How do you know when to take a comedian seriously? Don’t expect a punchline here — this isn’t a set-up for a joke. It’s a question that some fans of Tim Heidecker, best known as one half of the absurdist comedy duo Tim and Eric, seem to struggle with. They shouldn’t. One listen through Heidecker’s latest musical effort, “Fear of Death,” proves he’s a serious songwriter.
“Fear of Death,” which came out on digital streaming services Sept. 25 (and will be released physically on Spacebomb Records on Dec. 11), is billed as a collection of “Serious Songs about Serious Topics.” With this album, the man known for spoofing everything from consumer culture to cinema tackles topics such as climate change, growing old and the inevitably of death. Sounds like the ultimate batch of downer jams, but Heidecker (with the help of an insanely stacked lineup of indie pros) employs vintage rock sounds. And his lyrics have a witty Randy Newman-like sensibility that makes the darkest nihilism sound sunny and fun.
“Fear of Death” is hardly Heidecker’s first foray into music — he has recorded more than a dozen albums of originals — but it’s definitely his best work. The 2019 album “What the Broken-Hearted Do” offered a glimpse of Heidecker’s songwriting talents. And his turn in the ironically titled 2012 film “The Comedy” showcased the comedian’s more serious and darker moods. But “Fear of Death” puts it all into focus.
As a comedian, Heidecker excels in the art of collaboration and that carries over into his music. It should be noted that Heidecker gets a major assist on “Fear of Death” from a number of outstanding musicians including Natalie Mering (who performs as Weyes Blood), Jonathan Rado of indie darlings Foxygen, Brian and Michael D’Addario of The Lemon Twigs, Connor “Catfish” Gallaher, an incredible pedal steel guitar player, and more. As great as Heidecker’s songs are, and they are great, Mering may be the reason this record sounds as pretty as it does. Her harmonies lift Heidecker’s vocals and add a layer of poignancy to his lyrics.
Heidecker has said as much in various interviews, crediting the players with elevating his simple demo versions into lush, and fully realized songs.
Heidecker has shared several singles that really work as standalone songs, but with its 40-minute run time, listening to “Fear of Death” all the way through is definitely the best way to experience it.
The album more than nods to classic ’70s era Southern California rock, with Heidecker’s Warren Zevon-like vocal punctuations, tight harmonies, jangly acoustic guitar and twangy pedal steel melodies (there’s even a Beatles cover) and other vintage rock sounds, but it never feels like a gimmick. The music feels fresh. Maybe it’s because it’s the perfect album to cap off the COVID summer. Although the songs were written before the isolation and anxieties of the pandemic, Heidecker’s prescient lyrics speak to the current collective existential crisis that we’re all facing. The title track’s lyrics discuss how his “fear of death” is one of the things keeping him alive.
My personal favorite song on the album is “Nothing” — a minimalist piano-driven ode to Hollywood nihilism. With “Nothing,” Heidecker turns his doubts about the afterlife and his middle-age musings on the overwhelming meaningless of modern life into a straight-up earworm. The genius of this song is that Heidecker has written a deeply personal song (the song includes a veiled reference to the premiere of the 2019 horror movie “Us,” which Heidecker appeared in, and other Hollywood scenes) and makes it extremely relatable.
After hearing “Nothing,” I knew Heidecker the musician is no joke. To his fans who wish he’d stick to comedy, Heidecker penned the Cat Stevens-like lullaby “Little Lamb.” In the song, he sings “If you can’t keep up, well, someone else out there will.”
As strange as it feels to say, Tim Heidecker is the perfect all-purpose artist for 2020. His “Fear of Death” features some witty and satirical lyrics, as well as introspective, honest looks at mortality, and offers listeners some comfort by telling them they’re not alone in their anxieties about the future. It’s a serious album for serious times.
And yet, Heidecker also has a huge backlog of absurdist comedy to help take the edge off when things get too serious. There are, of course, hours of YouTube clips of “Tim and Eric” as well as his series of film critic satire “On Cinema,” but he’s also still firmly in the comedy game with his latest podcast “Office Hours” and “Moonbase 8,” a new sci-fi spoof series alongside Fred Armisen and John C. Reilly on Showtime.
Heidecker has proved, like many of my favorite artists, to be able to bounce around in different genres and moods and keep his fans guessing. With “Fear of Death,” he seems to have embraced that life is short and, as he sings on “Little Lamb,” “I don’t have time to move so slow.”