*prognotes breaks down and analyzes your favorite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.
Welcome back once again. In case you missed our previous installments, we are going through The Dear Hunter’s brilliant Acts series and analyzing its story, characters, motivations, and deeper meaning. In the previous post, we went through the first half of the band’s enormously epic Act II. There were simply so many things to discuss just in the time spent between our protagonist’s mother, Ms. Terri, being murdered and The Boy having his first sexual encounter with the mysterious and enchanting Ms. Leading that I had to break this up into two separate posts. The second half is perhaps a bit more melodramatic than the first, but what do you expect when it concerns a teenage boy’s first romance? Last we left our two new lovers, we found them in an “Embrace” (i.e. doin’ the nasty), and the two spent the night together in The Dime.
“Smiling Swine” is easily one of the most anthemic and popular songs this band has, despite it (even more so than “Oracles”) being another musical outlier for them. Mixing elements of The Beatles’s “A Day in the Life” and sounds reminiscent of Electric Light Orchestra and Queen, it’s the very definition of power-pop. And yet I dare you not to sing along when it comes to this song’s refrain.
I woke alone, put on my coat, ran for the door
Down the stairs, and made it to the second floor
Stopped by the squeaky wheel, a smiling swine
Stunned by the sight and fearing what’s behind
That morning, The Boy wakes up and finds his lover nowhere to be found. Perhaps sensing something is amiss he attempts to make a quick exit. But of course, The Priest/Pimp is waiting for him, perhaps after confronting Ms. Leading and chastising her for not making her “customer” pay for her services. The Boy can immediately detect something wrong with this man and is disgusted enough by him to call him a “smiling swine.” Worse yet, he identifies his hideous exterior and is fearful for what lays beneath it.
“Hey there” he pleasantly began
“Good day” he telescoped his hand
“Is there a service I can possibly propose?”
“Ms. Leading seems to me to be a proper butterfly”
“Then I suggest you pack your bags and learn to drive!”
Wielding his power and easily manipulating The Boy through fear, The Priest tells The Boy that he must pay to see Ms. Leading, and if he cannot do that, then perhaps there’s another way he could be of service to him. He proposes that The Boy be The Dime’s personal driver and bring Ms. Leading and the other ladies around to customers in The City (clearly The Priest is thinking ahead of the curve here to provide an excellent escort delivery service). Of course sensing the opportunity to manipulate The Boy further, he likely proposes this as a straight-forward job without revealing the nature of what these women do exactly and what Ms. Leading is.
Tucked in my shirt, and finally made my way outside
He broke the scene, a machiavellian dandelion
Blissfully plucked from the bloom of another
The Priest leaves to tend to The Church, and our protagonist finally makes his way out of The Dime. He refers to The Priest as a “machiavellian dandelion,” which is a beautiful way of calling him an unscrupulous, deceitful weed. Meanwhile, The Boy, still riding high from his experience the night before, feels as if he’s been plucked from Ms. Leading’s bloom.
But all the while
She was still fresh in my mind
And though this might be premature
But ambition strikes just when the mood is right
The mood is right
And switching up the song radically to our singalong refrain, we find The Boy caught in the afterglow of the night he had. Despite basically just being told implicitly that the woman he slept with is a prostitute, all he can think about is Ms. Leading and how he loves her, because of course he does, because teenagers. Once again The Boy’s naivety has him soaring on wings of wax, and lord knows the sun isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“Evicted” is an interesting tune lyrically due to its duet-like construction without actually being a duet. At its core we get both the perspectives of The Boy and Ms. Leading as they each struggle with their personal situations and how to reconcile them in the context of their burgeoning relationship. The Boy, in his new job as a driver for The Dime’s employees, is making a paltry amount of money (ah yes, the halcyon days of no child labor laws, minimum wages, or really any worker protection whatsoever!), which is just enough for him to save up and see Ms. Leading but not much else, such as actual housing apparently. Meanwhile, Ms. Leading struggles with her own attachment to The Boy and fears for how it might affect her own financial stability.
