*prognotes breaks down and analyzes your favorite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.
Welcome back! In case you missed it, earlier this week I put out my initial post for this mini-series, in which I essentially brought us back up to speed to where we were in the story of The Dear Hunter and provided some thematic and historical context for Act IV. I’m not going to rehash all of that here, so if you haven’t read that yet you should do so! I’ll be working through the first five tracks here, so if you’re ready to dive head-first into the actual music and songs of this incredible album though, let’s go spelunking!
*prognotes: The Dear Hunter’s Acts
The Oracles are back! In an album that is intentionally full of callbacks to the previous Acts, it makes sense that Act IV starts off with an intro track that’s essentially a mirror-image of the lead track from Act III, “Writing on a Wall.” The first sounds are once again that of an a capella chorus, though this time they immediately form a descending major triad rather than minor (if we want to get really specific, the opening triad of “Writing on a Wall” features minor 3rd/root/perfect 5th second minor inversion as opposed to the root/perfect 5th/major 3rd first major inversion of “Rebirth”). This makes sense given that the beginning of Act III was all portents of doom, pain, death, and more, whereas the end of that album presented our protagonist with an opportunity – in theory at least – to leave the problems of his former life behind and start fresh. “Rebirth,” on its face, is about hope, though The Oracles are here to remind us all that in reality it’s a false hope and a mirage.
A sinister slide resounds
From the fountainhead found
When fortune aligned
Providing a very tidy summary of Act III, The Oracles label our protagonist’s decisions to steal the identity of his freshly-dead brother and murder his father an echo or reverberation of the “sinister slide” he had been on through his time fighting in the war. As you may recall, in spite of his early efforts to resist turning into a cold-blooded, emotionally-numb killing machine like The Tank, The Poison Woman, and The Thief, by the album’s end he had given in. What he did to his brother and father were both the final steps in that transformation and the immediate casualties of it. His father – the “fountainhead,” or literal source of where our protagonist came from, joined together by an aligning of fortunes – also revealed the sinister nature of his past, a part of himself that he can never truly erase.
The roots that ripped had run too deep
Left to dig in the weeds
And climb up the vine
The Oracles are essentially pointing out that even though The Boy surely feels that he can simply erase his past identity and start anew with this one, his “roots” are already too entrenched to simply break off. He cannot simply cease being The Boy, for that part of him is still a living, breathing thing. Furthermore, he will continue to affect and hurt those around him with his carelessness and seeming inability to learn from his mistakes.
Your mind is only echoing
What your heart wouldn’t say
I’ll be me, in time
In essence, while The Boy tries his hardest to convince himself that his former life is behind him, even he cannot quell the doubts creeping in the recesses of his mind. As he embarks on a new journey to return to The City and fully resume the life of another man, he will first need to revisit his past and face down the demons of his own history. “I’ll be me, in time,” he says. If only it were that simple.
Also worth noting is the lovely symphonic overture we’re treated to at the end of this intro, which seems to only serve the purpose of setting up this new world/setting we find ourselves in for this album. No longer out in the battlefields of Europe, we will be returning home to the US, where we find The City more bustling than ever. This passage screams 1920s in the best way. You can easily picture old-timey news footage of people filling the streets of New York, Chicago, and elsewhere.
2. “The Old Haunt”
We’ve got some very obvious, though still clever, wordplay in the title here as it becomes immediately evident that the first stop of our protagonist’s journey in this part of the story is back to where it all began, at his home by The Lake and The River. And just in case the title wasn’t enough of a giveaway, then the musical callback at the end of the track to “The Lake and The River” from Act II surely seals the deal. It’s here that The Boy will not only have to confront the metaphorical ghost of his mother – whose tragic death (presumably at the hands of The Pimp/Priest’s thugs) was the action that set The Boy’s story in motion – but also the ghost of his own former self. If he is to live life as the new man he wants to be, he must lay to rest the image of the scared, silent child whose ignorance has led him to nothing but pain, conflict, and death. But first, we have a brief flashback to the battlefield!
