*prognotes: The Dear Hunter’s Acts, Part I (The Lake South, The River North)

*prognotes breaks down and analyzes your favorite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.

Welcome one and all! In case you missed my colleague/mind-twin Eden’s stupendous recent analysis of Arcane‘s Known/Learned double album, we are bringing our long-beloved *prognotes series back to dig deep into the stories, characters, motivations, and meanings behind some of the concept albums that have a special place in our hearts. With the release of prog-rock cult favorites The Dear Hunter‘s long-awaited Act IV coming in a manner of a few weeks (!!!), I thought it’d be appropriate to go back through the first three pieces of the series and both recap and dig deep into the story of The Dear Hunter, for hardcore fans, for more casual fans, and for people perhaps just starting to get into the band now.

For those who are generally unfamiliar with the greater arc of the Acts series, the story revolves around a central protagonist, who is only known to us as The Dear Hunter. Over 6 acts (or albums), the story and music follows our protagonist from the time shortly before his birth through his entire life, with many foibles, conflicts, and tragic events along the way. The story begins at the turn of the 20th Century, and though the locations are never specified (Act III being the clearest of them, which I’ll be going into in due time), we know that the central locations are The City (logic and context would suggest that it’s a major city on the eastern US coast) and The Lake and The River (your guess I’m afraid is as good as mine, though this water-filled location is reachable by train from The City).

A couple of notes on Act I musically. As the first official release from The Dear Hunter, Act I is also the shortest, featuring only 8 tracks, two of which are instrumental. While it’s rarely regarded as the band’s best work, that’s really only due to the outstanding quality and breadth of what would follow. The album is rife with beautiful, daring, and vulnerable songwriting. TDH mastermind Casey Crescenzo — who produced the entire thing himself save for his brother Nick on drums (the only other founding member still around), his mother Judy providing some additional vocals, his father Phil providing extra organ, and a trumpeter — sounds perhaps a bit less confident carrying vocals as a soloist (unlike much of his work with The Receiving End of Sirens, which was often in tandem with at least another vocalist) than he would on future releases. Nonetheless, it’s still a fantastic piece of work that deserves about as much praise as his future work.

And a final note: for these posts I will be using my own analysis of the lyrics, but for full disclosure I will also be leaning heavily on this wonderful plot-based summary that another TDH fan (who was able to get some additional information out of Casey himself) put together on a fan forum. And with that, let’s get to Act I: The Lake South, The River North!


“Battesimo Del Fuoco” + “The Lake South”

Believe you me, the price is clear
A child born, the mother near.
To death and life, both hand in hand,
A failed life exposed the man
Who led her off into the flame
To cast her back to hell again.

Before we can begin the story, like many operatic pieces of work, we have a prologue of sorts in which a narrator disconnected from the story itself sets up what is about to transpire. The title “Battesimo Del Fuoco,” translated literally from Italian means “baptism of fire.” The narrator of this prologue speaks to the audience of a woman (“the mother”) who births a child at a great price. The existence of this child will threaten and eventually be the demise of her own existence, and the child will suffer a life of grief and tragedy as a result. Essentially, while the mother will be cast into a literal hell of the afterlife, the child will experience a metaphorical hell of the living.

But, hear you me, the break of dawn
Will wash away the sins thereof.
Unto the lake, beyond the tree,
The child waits, alone is he.

The second verse suggests that the sins of the child could potentially be washed by the water of the lake, perhaps a metaphor for an innocent upbringing removed from The City. However, because of the inevitable death of the mother, the child will be alone waiting by “the tree” for a salvation that will never come and will be raised into a life of sin.

The flame is gone, the fire remains

An important constant throughout the series, this line merely signifies that the child, our protagonist, will be alone in this world. With his mother (the flame) dead, the fire that she produced will still burn without her.

“The Lake South” is one of the two instrumental tracks, but the lovely orchestration and horn and string-filled arrangement here sets up the mood and environment of our story quite well.

 

“City Escape”

Please, what happened to the flame?
(It burned down the sides)
With a fondness for cooking history, revealing thoughts of mystery
In the heat of the night, a woman wealthy of a parous plight erased a harlot’s life

Ah yes, and here we go into the true beginning of our story. “City Escape” kicks us off in The City as we find a woman (the mother, who we will soon learn is named Ms. Terri — hence “thoughts of mystery”) fleeing for her life. She is running from unknown pursuers who seem intent upon inflicting immense harm upon her (“Plagued by practical and a mercenary lust, they tear at her skin!…Clawing at her throat with a smell of desperate and a lack of regret!”). She is revealed to be a prostitute who is trying to escape her employers.

Free, pardoned by the flame
(That burned down the sides)
Her feet began to bleed between the seams, but she persisted to the streets
In the heat of the night, the river rendered the chance she surely needs to stay alive

Oh, but her breath escapes her
Oh, but the pulse remains

Ms. Terri, horribly wounded by her pursuers, bleeds but continues to run through the streets. She sees a river and finds that to be her only hope to escape and survive. She jumps into the water and finally evades them. She’s been badly injured by the experience but remains alive.