I have been evicted
From a soul constricted
By the flameless fire
Can we all just go cold
At first glimpse this, like much of the track, appears to be from The Boy’s perspective, but look closer and you’ll realize that it’s actually all told from Ms. Leading while still offering personal information about The Boy and things either directed towards him or that could be from him. In the instance of the first verse, despite The Boy fitting the bill as someone who may have been evicted both in the literal sense (with nowhere to live he has to sleep in the streets) and metaphorical (the death of Ms. Terri, his journey, and his love of Ms. Leading has evicted him of his constrained previous life), the third line is the giveaway of who is speaking here. The Boy is the “flameless fire” here as we know from its references throughout the series, and Ms. Leading is lamenting the fact that she has developed feelings for him.
If you need a little cash you sell yourself
A dollar in exchange for failing hearts
So loudly say
The chorus is very clearly from Ms. Leading’s perspective as she seems to simultaneously chide and re-affirm to herself what it is that she does and needs to do to stay afloat. It’s her job to exploit the “failing hearts” of love-sick men for profit. These men are only customers, and she cannot afford to become attached personally beyond that. Then again, it can also be said that this follows The Boy’s perspective as well, as what is he doing if not selling himself to The Priest to make a quick buck off the backs of other men who are using The Dime’s services?
“Oh, how I surely know that frame of mind
Sleeping softly curbside
Comfortably abroad on a stolen ticket
None of this will last
All of this will pass
When bed sheets are broken glass
I know your hearts will skip a beat in empathy.”
Once again, this verse could quite easily be construed at face-value either as coming from our protagonist or Ms. Leading. The Boy is, after all, the one who is sleeping curbside, who would have gotten to The City on a stolen ticket, and whose bed sheets are broken glass. The fact that there are quotation marks surrounding all of this though (which one could only know by seeing the official lyrics released by Casey himself from the album’s liner notes) makes it clear that it’s Ms. Leading speaking about The Boy. She empathizes with him as she likely also lived on the street before taking up residence at The Dime. She remarks that her emotional attachment to him is only out of pity though, and she tells herself that the feelings will pass in due time. Meanwhile, The Boy may very likely be saying similar things to himself, though the things that will “pass” aren’t his feelings as much as his current financial and living situations, as he aspires to be with Ms. Leading permanently in an actual home.
It’s just that easy pick yourself up and go give the world a great big smile
Hey, hey, kid, hey, kid, get a job
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, kid, get a job
Wash that mouth out, ditch those morals, sleep your way right to, right to the top
Hey, hey, kid, hey, kid get a job
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, kid, get a job
The best way to interpret this final stanza is to imagine a split-screen here with both Ms. Leading and The Boy shouting these lines while the other women of The Dime and its customers shout out the call-and-responses. While The Boy attempts to keep his spirits up and is determined to make his situation work, Ms. Leading is doing the opposite, convincing herself to move past The Boy and keep getting ahead in life through the employment of her body and sexuality. With our two main characters seemingly moving in opposite directions, it’s pretty easy to see that this is headed straight into conflict.
“Blood of the Rose”
Dance, dance your decay
All the while, unknowing that you’re led astray
Sleep, sleep through your woe
While your voice slowly withers and melts away
Sing, sing unto me
The pleasure and the pain
Reveal to me
The reasons my love’s not in vain
And in the biggest musical curveball of the album, we suddenly dip into a string and horn-laden tango. The tango is actually the perfect mechanism to display the disparity between what our protagonist wants out of his relationship with Ms. Leading and the reality of it. As the saying goes, “It takes two to tango,” and likewise, it takes two to create a sustainable relationship. Here, The Boy struggles internally to justify the sacrifices he’s making to continue to see Ms. Leading, all predicated on the assumption that she’s been faithful and committed to him. He can’t help but slowly come to the realization that he’s being a fooled and played by her though. Of course she’s “dancing” with others and being led astray.
There are several times through this album that The Boy’s sheer ignorance and naivety can be maddening, and here is one of those times. But you also have to keep reminding yourself that he’s a dumb teenager, and dumb teenagers make dumb decisions and agonize over the wrong things all the time. It’s part of the territory. What I’m really saying is that teenagers are the worst, and I don’t recommend being one.
Sangre, sangre de la rosa
Sigue en paz sin el pasado
Rece, rece por su alma
Ella morirá en el bautismo del fuego.
