do to tackle the climate crisis. Actor Mark Rylance asserts that the role of the arts in solving the climate crisis is to tell ‘love stories’ about the natural world. While ‘we’re not lacking information about what we need to do’ to help our planet, Rylance says, ‘we also really need the arts to remind us how […] we are part of the same family as […] the nature around us.’ Spellling’s lovestruck ode to a deer and Amos’s therapeutic account of cross-species communication might just be the perfect examples.
You could add Lorde’s Solar Power to that list; the New Zealand popstar pays tribute to her dog Pearl and the wondrous, wide world that she had never before appreciated: ‘shivering pines and walls of colour / I can’t believe I used to stay inside.’
Folk singer Piers Faccini, on the other hand, relies not on anecdotes but the imagination to foster empathy between humans and nature. The sombre opening track to his 2021 record Shapes of the Fall, is narrated from the point of view of a bird: ‘How bark was my home / when wind was my bride / when men tore our flight / from skies far and wide.’
Natural imagery and poetic language forms the backbone of Faccini’s art. In fact, he describes his diverse musical influences in terms of the environment that shaped them: ‘If my songs were maps I’d want them to stretch from the English moors to the Saharan dunes via the plains of the Mediterranean,’ reads his Bandcamp bio. But Shapes of the Fall is not merely a nostalgic love letter to simpler times but a political statement, his winged narrator concluding his verse with a direct plea: ‘give me my home back’.
Amos, too, sings plainly of the danger facing her beloved environment, moving beyond the spiritual to the realm of the political:
There are those who don’t give a goddamn
That we’re near mass extinction
There are those who never give a goddamn
For anything that they are breaking
Meanwhile, Lorde mourns the destruction of the world’s ecosystems in no uncertain terms on ‘Fallen Fruit’. But most frank and pragmatic of all is Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, last year’s acclaimed, socially-conscious dance-pop album from Welsh artist Marina Diamandis (formerly known as Marina and the Diamonds, now releasing as Marina).
Over the course of 10 slick, catchy and colourful tracks, Diamandis traces out a web of the interesecting power structures she sees wreaking havoc across the world: capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and anthropocentrism. ‘All the bad and good, racism and misogyny, / nothing’s hidden anymore, capitalism made us poor. / God, forgive America for every single war,’ declares ‘Purge the Poison’, Marina’s rapid-fire diagnosis of the world’s ills.
Diamandis is not the only artist discarding metaphors and florid language for the sake of an unmissable political message. Scottish indie pop act Broken Chanter takes a satirical approach on his 2021 record Catastrophe Hits, while French heavy rockers Gojira pour their grief and rage into the dense, noisy jungle that is last year’s Fortitude.
However Marina’s lyrics also have a hopeful slant to them too, recognising the opportunity to change our relationship with nature and each other entirely. ‘Man’s World’, perhaps the album’s greatest triumph, condemns the evils of our current hierarchies of power, while promising a new world on the horizon: ‘The feminine is born as new, studded with a diamond dew, / saw the dawn was comin’, everybody knew.’
Marina’s strain of eco-conscious feminism is about far more than placing more women in positions of power. She explained to Vogue that, for her, ‘the feminine’ exists in each of us: ‘Masculinity is being goal driven, disciplined, forceful; femininity is what your relationship with nature is, being nurturing and intuitive. There’s a huge connection [between] what’s happening with our planet right now and the lack of femininity in the world.’
This chimes with the value the Weather Station’s album places on vulnerability. Lindeman argues, ‘We’re actually very soft, vulnerable creatures—we fall in love easily and our hearts are so big. And yet, so much of the way that we try to be is to turn away from everything that’s soft and mysterious and instinctual about the way that we actually are.’
Though tonally very different, both Ignorance and Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land argue that the problems underpinning climate change are flaws in our values, our collective mindset as a species. Their songs protest inaction while remaining rooted in human experience, Lindeman’s in relationships, Marina’s in social injustice.
Other artists have found subtle ways to incorporate the non-human world into their music. Sloppy Jane’s 2021 release Madison became the first album to be recorded in a cave. And this year has already seen Hurray for the Riff Raff experiment with nature’s sounds on their ‘nature punk’ album LIFE ON EARTH. Alynda Segarra concludes the record with a soft, delicate coda: the sound of windchimes swaying gently from the branches of a tree, whom Segarra calls their ‘favourite experimental musician.’
While most of our culture’s songs may recount the experiences of humans, music itself, Segarra reminds us, is not an exclusively human invention. In connecting listeners with our emotions, music can also help us re-think our connection to the world around us.
‘I think music is science,’ Spellling’s Chrystia Cabral explains, ‘it’s just this metaphor for the harmony of the universe. Music, to me, is the core of exactly what it means to be human, and also what makes you beyond human.’
1 Mertens, Mahlu and Craps, Stef. ‘Contemporary Fiction vs. the Challenge of Imagining the Timescale of Climate Change’. Studies in the Novel, Vol. 50, No. 1, 2018, p. 136
Listen to the best of 2021 climate change music on Tidal here.