Hey there folks! Welcome to Part II of our *prognotes episodes, featuring the land down under’s Arcane [read Part I here]. In case you don’t remember, *prognotes is our once dead, now revived, series delving into the wonder and mystery of concept albums. We analyze the lyrics, ideas and themes, going deeper into some of the stories that have moved us. Last time, we explored the first album in the doublet that is Known/Learned, a touching story of The Soldier (as we have dubbed him), torn by war and internal struggle from The Mother and The Child. We rode alongside him as he struggled to find the balance in his life, finally realizing that what he needs is his family and home. But, well that be so easy? What prices, social and psychological, must he pay for his family? Let’s find out in the second part, as we delve into the elusive hands of Learned.
Calling this album “elusive” was not a mistake. Its lyrical themes are much more complex, weaving ideas and images from the first album alongside brand new motifs. The music itself is also much more subtle, as Learned is a much quieter and “smaller” album in many regards. Which is perfect for its concept: a journey of discovery, release, acceptance and melancholy rather than of fiery exploration, struggle and war.
“Hunter, Heart & Home” is the perfect opener for such a tapestry. It begins with hinting towards The Child, describing The Soldier singing “his own lullaby”, a turn of phrase which has given me many a smile. However, we are quickly reminded that The Mother is here as well and has just as big a part to play in this:
Skin to skin
she rises gently
resting safe where fire meets water
rising hands chase shivers
She sang to the Hunter,
“Heart and Home is all I hoped for.”
By giving The Soldier’s counterpart words, but not directly describing her as The Mother, Grey has conflated the two in our minds. The return then is not the simple reunion of lovers but the joyous coming together of family: Child and Mother blend in The Soldier’s eyes, a melding that will have some painful repercussions as the album moves on. In case we needed any more cues that this album was about the whole and the part, the relationship between coming home, bringing together and breaking apart, the track’s other main refrain drives the ideas clearly home:
“Oldest man knows the world’s not the same.
He gave more than most to conquer his change.
Here in this breath, sweet joining of souls
the broken is mended, the unfinished whole.”
The idea of melding, devoid for now of its downside, appears in the second track, “Little Burden”, one of my favorites from this album. Underneath the incredibly infectious, lilting guitar, we hear that The Mother is gone. Perhaps childbirth took her, a thematic idea which would resonate well with the further submersion of The Soldier into her existence:
“Light folds you to me
I hold you in new sheets.
I see her in you.
I follow you into sleep.”
“I’m still here.
Just you and me, little one.
I’m still here.
I’ll Never let go, I swear.
These are of course natural and positive reactions of The Soldier as a father, but the album will soon show us how these can easily go to far. For now, The Soldier has found something new to consume his life. He “is better now”, driven by a new need: to make a home for him and The Child, to ensure that she is never alone in what he already knows to be a very cold and harsh world. The explosive ending of the track, as far as music goes, takes us back to the first album, perfectly explaining the juxtaposition: The Soldier once fought for peace and now he fights for The Child. The line “I am better, now” hints towards an element that we might have missed in the last chapter: The Soldier appears to be have suffered from some form of depression, whether from the death of The Mother, his struggles or both.
Later on, it’s even hinted that The Mother died alone. While The Solider might have made it to see her deathbed, as we claimed in our analysis of Holding Atropos, it’s possible he missed/misses the time right before that, while fighting and spending his life elsewhere (I’ve since spoken to Grey about this and found out his intention was otherwise. Apparently, Holding Atropos is The Soldier bemoaning his own death, not his wife. However, I’m going to stick to my narrative). This can be seen in the next track, “Impatience and Slow Poison”. At the very end, there is a conflation between the songs that he and his soldiers sang and the song that The Mother sang:
Over and on,
Over and gone, she was…”
By placing them at the same time, Grey creates a sense of time lost, time that could have been spent otherwise. While this could be interpreted as the song he and The Mother sang to each other, I think that by using “she” at the last line, the plural is separated, hinting that the first “we” is The Soldier and his men rather than him and The Mother.
I have to admit something: the next couplet always breaks me, apart, roughly. They are some of the saddest songs I know, made even more cutting by their joining at the theme. The first is the title track, again named for the previous album, “Known“. This pictures The Soldier (perhaps better called The Father now) speaking to The Child when they are both much older. He tells her that she needs to remember her life’s “long lessons”: that rage and burning passion change the world. This has added weight, as we are possibly seeing The Soldier coming to terms with himself:
“Don’t forget what you’ve learned,
these long lessons.
The bridges you burned made the world turn.
And times when, blood to the bone,
hand in hand,
live your life chained to the stone,
you’ll be home then.
We’ll have time then.”