It took some internet digging to find the fully correct version of this verse in Spanish, another stylistic flourish to accompany the whole tango theme. The English translation is as such:
Blood, blood of the rose
Continue in peace without the past
Rest, rest your soul
She will die in the baptizing of the flames
Our baptism by fire makes its return. In case you don’t recall the prologue from Act I, “Battesimo Del Fuoco,” The Oracles speak of “A failed life exposed the man; Who led her off into the flame; To cast her back to hell again.” In this instance The Oracles are referring to The Priest, who exploited Ms. Terri and then later had her killed after she escaped. In this reference though, The Oracles speak again to The Boy, urging him once more to forget about Ms. Leading, The Dime, and all of this. Ms. Leading is destined to die (either literally or at least metaphorically) at the hands of The Priest, who baptizes by fire.
The world burns but still we breathe
The iron chambered heart a sieve
That sifts through honest elegance
And suffers from the wrong defense
Beautiful language here further expressing our protagonist’s angst. The heart is compared to a sieve, or filter, here, one that has to “sift” or process pure emotion and in turn hurts its owner through heartache and pain. Not too much to analyze there. Like love, heartache is a universal language. All of this angst has to have some release somewhere though, and it’s all about to come to a head.
Time to turn the angst dial allllll the way to eleven. Of all the anthems present in Act II, none trump “Red Hands” when it comes to fan requests live, for good reason. The choruses and buildup throughout the song make it perfect for screaming at the top of your lungs with emotion. Musically it’s far from my personal favorite of theirs, but I can’t deny that this track absolutely kills at what it seeks to do.
Even if you never strayed from me
I’d question your fidelity
There’d always be a shroud of suspicion
And my heart’s a liability
With your hands marooned so freshly red
You’d wrap your lips around my neck
Try and force to love the thought of me
Simple motions make me ill
At the crux of this song we have our protagonist confronting Ms. Leading after discovering her with one of her “customers.” Simply put, The Boy doesn’t trust Ms. Leading to not cheat on him, which, once again, she is a prostitute what do you expect?! Beyond that though, it’s less that he’s afraid of her cheating on him than that she would do so and then treat him just like any other man, trying to “force to love the thought” of him. He’s made huge sacrifices for her (none of which she asked for, mind you), and for all of that she doesn’t feel nearly the same way for him that he does for her. That’s certainly a universal thing that pretty much any person who’s been in a relationship can understand.
Was it bitter when you tossed and turned
On an undercover mattress?
Did it feel so good? Hope it felt so good.
Don’t know what I’d do if you lost sleep over little old me.
He’s so much better.
They’re all much better.
Take off your sweater, your shoes, and your shirt, and get to work.
Oof, and now the daggers come out. The built-up frustration and angst come out in the form of bitterness as The Boy sarcastically tells her that he hopes that having sex with other men feels good, that she shouldn’t lose sleep thinking about him for one second, and that everyone else is better than him. The worst though is telling her to take off her clothes and “get to work,” coming just short of calling her a stupid whore.
Maybe this is just a work of art
Scripted players in a play of lust
Hope the end is well worth waiting for
Everything you wished it be
Man, he’s really just laying it on thick here to the point of dickishness, facetiously comparing what she does to theater and that he hopes that screwing other men and ripping out their hearts makes her happy and is everything she hoped for. Not that we all haven’t said things in the heat of the moment that we regret, but still. Low blows abound here.
Oh my god what have I done
Now my darling put your clothes back on
Oh my god what have I done
Now my darling put your clothes back on
Because you can’t be caught red handed
If you’re not red handed
My darling I would never say those words to you
I was pulling out my heart so I could pin it to my sleeve
On display for you to see I’m on display
Finally once he gets his anger out he realizes the things he said and swings in the exact opposite direction, having a full-on emotional breakdown in front of her. He takes back everything he just said, claiming that he was just hurt and wearing his heart on his sleeve with his raw emotions. We’re left with a pitiful individual who clearly wants love and is willing to cut himself with the knife of happiness to achieve it but is seeking it in all the wrong places. Our protagonist is spiraling downward, and there’s so far to fall when you fly so high.