Hints of a higher hand lost on the Somme
Past deeds would never lead the mischief to a christening and
Gears twist and grind away spur up to speed
While echoed silhouettes deliver to an early dream
Held out of love but gripped too tight
A breath left hanging in the air
The Somme is a river in northern France that served as a crucial location in the battle between the Allied Forces and the Central Powers in WWI. Some of the bloodiest battles of the war were fought along there, and, more pertinent to this story, it was the area where the Allies finally were able to halt the Central Powers’ major offensive push in 1918, a critical turning point in the war in western Europe. So, our protagonist is thinking back to the time of “Mustard Gas,” in which he was screaming at the sky wondering what sort of god would allow such bloodshed and brutality. I imagine this verse and the rest of this track as our protagonist picturing himself talking to the younger version of himself as a boy before he left home and trying to explain to him all of the death he’ll see and experience. Going in reverse order, he begins with his time in the war and describes the horrors of the tanks, machine guns, and “echoed silhouettes” – possibly a colorfully terrifying way to describe the mustard gas men who ran through the smoke and fog to deliver swift death, or “an early dream.” He thinks back to his brother, who likely saved his life in that very battle and who he quickly came to love as a brother, but that love could not save him in the end.
You want to leave your home
But you don’t want to lose control
And there’s far too many ways to die
Far too many ways to die
You want to keep your soul
Above the ocean floor
But there’s far too many waves to try
Far too many ways to die
Addressing his younger self directly, he reflects upon the fears he felt before leaving home. He now understands the full scale of his own naivety. He realizes that his fears were perfectly founded but ultimately pointless because in the end, there’s really very little you can do to keep from being hurt or corrupted by the world at large. He’s witnessed – and has been the cause of – far too much death already to think that he can “control” whether he lives or dies. Likewise, morals and purity face a similar fate in this world, and there’s simply too much evil and too many harsh decisions to make to keep from being compromised.
Take a tip from me
I swear I’ve seen it all before
The fear of what could be
Will keep you from wanting more
Held out of love
But gripped too tight
Left up, hung in the air
Still addressing his former self, he claims that the fear of the unknown that he felt so strongly before is the greatest impediment to getting anywhere in this life. It squashes desire and ambition and promotes us from going anywhere, simply succumbing to our fates in the world. In this case, our own lives and desires of well-being are “gripped too tight” and are too tightly controlled, suffocating them (leaving them “hung in the air”) before they can even play out.
Never could we keep these things from happening
Never found a way to keep the love in me
Took too long to speak, and never stop to breathe, to breathe
The Boy tells himself that even in spite of his greatest efforts to protect himself and everyone around him, he could never prevent tragedy from striking them. He also refers back to his time in Act I, specifically “His Hands Matched His Tongue,” in which he knew he had all of these questions to ask his mother about her life because he knew instinctively that she was hiding from something and hiding things from him – which he would learn about later in the worst way from his father. He receded into his own comfort in naivety though and never spoke up, ultimately paying the price when she was murdered not long after.
We read the risks hand in hand
A ruined rest but now we wake up
We cut our teeth on foreign plans
Then cursed the air, but now we wake up
Wrapping up this reverie with his former self, he says, in essence, that he always knew there were risks in the actions he took and path he went down, and though he continues to feel the guilt and weight of those decisions and how they affected the people around him, it’s time to “wake up,” shake off the past, and move on. As per usual, much easier said than done. The benefit of circumspection is that it creates the illusion of knowledge and wisdom as a guard against future pain and mistakes. You might be able to properly analyze past events with correct perspective that can guide how you react to future events, but ultimately, as our protagonist finds out, each challenge is different and will still hurt you and others around you. Furthermore, he has shown time and time again an inability to learn the correct lessons from his mistakes, causing him to fall into similar problems repeatedly. So this moment of “clarity” is nice, but it’s only a moment, and it will be challenged and shown to be paper-thin soon enough.
We’ve already touched upon the major plot elements of Acts I and III, so clearly the next stop on the great Acts circumspection tour must be the central part of Act II, The Boy’s ill-fated romance with the calculating Ms. Leading! I’m a bit loathe to post the music video here since it’s completely non-canonical to the story, but it’s the only official non-Youtube Red version out there, so it’ll have to do.