Places, people, the stage is set
Places, people, the stage is set

Here we get a little fourth wall breaking action that will pop up occasionally as either a tool for the “narrator” or what we’ll soon encounter as The Oracles, who serve the role of an omniscient operatic chorus of Greek-style tragedy but also interact with both Ms. Terri and the boy at different times. Basically, the scene is one giant set-piece that will cause everything moving forward to transpire.

 

“The Inquiry of Ms. Terri”

The inquiry of Ms. Terri,
The expiry of misery,
The table turns, the sun along,
The riverbed, and he’s alone.
Her object of affection,
Conflicted by convictions of indecency, sorority,
Corrupted by impropriety.
The cavalier, she hopes of him,
In dissonance with experience,
The boy who grows, with knife in hand,
To fend for her, becomes a man
While she plays fake affection,
And carefully lacks objection,
To her gentleman caller’s twisted desire.

After Ms. Terri escapes her pursuers, she takes a train out of The City and is finally alone in her own thoughts. It’s revealed that she’s pregnant, and the motivation for her leaving is to raise her child (whose father is either unknown or simply not mentioned) outside of the corrupting sin of her line of work. Despite her best intentions though, Ms. Terri is caught in internal struggle as she attempts to reconcile her past with her future of raising a child. She thinks about how she can expect to raise a good, moral child who becomes a good, moral man when she herself has lived such a life of sin surrounded by immoral men. Caught in this conflict, she thinks about her worst fears for her son, that he grows up to be an indecent man who preys on women like herself.

We dance around the room,
My love, I’ll carry you,
And I’ll teach you how to treat that Leading lady that you’ll meet.
We dance around the truth, my dear
I lie for you, and when I lie down, I’m simply lying to them too

Moving past her fears and doubts however, she resolves to raise her son right. She’ll teach him how to treat a lady properly (dropping an Easter egg in the form of a play on words about a character at the center of Act II, Ms. Leading). But in order to do so, she’ll also need to shield him from her own past. He cannot know about her former “career” and life. As a brief aside, I really love those last two lines. They summarizes what she intends to do, the murky morality around it, and her own struggle with it perfectly.

Another quick note, we get another little Easter egg in the chorus of the song, which makes mention of The Dime, the name of the brothel which Ms. Terri was employed. This doesn’t get mentioned by name again for the rest of this album, but it will be introduced in abstract shortly and will play a much larger role in future Acts.

 

“1878”

We’ve got a way we got away and survived
Stunned by the shock and fearing what’s behind

Everything you thought you’d live and die for
Every reason leading you to hear all of the sounds
That trickle past your introspective ear
An attempt to discover what’s behind

Despite this being the longest track on the album (and one of my personal favorites of all their music), there isn’t a whole lot going on in this track lyrically in terms of advancing the story. You can essentially view this song as the equivalent of a film montage showing Ms. Terri raising her young son in their cabin by The Lake and The River. The boy is growing up as she hoped, shielded both from the evils of the world she left behind and the past that still haunts her.

Fell in another hole
(For the knife, for the knife)
Loss of control
(For the knife, for the knife)
I’m in another hole
(For the knife, for the knife)
Bleed myself dry
(Save my life, save my life)

Which isn’t to say that it’s all easy. Having left behind her only source of income, Ms. Terri is clearly struggling to make ends meet for both herself and her son. The repeated imagery of the knife, falling into holes, and bleeding out signifies either a metaphorical struggle that’s bleeding her dry or actual contemplation of suicide. Is she doing the right thing even if it means living in poverty? Would it be so horrible if she put herself out there again for the sake of having a little more money? These are the thoughts weighing heavily on her mind, and despite the nostalgic and generally warm feeling of the song, the content itself is not all bright and innocent.

Sidenote: The person who put together the fan forum guide I mentioned at the beginning notes here (presumably based on information from Casey) that 1878 is the year that The Church, another major fixture that is about to be introduced, was established in The City.

 

“The Pimp And The Priest”

The pimp and the priest pounce on quickened cat’s feet
For the freshest young blood, innocence for the feast.
The book will then brew what the sinful commit;
While the pimp and priest pray quietly where the precious sinners sit.

Here we finally meet our primary antagonist, a man of the cloth known only as The Priest who runs The Church in The City. The Priest is quite an industrious man, we discover, as he enters a different role once the sun goes down as the proprietor of the brothel known as The Dime. The Priest finds vulnerable women to prey on from those who come to his church seeking guidance, and he manages to keep his pews stocked with the guilty sinners who frequent The Dime (whether these people are aware that their shepherd is the same man leading them to the wolves remains unclear).

Confess, oh, confess,
In the chapel, the brothel, where we suffocate stress.
We’ve got the time if you’ve got the scratch
(Conquer your sins while she screams on her back).

Faster, save me!
(While your sins remain hostage)
Harder, I can’t breathe!