“Where the Road Parts”
It’s ironic how I fall just to get back up again
A fix to cure this ailing bitter agony
Meet me where the road parts
You remember where we first met
So tongue-in-cheek with stale irony
If it pleases you, it pleases me
Just an innocent call, a telephone call
Just an innocent call
The Boy finds himself at the lowest of lows. Wallowing in his own self-pity upon discovering that his love has belonged to a prostitute who was likely using him for her own benefit (and perhaps also realizing that his mother, Ms. Terri, was also a prostitute), the trippy and winding guitar intro suggests that our protagonist is further spiraling downward, perhaps even on an alcohol-fueled bender. He remarks at how his shoddy luck in life keeps knocking him down and how, for whatever reason, he keeps picking himself up to face more hardship.
He then begins to recall a phone conversation he just had with Ms. Leading after leaving The Dime (or likely being thrown out for causing a disturbance and disrupting Ms. Leading while she was with a paying customer). He asks her to meet him at the spot where they first met, and she responds with a blithe remark about how she’ll do what he wants if it pleases him. He notes the irony of this line in both how her means of living forces her to do what other men want to please them and how this has led to The Boy being anything but pleased.
Now, if you were in bloom I’d pluck your petals clean
Although it won’t seem so, I can promise you, my ego’s running me
Then I’d be called, you were the only one that didn’t fold
But I just broke right down for you in an attempt to gain control
Maybe I’m a waste of time…
Sacrifice another life…
You were the only one that didn’t fold
I think there are several ways one could interpret this part of the song, but the one that makes the most sense to me is that this comes from both the perspective of Ms. Leading and The Boy having a moment of frank honesty with each other, either on the phone or when they come together “where the road parts.” She reveals to him her true nature, that even if she does have some personal feelings for him, that she will not place those in front of her desire to manipulate others for her personal gain. She says that if he were a flower in bloom that she’d pluck his petals, taking away what she can from him, which is a great callback to The Boy from “Smiling Swine” in which he was downright giddy at the thought of being plucked from Ms. Leading’s bloom. She also clarifies that even though she is a prostitute in the employ of The Priest and would seem to not be in control of herself or her body, that she is not a victim here. She does this because it pleases her and it makes her feel good to get money from others by manipulating their emotions and hearts. For her it’s not about sexual satisfaction but deeper personal satisfaction (to the benefit of her “ego”).
He then responds by saying that part of his feelings for her is in the fact that she “didn’t fold” like the rest of the people under The Priest’s thumb, that she is firmly in control of her actions and desires and is not simply giving into base lust. Furthermore, his emotional breakdown in front of her was an attempt to make her do just that — manipulate her to feel sorry for him and bend her desire to his will. He then dives back into self-pity, saying that she shouldn’t waste her time on him. “Sacrifice another life” would appear to be a callback to “The Procession” and the refrain of “One life for another,” in which Ms. Terri’s life was sacrificed so The Boy could move on with his life. In this instance The Boy seems to be suggesting that in this instance he needs to sacrifice his own love and feelings for Ms. Leading in order to let her live her own life, so she can remain “the only one who didn’t fold.”
It’s a beautifully heart-wrenching song, one whose subtlety and depth contrasts that of the blunt melodrama that immediately preceded it. Unfortunately these moments of introspection and mature discussion about the nature of desire, relationships, and the governance of one’s own body and will fade quickly as The Boy fully realizes that what he wants is incompatible with Ms. Leading and believes that she has been the one manipulating him this whole time.
“Dear Ms. Leading”
Finally we get to the climax of this whole thing. This is easily one of the most pointed and epic “Fuck you” breakup songs out there. Even if I think our protagonist’s tirade is largely self-righteous and undeserved, I cannot deny that shouting it is one of the more cathartic experiences one can have.
Dear Ms. Leading,
I hate to tell you that I no longer need your services
The bitter fabricating manufacturer of lust
You have been presented as
Doesn’t do a thing for me, I now know your identity
A black widow who tempts her prey with promises of love
If ignorance is bliss
Wish I were blissfully ignorant
But I’m not
I’m enlightened now light has been presented to me
In spite of you
You know Ms. Leading I regret to inform you
I’ve fallen out of lust
It must be so hard to understand
(Hell no I don’t think so, hell no I don’t think so)
Did you really think me a fool enough to play along?