I thought that I knew love
But it was just a wave crashing over us
And in the breaths between the ones we meant to breathe
I had my head under my feet
You knew the way things were
You knew the way they would be
We knew exactly how it’d end
On its face, the track is a pretty standard ode to and dissection of young love, and it’s not much different within the framework of the story. Our protagonist, having departed his home again and en route to The City – seemingly by boat this time rather than along the Delphi Express – has a moment to reflect upon the main object of his attention the last time he was in The City. Just like he did in “The Old Haunt,” he looks back at his old self with a kind of bemused humility: “How young and naive I was then, thinking that I knew what love was from that relationship.” He admits that he had his “head under [his] feet,” another way of saying he had his head in the sand or up his you-know-what during that period. He was blinded by passions and a romanticized version of what he thought love should be. All the while he says, less bitter now than wistful, that Ms. Leading knew all along that it was bound to not work out as a serious relationship. Not only that though, but, perhaps deep down, he knew the same thing all along, even if he refused to believe it at the time.
Strays on a stale sea
Oh anchor the engine to a canyon far beneath
Water rushed up from the boards below
So I started slicking my hair with the kerosene
You knew the way things were
You knew the way they would be
We knew exactly how it’d end
Even as he saw the warning signs that his ‘ship (see what I did there?) was bound to crash and sink to the bottom of the ocean, he ignored them and even doubled down – “slicking my hair with the kerosene.” These are, frankly, things that are not just endemic to first relationships and teenage love – though they’re certainly more prone to it than most. As mentioned in “The Old Haunt,” we are constantly deluding ourselves in new ways, and reflection and circumspection can be tools of a different kind of delusion.
This song also has another meaning of sorts as Casey has admitted that, more so than most of the songs he’s written in this series, this had a pretty big intersection with his personal life around the time of writing it. This unfortunately formed a parallel with the end of his own marriage, and in light of that, this track could have been far more somber or vitriolic, closer to the palpable angst and bitterness that defined much of Act II. The entire point of this track though is the sense of perspective one gains from this kind of experience. What seems so utterly painful and devastating at the time now just seems like a wave, a brief moment in time that came and went.
And I’m preparing for a burial at sea
But I can see the lighthouse
Yet I’m praying that these waters don’t take me
Cause I can see the lighthouse
I do absolutely love this chorus even if I’m not 100% certain what the intended meaning is supposed to be. Within the context of strictly this song, it seems that it’s our protagonist talking about how he was prepared to go down with the ship of his love with Ms. Leading and that it all seemed so huge and dramatic at the time, but he was able to take a step back and see that it was going to be okay. In the context of the songs around it, one could also make the claim that it’s about burying the past and how one moves on without leaving those parts of them completely behind. Our protagonist would like to metaphorically bury himself and his former life at sea to move forward in his life under his new identity, but as he sees the lighthouse – a sign that The City is nearby perhaps – he realizes that he needs some part of himself to hold onto to remain grounded. If every part of his old self is dead and buried, then who is he now?
I was screaming that the ship was sinking
But you were telling me to just keep drinking
Corded in the parts again
Arms and legs at the bottom of the ocean
And the thing that made it so much harder
Was the fact that you were someone’s daughter
I knew the way things were
I knew the way they would be
I knew exactly how it’d end
More of the same here in the bridge. I’ve never been able to figure out that line about being someone’s daughter, and I continue to not understand its significance now. I’ve seen it posited that it means that Ms. Leading is in fact the daughter of The Pimp/Priest, but that makes little sense. I don’t think even he’s enough of a monster to whore out his daughter like that. The only other piece of lyrical significance here is The Boy taking full responsibility and ownership of the failure of the relationship, saying for certain that he knew it was doomed, but perhaps that’s okay and it was still worth it. Either way, our protagonist appears ready to bury his relationship failure at the bottom of the ocean. There’s still plenty of reflection and mourning to be done in this first part of the album though.
4. “At the End of the Earth”
This is one of those tracks whose basic meaning and lyrics make it seem like a pretty simple song to dissect on face value. “At the End of the Earth” is very clearly a song about loss, longing, and the hole that’s left when loved ones are no longer with us. The problem with this song is that it’s never entirely clear whose point of view it’s from and who it’s about.
If it’s solely from the point of view of The Boy, then the subject he’s mourning must be his mother, Ms. Terri, and there is a critical sign not in the main lyrics that gives credence to this idea (I’ll get to that below). The problem with this is that the lyrics are often describing a very clear romantic love rather than simply familial. Unless Casey intended to introduce some creepy Oedipal elements into the story here, that makes this interpretation problematic.
