One of the most gripping, fresh-voiced and emotionally authentic shows to have emerged in the arguably crowded zombie genre in the last couple of years has been BBC3’s In the Flesh, a series that looks at the way in which society reacts when the undead apocalypse, known in this case as The Rising (of everyone who died in 2009), is able to be stopped in its tracks via a miracle medical cure that returns human consciousness to the zombies, leaving everyone to deal with the messy aftermath.
With the newly-christened survivors of Partially Deceased Syndrome – a spot-on piece of bureaucratese used to describe the rehabilitated undead that is pilloried to great effect throughout the first two seasons of the show, usually by the ex-zombies themselves – integrated back into society after a fashion on a strict regime of daily drug injections (to prevent them reverting to their pejorative “Rotter” state), and skin-tone makeup and contact lenses to make them look like the living, society begins to fracture in predictable, and highly-disruptive ways.
While the families of the restored undead struggle to deal with the re-appearance of friends and family members they had long ago grieved, the PDS survivors themselves, unsure of where they belong in a world that doesn’t seem to want them for the most part, grapple with what it means to be “alive” again.
If trying to find a sense of purpose, and dealing with memories of the atrocities they committed isn’t enough, the PDS sufferers, whose story is largely told through Keiren or “Kier” Walker, and his fellow PDS comrades in the fictional village of Roarton (filmed in Marsden, West Yorkshire) must also grapple with prejudice from the ill-informed and fearful, many of whom cannot adapt, or don’t want to adapt to this brave new world and fracturing into tribal groups like the Undead Liberation Army (pro-PDS quasi-religious movement) and Victus (anti-PDS extremist political party).
As you might expect from a show of such narrative intensity, In the Flesh, while an eminently watchable, startlingly insightful look at how society handles cataclysmic unending of the status quo is hardly a giddy walk in the walk, its grimly realistic, emotionally raw tone only livened by an unexpected romance of friendship here, or a bright and vivacious personality there.
And the music selected for it reflects that, tending naturally to the sombre, the quiet, the reflective, the hauntingly beautiful, and introducing me, in the scenes in which the songs were used, usually at the end of an episode, to artists with that rare gift for wearing their hearts on their sleeves and making compelling music while they do so.
Here are five that particularly resonated with me and which stay with me still …
EPISODE 1 :
“10am Gare Du Nord” by Keaton Henson
I first came across the delicate, emotionally-rich music of Keaton Henson when I was watching The Blacklist.
I was immediately transfixed by his beautifully fragile voice which seemed wholly capable of expressing the most heartrending emotions in ways that rang true on so many levels.
Here was an artist, and he is an artist in the truest sense of the word expressing his creativity via music, poetry and visual art, who could seemingly tap into the very innermost depths of the human soul, and express in a way that was accessible and authentic, that made sense to anyone with a beating heart and modicum of self-awareness.
“10am Gare Du Nord” is a perfect example of the multi-layered musicality and lyricism that Henson brings to his music, replete with aching sadness but also profound love and commitment that takes your breath away.
And please do not hurt me, love,
I am a fragile one, and you are the white in my eyes
Please do not break my heart,
I think it’s had enough pain to last the rest of my life
It is used at the end of an episode where Kieren (Luke Newberry), optimistic where so many of his fellow PDS survivors are cynical or downright bellicose, and convinced that he can last long enough working at the Roarton pub to save enough money to escape to Paris, finally has to admit to himself that he is no longer welcome in the harshly judgmental surrounds of his home town.
Caught up in a maelstrom of emotions, he makes plans to leave town immediately, determined to put as much as distance as he can between himself and the many bigoted citizens who make his life hell, and to realise his dreams of a life that means something.
It captures his anguish, pain and the conflicting back and forth of hope and grief that is coursing through his veins so perfectly that you can convince yourself that Henson wrote the song especially for the episode.
“Never Play” by Emily and the Woods
Describing her non-genre specific guitar-driven folk-ish sound in an interview with Secret Shop Sound as “Future Beat”, London-based Emily Wood who plays as Emily and the Woods along with Dave Bush, Benedict Wood and Sam Brown – “My name is Emily Wood and my family, who I have always played music with (including my brother who is in the band) are ‘The Woods’… So, it makes a certain sense!” – makes music of uncommon, soul-stirring beauty.
Anchored by a voice both winsome and strong, her songs feel like poetry set to music, her take on the world reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s ability to look at the dark and light realities of life and render them in ways that strike a chord and make you smile or sink into soft but wistful melancholia as the case may be.
In concert, they tend towards a more robust sound, makes use of drums, electronic samples and even some jazz samples, but their music in its purely recorded form is lighter and softer, burnished by soft musical hues and influenced by artists as diverse as Little Dragon and Erykah Badu.
Never play by the river, you might tumble in and drown,
Never play by the field, get filthy, dirty and brown,
Never play by yourself, it’s a danger to be alone,
Never stray too far away, it’s not safe outside of home.