Make believing everything you said was true
Push your pouting lips on other unsuspecting lovers
(Hell no I don’t think so, hell no I don’t think so)
After the two characters’ soul-baring conversation and the true nature of Ms. Leading’s personality as one who mines the vast chasms of male loneliness for financial gain becomes crystal clear, The Boy writes a series of breakup letters to her in a particularly cutting fashion. There are few words minced and little room for interpretation with any of this. He says that he’s breaking up with her, that he now knows who she really is, that he wishes he were still ignorant of what she does and what he’s learned (should have listened to The Oracles!), and that he is no longer ignorant in spite of the fact that she seemingly would have been fine continuing to take his money and keep up the charade for as long as possible.
Dear Ms. Leading,
In response to your response
I’m simply unavailable
I hope you got the message in the message that I sent
(Shame on me for falling for someone so dense)
In different times I’d might’ve fooled around for something warm
Something with security
As fleeting as the momentary rapture and the pleasure of collapsing in arms
So welcoming to others just like me
Though there isn’t anything particularly ambiguous or that could be left to interpretation here, I think there is a somewhat unintended irony here of The Boy getting so high-and-mighty through this verse. He says that in different times he may have stuck with Ms. Leading because she was reliable and safe like it was so long ago that he was the wide-eyed boy who fell head-over-heels in love with her despite knowing next to nothing about her. Once again, as teenagers and younger people are wont to do, he interprets this one experience as giving him such great perspective on life and boasts about how wise and better than her she is. In reality though he still knows nothing of this life or of the harsh reality of the world (a theme I’ll come back to at the end of this). Of course, this is only the second act of six, so there will be plenty of time for his “education.”
“Black Sandy Beaches”
Messages from broken bottles fall on black sandy beaches
Ink in vein across the page now run from morning dew
Hands which chance upon it lead to eyes which strain to read
Hearts which pound from love long overdue
Lips which press together, stifle, rhythmic, heavy breaths
Oh how she smiles from vicarious love from the one he writes about
She must have been so glad for him to throw it out
“Black Sandy Beaches” is a really fascinating song because it essentially pulls back from the dueling perspectives we’ve witnessed through most of the back half of the album (The Boy and Ms. Leading) and calls into question the true feelings and motivations of the characters. We have a third party, either more concretely a random stranger or more abstractly our “narrator” of the story (which, to this point, has been taken up by The Oracles), finding the letters in broken bottles sent between The Boy and Ms. Leading washed up on a beach. This individual picks them up in chronological order, assuming that the ink on them runs from morning dew. She strains to read it and further assumes from what she can see that it’s a love letter. Imagining the two of them happily in each other’s embrace, she vicariously picks out the love that perhaps for a moment was genuine between them.
Further steps lead to yet another broken bottle
Again the words contain have bled the page
Whose tears were these which ran the ink?
From whom they bore to make this streak?
Where they his by chance from telling her?
Or hers by chance from reading it?
They could have been collective
They could have been from someone else
Why don’t we see what’s at the bottom?
Why don’t we see what comes next?
Oh how she cries from vicarious pain from the one he writes about
She must have been so sad for him to throw her out
As this individual goes further down the beach she finds more letters and realizes that the ink runs not from dew or seawater but tears, and we’re left wondering whose tears they are. Suddenly we see that our perspective of what transpired in the past few songs has perhaps been skewed by the people telling it (i.e. our characters). We don’t know the true feelings and motivations of what they felt on the inside — only what they projected outward. Perhaps The Boy, who seemed so full of righteous indignation and was able to break off his relationship with Ms. Leading without remorse actually felt more pain than he let on. Same goes for Ms. Leading, who projected a strong, almost callous cool (at least from The Boy’s perspective). It’s likely that both of them, deep down, were more attached to each other than they realized, and like most relationships that don’t work out for one reason or another, it wasn’t all bad or good, and both parties contributed to its demise. Either way we’ll never know for sure, and there will not be any neat or tidy closure for either of them, as the individual on the beach realizes as she runs out of letters to piece their story together and asks what comes next.
Let’s just say, she, she is better
Better off somehow
Let’s just say, she, she has never been happier than she is now
We couldn’t fake it, so why even try?