However, what if the song isn’t just from The Boy’s point of view? What if it’s shared between him and a character who we’ll be meeting soon, the fiancee of The Son (a.k.a The Boy’s half-brother), who is referred to informally as The Lover? The Lover does in fact have at least one other POV track in this album (“The Squeaky Wheel” and at least part ownership of “The Line”), so it would not be completely out of left field to introduce her slyly here before The Boy encounters her. So I could be completely off here, but I’ll be interpreting the lyrics through the lens of this being a shared POV track between The Boy and The Lover.
I’ve waited so long just to hear you breathe
That your voice could lead me
Back from the grave
From the slowing breath
Of a sleep like death
Now morning comes
But I’m brokenhearted till we meet again
At the end of the earth
Most of the song works both from the POV of The Boy speaking about his mother and The Lover speaking about The Son. In the case of The Boy, the death of Ms. Terri, which he seemingly witnessed and then had to deal with the aftermath of by burying her himself, still leaves a huge hole in his heart, one he has never fully been able to move past. For the entirety of his youth she was the only comfort he had and the only voice guiding him. He’s been completely on his own since, and it’s certainly not unreasonable that he wishes he could still go to her for that same comfort and guidance.
In the case of The Lover, she had to watch the man she loved go off to war and not only not return at the war’s conclusion, but not receive any message confirming his death. Because The Boy has assumed The Son’s identity, as far as the US military is concerned The Son is not dead, which means that from The Lover’s perspective, she was likely in written correspondence with her fiancee until suddenly it stopped and no word on his status or whereabouts arrived to let her know either way if the man she loved was even alive. This conflict is explored more in “The Squeaky Wheel,” but for now, The Lover is just a woman who cannot be at peace as she longs to see and hear from her love. She is in a purgatory of sorts, not able to feel hope for The Son but also not able to even properly mourn him.
I never had known such a fragile hurt
Of a lover’s curse
And the echoes of you
Rhyme like a distant verse on forgotten words
And here’s where it starts getting creepy if this song is solely about The Boy and Ms. Terri. It’s possible to twist this enough to make it reasonable if you only interpret it as a familial love and nothing more, but it’s still a bit awkward. It works perfectly well for The Lover though, especially as she’s likely imagining him out there somewhere, but all she has are the echoes of him in their time together and whatever letters he sent during the war. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful verse, and this track features some of my favorite lyrics from Casey in general.
I lost my love down below and
I’d swear you’d never know
So give me death or set me free
Just return my soul to me
It’s in the bridge of the song that we get the strongest cases for both The Boy’s and The Lover’s POV. The lyrics that Casey sings here by far make more sense coming from The Lover, as she claims that she’s lost her love, but no one would know because he was never proclaimed dead and is, by all official accounts, still alive. At this point all she wants is to know the truth, whether he is truly alive or dead, so she can escape this purgatory and finally be at peace.
However, if you listen closely to the bridge entrance right before these lyrics, in the backing vocals you can hear the words “Someday she’ll be gone,” which is a direct callback to “His Hands Matched His Tongue” from Act I. As I already mentioned in “The Old Haunt,” that track was all about The Boy’s relationship with his mother and his inability to ask her the questions he knows he should before it’s too late. The guilt he feels for not being able to protect her still weighs on him heavily to this day, and it appears to be something that he cannot simply leave behind like he could his relationship with Ms. Leading.
In the end, this track really only makes sense in the context of the story as a split-screen kind of song, with both The Boy and The Lover mourning different figures of their past, all the while moving closer and closer to each other. In a way, this track underscores the issues that will ultimately doom their own relationship later on in the story, as the two are plagued by different ghosts and have goals and ambitions that simply do not line up.
We’ve got one final stop on the The Dear Hunter Remembrance Tour, and this one’s a doozy. Though “Remembered” is easily one of the more low-key tracks on the album with its light touch and fluttery orchestration, it also plays a crucial role in filling in some important character and story gaps. Namely, we get a clear idea of some of the key events between the end of Act III and the beginning of Act IV and an impetus for The Boy’s return to The City.
Left your face on a map
Sturdied up boulders
And loosened the river
To fork where it finds the best
The lyrics have touched upon the subject a couple of times thus far, but “Remembered” is the one track that is really dedicated to his father and half-brother and deals with the aftermath of their deaths. The Boy refers to the poisoning of his father as leaving his “face on a map,” in a sense de-personalizing him and his relationship to him. He’s just another face on The Boy’s memory map that he’s left behind. This also works for his assuming his brother’s identity, as he’s actively continuing his life for him in another direction, hence “loosen[ing] the river” to divert its path towards his own advantage.