The last line is important: his cries about lost time are perhaps answered here. Changing the world is important to him, always has been. The wasted time that resulted from it will be returned to them, perhaps many-fold, in the future. Here, concepts of the afterlife are first introduced, with The Soldier hinting that they will all be reunited, Mother, Soldier and Child, in the afterlife. He says they are inseparable:
“Don’t forget who we are.
Like deep ocean will mirror the stars…
She loved you.”
And here comes the heart-breaking twist: in “Nightingale’s Weave”, The Father is dead. He’s dead but whether in memory or in actuality, he haunts the life of The Child, now a grown woman. That melding we mentioned before, that inseparable quality, has gone so far that The Child has to tell her own beloved parent to move on into death. He is unable to do so, still needing to build a home for her, to protect her:
“Dust in the shape of you,
stares into shadow
But I can still see you stand strong,
Building a home
Tell me you know these hands,
Not hers, but mine.
Father, be strong, you can let it go…”
“Not hers, but mine”. This powerful line sums it all up: The Father’s insistence on seeing them all as one unit, as a being joint at the waist into some sort of trinity, is impossible. The Child is her own person now, not her father nor her mother. She pleads with him to understand that she will never forget what he has done for her and that, in a way, he lives with her and with the person he let her become. She does so, Grey does so, by repeating the distinct words from the previous track:
‘ “Deep ocean mirroring the stars
“(You gave me my heart)” ‘
This, for me, is the penultimate moment of this album: a joining of the two which allows The Child to be herself. She recognizes the debt she owes The Father, his stamp on her, but also insists on her individuality. This beautiful mixing of themes and reoccurring lines sends me to tears on every listen.
The timeline now jumps again. We are left with the ending to this story. “Eyes for the Change” ushers it in, showing us The Soldier before his death, sitting in the home that he has built. He considers his life and what he has learned (get it?) and most of all, the expectations that people had for him. They had expected some final gesture from this hero, the fighter for change that he had been. But, at the end of the day and his life, he has nothing to give them:
“We’ve been looking out on the infinite recursion.
Just been wasting time.
Something makes me smile,
I tell it to the walls,
And I know what I have made mine.”
At the end of the day, for him, change is an illusion. What matters is what you build for others, what survives after you. More than that, it takes true strength to admit that you are powerless. At the end of his life, The Soldier looks back on his life, on his attempts to change things bigger than himself and realizes that most, if not all, of his efforts were for naught. His advice is much more subtle than simply giving up though; he says instead that the blind conviction in his own veracity that he once had was not true strength:
“You can sit with your eyes open,
damned to crack the camel’s back
but I am strong today.
And I am wrong today.”
Admitting you are wrong is the step to true strength. “Eyes open” here is the idealist, staring wide at the world, strenuous, not letting change flow through him and make him different. Instead he is “damned to crack the camel’s back”, to strive to be the last straw after many that have already fallen to no effect. So, what has survived The Father? What thing of his own making as he launching into the future? Why, The Child, of course. “Keeping Stone: Water Awake”, echoing the track of almost the same name from the previous record, is about what it all meant. All the time lost, all the pain, all the sadness and death, what was it for? For The Child and the promise she represents:
“What was lost
What was left here
What is old
What is over
What I need
What I kept here…
“She’ll go far.”
were your words.
Know that she’ll go far.”
This is a promise The Father makes to The Mother. Amidst Opeth references that are hard to miss, The Father admits: “We’ve saved the best for last”. The Child is the best of them both, filled with their lessons, promise and strength. What is needed however, in his eyes, for her potential to bloom? What she needs is what he didn’t have when he was young: acceptance. That flexibility to let things wash over you and to revel in them, to accept them into you:
“Know that she’ll go far.
When the water comes,
I hope that you’ll be ready
to just drink in deep until you drown.
When the water comes,
You’ll swallow down your words.
“Just breathe, its only water.”
There is only one thread left to tie then: the first album opened with “Promise: Part II”. It is now, finally, time for “Promise: Part I”. Chills race down my arms as the story is brought to a close, even now on my umpteenth listen. What exactly did The Soldier (long before he was The Father but perhaps in the exact moment when he became one) know when he left? Apparently, all. The promise was not just to return to his loved one, to The Mother. He already knew, even back then, that she was pregnant:
“She had kept it safe and secret,
standing silent by the window.
Finally she breathed her last,
for what she had to give was final.
He held her.
He had made a simple promise,
whispered in their final first kiss.
Cradled in his arms, she lay still.
Never made it home…
but she will.”
“But she will”. In many senses, The Mother is the ultimate tragic character of this story: left by her loved one, dead before her child could grow, alone and without the home that The Soldier promised her. Her only reconciliation, the only peace for this character, is that The Child at least will have a home. Or perhaps she herself, in the same afterlife alluded to earlier by The Soldier, might reach a home after all? On this open note the second album ends, completing the masterful tapestry that is Known/Learned. I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed the ride. See you next time.