Let’s just say, she is better, better off somehow
Let’s just say, she has never been happier then she is now
Let’s just say, she is better, better off somehow
Let’s just say, she has never been happier
Happier than she is now
I think there are several ways to read this. The first is from the “objective” narrator’s perspective. Since we’ll never know for sure what happened between the two of them or what will happen to Ms. Leading, our surrogate narrator suggests that it’d be easier to just say that she’s better off and happier now, that everything happens for a reason, and that it’s not worth thinking too much about because “we couldn’t fake it” anyway. This can also apply to The Boy’s perspective though, and as he leaves behind Ms. Leading (and shortly The City), tells himself that she’s probably better off without him, that they couldn’t fake being a loving couple. The third option is to simply take it at face-value, that Ms. Leading is indeed better off and happier without The Dear Hunter and the complications (and whiny indignation) that he brought. All three are valid, and likely all three are true in some way. We’ll never know for sure though, and our protagonist will not be sticking around to find out.
“Vital Vessels Vindicate”
Salt in the sky in the sweet summer air while mammoths depart
Abandon despair with thirsty affairs of the heart
But the chances of escaping my heart are inadequate,
And when all is said and done I’m left with my history
Finally, after all of the drama and misbegosh our protagonist has gone through over the course of this album, we come to a close. As The Oracles prophesied early on, The Boy is departing The City by boat (evidently rather large ones by the descriptions of them as “mammoths”). Hoping that he can get over the despair he felt over Ms. Leading and that whole experience through a change of scenery, he recognizes that escaping the location will not allow him to escape himself or his history.
Goodbye, my eyes shed heavy tears
One for every soul still sitting on the fence between pain and arrogance
In a moment of somewhat weepy arrogance, he says that he sheds tears and feels bad for those who are still stuck in The City who will continue to fall prey to those like Ms. Leading, The Priest, and the other people of The Dime. In what is becoming a recurring theme, our protagonist experiences something, believes that he’s learned a significant lesson and has gained wisdom, and quickly moves on only to make similar or worse mistakes.
Ebb to the left flow to the right
The exit’s unflawed
The boys on the train
The almighty tongue with prose spilled in vain
This verse in particular highlights that very point. Making a direct reference to The Oracle’s prophecy about “Big steam ships, exits illustrate the flaw,” The Boy directly contradicts that and basically says, “Yeah, I’m leaving, but I learned my lesson. There’s no flaw to my plan or intentions, and everything will be fine.” He then refers to The Oracles and comments that the time they spent warning him of his fate weren’t necessary and in vain.
This in fact underlines his greatest flaw (and I suspect the one that will eventually lead to his ultimate demise), which is his inability to learn the right lessons from his mistakes and allowing his naive and ignorant worldview inform his future actions. The general assumption with these kinds of stories is that the protagonist is “good” and generally makes “good” decisions because of it. But in the case of The Dear Hunter, that is clearly not the case. He certainly isn’t evil or even really an anti-hero by modern standards, but he is a character who, in spite of his seemingly good intentions, continues to make poor and rash decisions based more on raw emotion than reason and logic. This becomes far more evident in Act III, and I suspect it will continue through Act IV and beyond.
We fall beneath the sea of dreams and fail to breathe until we resurface
We fall beneath the sea of dreams and fail to breathe until we awaken again
Sing softly sing me to the lake
Sing softly bring me to the lake
Through all of this I’ve felt just the same
The flame is gone, the fire remains
Of course, the other purpose of this track is as a retrospective bookend to what just transpired. The Boy reminisces on events throughout the story thus far, sending up a reprise to “The Bitter Suite III: Embrace,” recalling his mother’s lullabye, and then, inevitably, the flame and the fire. The subtle changes to the “Embrace” lyrics (“We fall beneath the sea in the back of our hearts and fail to breathe until we resurface again”) makes it less about love and passion and more about dreams and how we envision the future. In the final two lines of the album, The Dear Hunter claims that he is still alone in the world and that his mission to find happiness and satisfaction in life remains as unfulfilled as ever. As he departs The City, he surely imagines that things will improve from here. As we all know though, he hasn’t even come close to knowing what true misery and despair are.
Thanks for following along as I gradually make my way through these three monumental albums! I will likely end up splitting up Act III in half like I did here, and the first half will come sometime next week.
Until then: The flame is gone, the fire remains