Ways to say goodbye

Corinne Bailey Rae's new album is suffused with sorrow over the death of her husband. Vini Reilly has recorded apaean to Factory Records legend Tony Wilson. The pain of bereavement can be heard in music, says Chris Mugan

Death and music have always been bedfellows, from the duel in the folk ballad "Matty Groves" to Motörhead's "Killed By Death". Yet commemorations of lost relatives or friends remain scarce, subjects only tackled by the most fearless artists.

Corinne Bailey Rae's long-awaited comeback – her debut came out in 2006 – has been overshadowed by the death of her husband, Jason Rae, from an accidental drug overdose. The forthcoming album, The Sea, reveals a new-found poignancy and emotional depth. It is a long way from the polished pop-soul of her first record.

This summer, Vini Reilly appeared at his home city's Manchester International Festival to unveil Paean to Tony Wilson, a suite of mainly instrumental pieces dedicated to the founder of Factory Records, who died in 2007. Wilson enjoyed a high profile as broadcaster, news reader and music impresario and gained yet more notoriety when he was affectionately sent up by Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom's 2002 film about the Manchester music scene, 24 Hour Party People. Yet Wilson was also a close friend of Reilly, who has recorded since the early 1980s as The Durutti Column. As Reilly's manager, Wilson was one of the first people to recognise the shy musician's talent, making him an early Factory signing and championing his music long after the label's collapse.

Reilly says: "I was at the hospital when he died. We were very, very close. Afterwards, many things were done in his name... I didn't attend many of them. I'd just lost one of my closest friends and I had all the grief that you feel under such circumstances. Once I got my act together, though, I decided to do something for myself and for Tony."

The opinionated Wilson had long argued that Reilly should curtail his hesitant singing and concentrate on his trademark, plangent guitar style. It is appropriate, then, that Paean, which is set for release in January, should be mainly wordless. Individual pieces range from bleak incomprehension to inconsolable grief as they veer between rock motifs and classical forms – there is a "Quatro" and, indeed, a "Requiem". Vocals float in and out like spectral visitors, indecipherable apart from a repeated snatch of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" – "Brother, there's far too many of you dying".

Could the avoidance of lyrics reflect an inability to put down feelings in words? Bereavement remains one of the trickiest life experiences to discuss and it is no wonder that the Fauré's Requiem is instantly recognisable to listeners whose experience of the classical genre encompasses little more than televised World Cup football. Its "Pie Jesu" is a staple of funeral services. Bereavement also brings uncomfortable questions: How to fill that loss? What happens after death? When artists try to answer them, the results often appear clumsy.

The most egregious example is Sean Combs's "I'll Be Missing You", which was written in honour of a fellow rapper, The Notorious B.I.G, who was killed in March 1997. Combs, who was then known as Puff Daddy, responded later that year with a tribute that made him a household name. The verses feature plain reminiscences about the pair hanging out; the single is famous for its chorus, which is taken wholesale from The Police's "Every Breath You Take". It is a strange choice, as the original portrayed a stalker.

A better response to an early ending of life is Eric Clapton's 1992 release "Tears In Heaven". The veteran was fabled for his virtuoso blues technique and rambunctious rock numbers, particularly "Layla", but this fragile piece revealed another side to his work. Its concern with the death of Clapton's four-year-old son, who fell from a New York apartment window, give it instant gravitas. The song, with its tremulous query – "Would you know my name/If I saw you in heaven?" – has proved its worth as a standard.

Almost as well known is Mike & The Mechanics' "The Living Years", which is an affecting look at father and son relations, at least until a choir comes in and gives it a claggy sentimentality. It was a collaboration between the former Genesis member Mike Rutherford and the lyricist BA Robertson, both of whom had recently lost their fathers.

For a look at maternal loss, look no further than John Lennon's "Mother". The former Beatle returned again and again to his mother, who died in a road accident when he was 17, from the delicate "Julia" on The White Album to the disturbing "My Mummy's Dead".

Reilly and Combs have contributed to a rich tradition of music dedicated to former bandmates and associates. The most immediate song about a lost collaborator must be Neil Young's raw "Tonight's The Night", about the death of the roadie Bruce Berry, who succumbed to a drugs overdose. Young had already referred to the effects of addiction in "The Needle And The Damage Done" In 1990, three years after the death of Andy Warhol, two former Velvet Underground members, Lou Reed and John Cale, created Songs For Drella – a tribute to the man who took the band under his wing in the 1960s.

If personal grief remains difficult to tackle in a rock lyric, artists have found ways of sublimating its effects. Many love songs compare the end of a relationship to bereavement – think of Cat Stevens' "The First Cut Is The Deepest". Another strategy is to write about a famous figure as if they were a close friend. This was particularly noticeable in the 1960s, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy. Take "Abraham, Martin and John", which was sung by Marvin Gaye, among others, or look at The Byrds' reworking of the folk standard "He Was A Friend Of Mine" in the wake of Kennedy's death.

Maybe the intimacy of those tunes points the way forward – it certainly brings to mind some contemporary songs. "Lucky Gilchrist", written about a friend, provides a powerful moment on The Unthanks' current album. The forthcoming release from the former Mercury Prize nominee Lou Rhodes is informed by the death of her sister, who took her own life in 2007.

One of the simplest elegies of all is Elbow's "Friend Of Ours", from their Mercury-winning 2008 album, The Seldom Seen Kid. That was a nickname for one of the band's mate, Bryan Glancy. On the album's closing track, the band sum up the awkwardness of talking about friendship and loss: "Never very good at goodbyes. So (gentle shoulder charge). Love you mate."

The Durutti Column's Paean To Wilson is out January 24 on Kooky Records

THE BEST SONGS ABOUT LOSS... AND THE WORST

Neil Young
'Tonight's the Night'
Young is at his most raw and heartfelt in this eulogy to the charismatic roadie Bruce Berry, preferring to remember the sparkle in his eyes than manner of his passing.

Public Image Ltd
'Swan Lake (Death Disco)'
From PiL's uncompromising second album, 'Metal Box'. John Lydon's grief for his deceased mother pours out of his strangulated vocals and the band's grim and fractured funk. No thanks.

Arcade Fire
'In The Backseat'
On this powerful closer to 'Funeral', an album steeped in loss, the singer Régine Chassagne finds refuge in a car following the death of her grandmother.

The Streets
'Never Went To Church'
A surprising turn from the rapper – Mike Skinner sums up all that his Dad has taught him and realises how much how he now reminds people of his father.

Puff Daddy
'I'll Be Missing You'
And so began the use of almost whole songs as backing tracks, instead of artful sampling. The mediocre song also happens to contain more about its singer, left, than its subject, Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, aka The Notorious B.I.G.

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