I didn’t ask to be born,
And I don’t think I’ll ask to die.
I didn’t ask for the ground beneath my feet,
I didn’t ask for the sky.
All that I really ask of you,
All that I ask, my darling,
Is that you stay here with me.
“Never Play”, both musically and lyrically links up with the prevailing themes of “In the Flesh” to an almost heart-stopping degree.
Kieren and his PDS friends Amy (Emily Bevan) and Simon (Emmett Scanlan) are pushed from pillar to post by people, both for and against them, who have firm ideas on what they should and shouldn’t do.
Treated as children, or worse leprous outcasts, their choices are often circumscribed by forces beyond their control such as local Victus politician Maxine’s (Wumni Mosaku) “Give Back’ program which treats the PDS survivors as Guilty with a capital “G”, forever indebted and beholding to the society they threatened with such apocalyptic ferocity.
All they want to do though is feel like they belong again to someone or something, a sentiment encapsulated with elegant emotional beauty and nuance by Emily and the Woods evocative ode to simply wanting to be loved and to belong.
“Beekeeper” by Keaton Henson
Back with Keaton Henson, who frankly should be re-named Mr In the Flesh so often do his extraordinarily gorgeous and perfectly suited songs pop up in the series, whose song “Beekeeper” is used as the rear musical bookend to an episode where relationships re-form in new configurations, expectations are tested and people are forced to come face to face with some uncomfortable truth and the consequences of ill-advised actions.
You all say I’ve crossed a line,
But the sad fact is I’ve lost my mind
You all say I’ve crossed a line,
But the sad fact is I’ve lost my mind
And I’m just getting started, let me offend
The devil’s got nothing on me my friend
All I want is to be left alone
Tact from me is like blood from a stone
A song that moves between hushed contemplation and a more vibrant, dramatically full-on chorus, it zeroes in on the isolation felt by all the characters in In the Flesh, struggling as they are with knowing where they belong and who they belong there with, and what effect their actions will have on either of those two issues finding some form of liveable resolution.
It’s not the time for timid or fey declarations of love, anger or any other emotion and the way Henson veers between the retiring and the robust reflects the theme of this episode in a way I suspect few other songs could.
“Polar Winter” by Sam Kills Two
Brits Fred Bjorkvall (guitar,vocals), Geoff Gamlen (lead guitar,piano,backing vocals), Matt Bell (drums, percussion) and Jay Rigby (bass, guitar) certainly have an affinity with writing for the resurrected dead, given they have now gone their separate ways with Bjorkvall rather appropriately moving on to new project Som Vinter.
While there is no suggestion that Sam Kills Two is coming back to life anytime soon if ever, their music is going to live on, suffused as it is with a delicate contemplative sensibility which finds expression in a softly raw folk rock sound that lends itself to shows like In the Flesh where life is rarely as predictable or kind as you might like it to be.
“Polar Winter” is a fine, nuanced example of their painstakingly-wrought art with its whisper-quiet, almost mournful vocals and guitar-led folk folding perfectly into the penultimate episode of In the Flesh‘s second season.
It’s an episode where tension is building as Kieren is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Simon struggles with a mission from the ULA he does not want to complete, and Amy finds herself coming back to life against all odds, meaning that everyone has a great deal on their minds.
Sam Kills Two augment this deeply unsettled but introspective mood well, adding another layer of tangled emotions to a storyline already complicated by all manner of difficult situations, their music a lullaby of heartfelt raw emotions and frighteningly deep thinking, quite in keeping with the fraught journeys the three main characters are on.
“You” by Keaton Henson
Once more to the undead well with Mr Henson, who this time channels the visceral bleakness of grief in a way that can’t help but powerfully impact you.
A wholly unexpected death, leaves everyone reeling in a world that wasn’t exactly warm, welcoming or hospitable to begin with.
The cruelty of the death in question is not simply that a beloved person has died; it’s that they died on the cusp of a brand new thrilling slate of possibilities – new life, new love, a renewal of hitherto denied hope.
And you want to grieve with them, as you should with any well-wrought characters you have spent time with.
If the writers are doing their job well, and the scribes of In the Flesh excel at every narrative turn, then you will mourn as deeply as if this person was real, and “You” is admirably suited to the task, its desolate, bleak intro and Henson’s eggshell-fragile vocals an evocative distillation of the pain being felt.
If you must leave,
Leave as though fire burns under your feet
If you must speak,
Speak every word as though it were unique
If you must die, sweetheart
Die knowing your life was my life’s best part
And if you must die,
Remember your life
It’s a palpable musical expression of the grief that shrouds the end of season 2 which swirls around the acts of valiant love and sacrificial nobility that are also present in an episode that is not without its positive, uplifting moments.
But it is ultimately a story of grief and another painful new beginning and the emotions-on-a-tightrope sound of “You” captures this with a pain as beautiful as it is raw and unfathomable, a fitting musical benediction to six episodes of rich, compelling and all too human drama.