2004: Josephine Foster - Fate Song #1: “Deathknell”

It sometimes feels appropriate to reduce a compilation to just one song — a song with an impact that resets the concept of the list altogether, displacing all the other contenders like an overweight diver emptying a swimming pool. What would this song have to do to qualify? Well I’d like to think of it as analogous to the Ace, the number one card, which represents both the highest and lowest score in a game. Its effect should be minimal, or unbeatable, or both.

Some examples spring to mind, most notably Carly Simon’s ultra famous put down. Enough has been said about this for reams of TMT Deloreans that will never be written, because enough has been said about it. Still, it’s useful to recall that the reason this song was successful was because it was – amongst other things — deeply ironic. In order to wield irony subtly, you have to understand the rules of the game. Songs that use irony against their own genre can contain the whole weary perspective of the songwriting world, viewed through the eyes of one who understands not only the world of love and heartbreak, but the garden path lined with the songs that get you there (it’s true that the road to hell is paved with mixtapes).

The protagonist in DBC Pierre’s novel Vernon God Little, for example, loves and hates his “Fate songs”, which are usually ballads or country songs promoting outsize feelings of love and loneliness, as insidious and infectious as “fucken herpes.” Josephine Foster and the Supposed’s “Deathknell” is an alterno/freak-folk/what-have-you fate song that uses a blustering argument about fate itself to mount an attack on some unknown victim. This dirge is set in a bygone era, where an assassin will come to your door on foot. Although it has its roots in folk, it’s more Emily Dickinson than Bob Dylan, expressing a god-fearing (rather than man-fearing) instinct that we’re all doomed, and our appointed time is approaching.

In Foster’s stormy rant, some woman is angry somewhere. It’s nothing new. She knows this herself, and she paints her own mother and herself into the unwritten and evidently futile tradition of vengeful women: “I had a mother / Her mother had a mother / No one remembers her name.” But it’s more direct than that, as the song is addressed to some prideful sinner in particular: “You think you are strong, you are wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Although Foster puts her little rant into a perspective of vast marauding forces — the angel of death and the spectre of physical frailty — it’s easy to forget that this thundering diatribe may have originated as a dig against one poor solitary soul. Whatever was originally intended, its angry tone has managed to be both universal and personal. As revenge room 101s go, it seems impersonal, more of a planetarium than a claustrophobic cell, but just as whoever enters can imagine that they were chosen to experience a cosmic wake-up call in the warning tones of a folk harpie, whoever was actually addressed by this song is conspicuously absent; they have turned to dust as the song foretold.

“Deathknell” may not be the most typical example of an ironic pop ‘fate song’, given that it’s outside the usual attempt to subvert the ingratiating radio friendly vernacular, but for me it shares the subtle appeal of those other kinds of pop songs that insist they aren’t whatever they say they are. It walks that same tricky line in projecting a seemingly unambiguous sentiment while expressing something subtler, as with the cautionary tale of Bruce Springsteen and his anti-war popsong “Born in the USA”, a tune whose irony was lost when it became a patriotic anthem. This is the fate of the nursery rhyme, which speaks in nonsense terms to comment subtly on court intrigues, incompetent (or incontinent) Ministers of State, and abuses of power; all specifics of a time that will ultimately be forgotten. Other times, the song doesn’t do what it says on the label, and never invites any major scrutiny of its genre, such as PIL’s “This is Not a Lovesong”, which was a commentary on the record industry’s obsession with smooth ballads, and not in fact a lovesong.

Mostly, however, what these high card efforts have in common is the attempt to make the perfect godlike move in the realm of pop music: the love song that repackages bile into the sweetest of rueful ironies (Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields is an adept); the song of vengeance that’s so biblical in its vehemence, it can’t be pinned down to specific targets; the anti-war song that’s so vitriolic it apes the swagger of patriotism.

It may be no coincidence that the very next track after “Deathknell” is called “Silly Song”. Unlike “Deathknell”’s assault of raw, resonant guitars, twanging like drunkenness on the verge of turning ugly, “Silly Song” twangs in the laid back San Francisco folk style Foster’s band The Supposed have chosen to adopt, but strips back several layers to reveal a sad and desolate morning after (there’s even a whistle to accompany the lonely walk home). Neither of these tracks is exactly playful, but together they illustrate the way ‘just a silly song’ can be played with in a variety of ways. No matter how silly the song is, it can speak a volume of damage: the damage done, and the damage inflicted. This irony embedded in seemingly unambiguous pop sentiment always appears to convey a vaguely contemptuous attitude to the genre, often wearing the mask of a nursery rhyme to make a point about the emotional disingenuousness that exists outside pop music, in the baby talk of lovers for example.

One of the qualities of the Ace is the potential to blow it. It wasn’t always the highest card in the game. In the Middle Ages it was the lowest roll and traditionally meant ‘bad luck.’ Later it began to shapeshift between highest and lowest card. Because it can be played as either in contemporary card games, it is usually considered a game changer. In this way it represents a valuable move that can either open up a list of successive moves, or blow them all in one fell swoop. The analogy between this high/low card and the kind of pop song that tries to go above and beyond the call of its genre fits because the song wearily wields all its antecedents and possible succedents, like a card that has the potential to make a very significant move from a seemingly unassuming place. This is the song that blows all the rest out of the water just to make a point.

The Ace is also used nowadays to describe someone who’s a whizz at their sport, a number one. But what’s it like at the top? Is it lonely? Is it isolating to take the most exacting vengeance, or make the most subtle statement about love? In the original Socratic definition of irony, the “eiron” was a falsely modest person, who triumphed through feigning innocence while wielding a concealed wit. Pop has often played the simpleton, meanwhile delivering a stinging message. In “Deathknell”, overestimation rather than underestimation is Foster’s medium of communication; she delivers an overblown rant to alienate once and for all anyone who’s on the fence about outsider female vocalists. However, by playing this harpie role, she overplays vengeance to the point of universality, and gets herself off the hook for a possible personal gripe. It is time, not the singer, that disgraces “the strong” who are “weak and a waste of this song”; she herself acknowledges no part, as she counts herself among the victims of fate, guaranteeing her anonymity. If this is deliberate, it’s a fairly stunning move, but it feels as isolating as detonating a curse that cannot be taken back.

In overdoing its wrathfulness, “Deathknell” joins the rank of the most calculated pop songs which beg to be underestimated as sweet confections, or garrulous patriotic folk songs, or incoherent rants. They’re lonely and singular because they’re not really keeping the company they say they are; the silly songs they claim to imitate have the power to do so much more damage than the low value assigned to them as popular art. This is the reason why it’s hard to know if “Deathknell” is a really a song about kicking ass or blowing your chances. Like the Ace, it has the potential to be a bit of both.


There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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