“Better Off Dead” is a stunning (still! 47 years later!) document of a guy who feels he has nothing to offer his partner. He’s a drunk, can’t pay his bills, doesn’t treat his lady right. She’s taken off with the kids, and now he’s staring down the barrel of a gun, ready to take his own life. In “real life”, hopefully the narrator’s efforts would be thwarted by a caring friend, an understanding partner, a trip to rehab or 12-step meetings, or a 911 call. None of those things happen during “Better Off Dead” (although the narrator does mention that they brought a priest into the home). The song ends with a spare, frightening gunshot.
Bill Withers is a master songwriter, and I feel like the only reason he’s generally not acknowledged as such is because his career was so short. He only made albums for fourteen years, while contemporaries like JT, Stevie and Paul Simon still make records today. “Better Off Dead” is a prime example of Bill’s blue-collar ethos, a plain-spoken lyrical style that I attempt to emulate in my writing.