Met your life before us
Left them your necklace
And brandished your ashes
Like stars peaking out in the gloam
Here he talks about meeting his father’s family (likely The Mother, The Son’s siblings, and perhaps some extended family), his “life before us” (i.e. before they met in war). It would seem that after the war The Boy took it upon himself to bring The Father’s ashes home to present to his family. It also makes mention of a necklace, which I have to assume is a reference to his dog tags. As alluded to at the end of Act III, The Boy could seemingly return to The Mother posed as her son given their resemblance, and it appears that is exactly what he did. There’s something particularly pernicious in this, as he not only killed the husband and father of the family he’s presenting the ashes to, but is doing so under guise of their own flesh-and-blood. It’s a darkness that is belied by the light tone of the music itself.
As for the last couple of lines of the verse, it’s difficult to decipher exactly what Casey meant here, but that “Envy” is a really strong and weighty word. Is The Boy feeling envy towards something? If so, what would he be envious of in this situation? And what or who is he likening to stars becoming just faintly visible at twilight? My interpretation of this is that the grief he sees from the family of The Father is affecting him in a way that is utterly unfamiliar to him. As someone without any family to speak of, the notion of actually having people to grieve your death and miss you would surely feel like a gift to him, perhaps enough to actually feel envious of them in this moment in spite of their deaths.
Every choice that you made
Lost before cause
Had effect found in Babel
Like pieces of puzzles belong
The Boy ponders on how everything his brother and father have done up to this point have now been cut off before their true effects could be known. The Boy appears to be suffering from some guilt over his decisions, likening himself to the wrathful god that confounded the languages of men in Babel, destroyed their tower, and scattered them across the earth lest they band together and decide they don’t need a god. He seems to recognize how much he’s destroying this family to his own selfish benefit, but recognizes that he must keep “pieces of puzzles” “shackled” in order to maintain this ruse.
Gave myself to the war
Damned if I didn’t
Demand that they sing such
A sensible baring of your
There’s a certain sense of entitlement flowing through this verse, as if The Boy is saying “Hey, I sacrificed my soul and identity in this war, so the least you can do now is tell me some stuff about my father who I just killed recently.” Bearing witness to the grief of his “family” over the loss of his father, it’s not at all strange that he would inquire about him and try to learn more about the man he only knew a small piece of in battle before committing patricide. He also likely learned quite a bit about The Son during this visit, important details to have for someone stealing an identity, such as the existence and whereabouts of a certain woman he’s supposedly engaged to.
This might also be a stretch, but the somewhat awkward phrasing of the last couple of lines ending in “Mystery” leads me to believe there’s a little more going on there in some clever wordplay. As pretty much everyone knows, Ms. Terri is a play on words for “mystery” due to The Boy’s ignorance of her past. And due to The Father’s unfortunate relationship with her that resulted in The Boy’s birth, it’s possible that The Boy was able to weasel out some details from The Son’s family about this incident. Perhaps The Mother knew all along that he had cheated on her but was not aware that it resulted in an illegitimate child (as The Father seemingly was never aware). Either way, The Boy is clearly filling in some details about his own history as well as the history of the man he’s trying to be now.
The flame might be gone but the fire remains
And I’m stuck on a path to my own ruin
Did you see me behind the wheel?
Did you see me behind the wheel?
And the flame might be gone but the fire…
First time we’ve heard that in a while! With this trip comes the full realization that whatever family The Boy had is now officially dead and gone. Only this time The Boy knows that he is the one who made it so. He’s committed some truly heinous acts here in stealing the identity of his brother he left on the battlefield for dead and the murder of the father he had just met, followed by exploiting the grief of their family to his own benefit. The Boy has most certainly turned a corner here towards something darker, and he seems to be fully aware of it. He’s set himself down this dangerous path and is steering the wheel. And yet, as we already know, he’s set on course for The City, where he will only continue down the course he set for himself, hurtling ever closer to his own reckoning. The flame is most certainly gone, but the fire remains.
This first third of Act IV is some dense, heavy stuff, and if you managed to actually read through all of this you must surely be as enthralled by this work as I am! With the plot really kicking in starting with “A Night on the Town,” the remainder of the album should a bit more narratively clear, but there’s still an awful lot to unpack and discuss, so I’ll see you soon for Part 2!