The juxtaposition of spiritual and sexual release/satisfaction here is interesting, and it becomes all the more twisted when you throw in the manipulation and guilt tactics needed to feed one directly into the other and back again. This also represents a general suspicion and cynical attitude towards organized religion (or really any sort of religion) that Casey has expressed musically at other times. He lays out that viewpoint about as clear as day in the lyrics of “No God” off of White in The Color Spectrum, in which he refutes the need of a threat of hell and spiritual codes to instill and enforce morality, with the refrain that these things people claim to “know” are true have only survived because each generation has been told to believe the same thing (“And all we know is what we’re told; And we were told what others know; And all they know is what they’re told; And they were told what others know”).

Take me to the river
Take me to the river

Sing softly, sing me to the lake.
Sing softly, bring me to the lake.

Once again bodies of water are used as a way to symbolize either some sort of escape or cleansing of sin. We saw it first pop up in “Battesimo Del Fuoco” in mentioning The Lake as a place to wash oneself of sin, and then it came up again in “City Escape” as Ms. Terri sees and jumps in the river as her means of escape from The Dime and The Priest/Pimp. The flipside to that however is the use of “cleansing” in religious baptisms and the role that water and rivers play in that. It’s possible the use of the river here is meant to signify the false salvation that The Church offers (sung by the parishioners who are being led there), while the lake is held in duality to it as the path of “true” salvation away from The Church (notice how different the melody and delivery of these two sets of lines are; the former louder, harsher, more singular, and more in line with the rest of the song, and the latter softer, sweeter, and in a much more Greek chorus-like fashion).

We know which path Ms. Terri has chosen, but we also know that it won’t be that simple for her to escape. A good pimp never lets his product leave his employ without his permission, and sooner or later he or his men will catch up with Ms. Terri and the boy for whom she made this decision for.

 

“His Hands Matched His Tongue” + “The River North”

A long walk home, riddled with regret
Uncommonly comfortable, but still I believe
That in time I think I’ll see just what’s been weighing down on me
An unearthly void collapsed, exposing what was trapped
To release this serendipitous design

And here, at the end of the album, we finally get our first track from the point-of-view of our protagonist, The Boy/The Dear Hunter. At this point in time he’s no longer a young child and is beginning to question both himself and the world around him. Being raised at The Lake and The River and having been shielded by his mother from the crueler and less innocent parts of life, The Boy is essentially a blank canvas, pure, but naive.

The smell of smoke, the evening sky was proof
Belated conversation saturate anticipation for the answers that simply won’t come

Though The Boy may be blissfully ignorant, he still recognizes that troubles weigh heavily on his mother and that she is hiding both her and his past (such as who his father is) from him.

But not I, I won’t ask
Forget my place amongst the grass
The leaves and the trees remember me
And in my naivety it might be seen
The pail has leaks and even if
You put all your water into it
You end up with nothing left to drink
The well has gone dry and I with it

And yet he cannot bring himself to ask his mother these questions that he wants answered so badly. He wants to help Ms. Terri, but he cannot if she remains just that, a mystery, to him. The song’s title is in reference to that. Because he finds his “tongue” tied from finding out about her life, his “hands” are also tied from being able to help her in her time of need. Even outside of the confines of The City and around the cleansing waters of The Lake, he still finds himself plagued by the sins of ignorance and cowardice.

Oh, someday she’ll be gone
Oh, someday she’ll be gone
Oh, someday she’ll be gone
Oh, someday she’ll be gone

(We’ll still have her song to sing)

Sing softly, bring me to the lake
Sing softly, sing me to the lake

The Boy even recognizes that his mother will not be around forever and that he does not have infinite time to avoid asking her these questions. But he seemingly resigns himself in knowing that he will never do it, that she will pass with him still in ignorance, but that he’ll always hold onto the things she did tell him: to be a good person and to live a happy life. However, as we’ll soon find, it will not be so easy for our protagonist to hold onto these words and live by them. The tragic irony of Ms. Terri’s life is that her son, the person for whom she risked everything to keep away from the evils of the world and raise to be a moral person is destined to fall into the same traps she herself fell prey to and will be a character filled with moral failings and flaws, in large part due to his ignorance.

The final track, “The River North,” is the other instrumental song and merely adds a fittingly bittersweet bookend to this first act. A melancholy (albeit with a touch of brightness and hope) piano waltz sends us out as we ponder what might be in store for our characters. Unfortunately the only version available on Youtube cuts off the “hidden” postscript to the track, in which we have another fourth wall-breaking moment. We hear an audience begin to applaud, grow silent, and then we hear an orchestra tuning, with a growing swell of sound sweeping us into what will be Act II. It’s a simple reminder that the real story hasn’t even begun yet, and unfortunately for our protagonist, his woes are only just beginning.


And that’s the end of Act I! Thank you so much for reading, and I’m looking forward to continuing this with Acts II and III, which are by far meatier in terms of plot and character development. Until then, remember: The flame is gone, the fire remains.

Read Part II here.

-NC

Comments

"We're all fools, all the time. It's just we're a different kind each day. We think, I'm not a fool today. I've learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we're not perfect and live accordingly." - Ray Bradbury






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