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

Welcome welcome welcome! In case you missed our four previous installments, we are going through The Dear Hunter’s brilliant Acts series and analyzing its story, characters, motivations, and deeper meaning. I have to say that this project has been quite more ambitious and time-consuming than I originally intended, but it’s also been a terrific way for me to come to a greater understanding of this material prior to Act IV’s official release. I hope you all feel the same way. Anyway, when we last left our protagonist, he had encountered four incarnations of war out on the Western Front of World War I: the mechanical hybrid of destruction that was The Tank; the deceitful and twisted, though ultimately conflicted, Poison Woman; the opportunistic and coldly calculating Thief; and finally, the nightmarish and utterly inhuman soldiers deploying Mustard Gas. The last one has left The Boy incapacitated on the ground and left for dead. Thankfully for him, a stranger who will play a crucial part of the story enters the frame to pull him back from the brink.


“Saved”

Amongst the stone and smoke
We never laid before
Images floating all about
Life in the afterglow

My decaying mind pretends
None of this ever happened
We either learn to live a lie
Or we’re waiting here to die

Floating in and out of a dream-like haze, The Boy lays on the ground amongst the rubble and debris left over from the bombs and mustard gas set off. He sees his life flashing before his eyes and believes he is dying even as he tries to pretend that none of this happened and that he’s back home. He remarks that we’re all forced to concoct and live lies in order to survive in the world, an apt conclusion to come to after encountering The Tank, The Poison Woman, and The Thief and seeing all that they do to cope and survive in this harsh and cold world.

And after all this suffering
I could lie here for good
But with a mind on fire
I try and stand my ground

Illuminate and I will follow

At this moment our protagonist seems content to simply lay there and die, but a mysterious individual enters to rescue him. The Boy sees him as a ghostly light and gathers the strength to stay alive and follow him to safety.

Amongst the stone and smoke
Rising above it all
Broken but not beyond repair
Let’s see how this soul fares

This moment presents The Boy with a second chance at life, and the dream-like quality of it and allusions to the afterlife give the sense that this is more of a resurrection or a rebirth, both in the physical and spiritual sense. The Dear Hunter still has not transformed himself cynically to adapt to the cruelties of the world, and in spite of what he just said about having to live a lie in order to survive, this moment provides a glimmer of hope that there’s still some good in the world. Although the individual who saves him is not directly mentioned or described in any way, he will play a crucial part of the story shortly.

“He Said He Had a Story”

“He Said He Had a Story” is probably one of the more lyrically-disturbing and depressing songs in the Acts canon, and its casual flippancy towards the governance of the body and how it can be bought and sold by others with power and currency would make it a rather disgusting and unfortunate song for the band if it didn’t serve a very intentional purpose within the greater context of the story. The song is set up not from the perspective of The Boy, but from another stranger in The Boy’s platoon. There’s unfortunately several crucial details that are not spelled out in the lyrics of this song and “Saved,” but thanks to additional details offered up by Casey and work done from other fans, we know that the soldier from “Saved” is a man who looks an awful lot like our protagonist, and the character narrating the story told in this song is the soldier’s father.

There was a silver circle sign
And she was standing at the door
We pressed our way right through the crowd
Our pace was quickened to her floor
There was a single feigning light
And there was silk all on the wall
She had a lot of love to give
I was prepared to take it all
(But what did she do next?)

The Father recounts a story from his youth of he and a group of his friends visiting a brothel of sorts. The fact that the sign for it was “a silver circle” tips us off that this brothel was in fact The Dime back in The City (what a coincidence!). The Father says that he spotted a woman working there that he immediately knew he wanted to have sex with. Setting up the tone of the song though, it’s not simply that he wanted to make love to her, but that he actively wanted to take something from her. There is a vicious hunger established in his character, and it’s pretty easy to tell what direction this is going in.

She had disrobed and she was
Waiting on the floor
She asked me what it was I want
I thought that I wanted it all
(What did you say?)
I said stand up and move your body to the bed
She quickly stood and slowly turned
And here’s exactly what she said …

“Please be soft and sweet to me
This life has not been good, you see
It’s hard with such a history
Buried in misery”

As The Father directs the woman with zero grace or playfulness, the woman turns to him and pleads with him to treat her gently and with love. Her words and allusions to a history fraught with misery and hardship calls to mind not one of the central characters of Act II — the cooly calculating Ms. Leading — but the tragic and conflicted figure of Act I, Ms. Terri, otherwise known as The Boy’s mother. The similarities would seem to not be escaping our protagonist either as he listens to the story and likely begins to get an unsettling feeling.

(And what did you do next?)

I broke a smile, reminding that I paid her well.
Her lips returned, and then I felt
Her hands unbuckling my belt

(So was it good?)

It felt like heaven but I’m sure she was in hell.
I made it clear that I’d get my money’s
Worth out of the goods she sells

If your stomach doesn’t churn a bit at this (particularly in the gleeful singalong and call-and-response way that it’s sung), then you’ve got some serious issues (or perhaps you just belong to a frat). The Father responds to the woman’s plea not with an assurance but merely with a reminder that he’s paying her for her services and expects her to fulfill her obligation to him. He seems to relish the fact that what he did to her caused her pain (implying that there was likely some level of sexual abuse and nonconsensual acts performed). His sole concern here is that he achieve the personal satisfaction he seeked from her, and part of that satisfaction seems to be tied to taking power and agency away from her.

Break and bind yourself to me
Deliver what you sold you see that
I will only take from you
And use you up. I’ll use you up
What was your name?

And just in case those points weren’t made clearly enough, here’s The Father talking about how he preys on her and through monetary transaction is able to justify taking her dignity, her pride, and her agency away from her, all for his own sick satisfaction. And as the bitter and sour cherry on top, in the end he can’t even remember what her name was. She meant so little to him as a human and really only represented an object or idea for him to use to his own benefit. That makes him far worse than the self-serving manipulations of Ms. Leading, and it easily puts him at the same level of the other characters throughout this chapter who transformed themselves to steal belongings and lives from others for their own benefit.

As to the identity of the woman in the story, we know her name. It was Ms. Terri, and as The Boy comes to this realization himself, it doesn’t take long to connect the dots from there as to who The Father and The Son are — his own father and his half-brother. The Dear Hunter has found his family, but it’s far from a happy reunion.

“This Beautiful Life”

https://youtu.be/q3WpATI5IVo

One foot, then the other
Such embarrassment
It wasn’t meant that
I, I should discover
Such offensive things
The suffering sends
Hope to the ground
But I really never had enough
They’ve got pride in him
This tide turns lives over

There are several songs on this album that make great use of ironic dissonance between the mood of the music and the lyrics. As the music remains upbeat and happy, the lyrics bely the disturbing and harsh realities of life at war, further emphasizing the delusions one must put oneself through in order to stay sane in such an environment. “This Beautiful Life” is probably the best example of that, as its bouncy sing-along melodies are contrasted by the existential angst of our protagonist.

As The Boy slowly recovers from his injuries sustained during “Mustard Gas” and contemplates the ramifications of his discovery about his father and half-brother, he struggles to maintain his new, more positive outlook on life from the end of “Saved.” What little hope he regained from his near-death experience has quickly come crashing back down as he realizes that all the suffering present around him before is still there. As always though, he somehow manages to keep picking himself up after being knocked down.

A back-town prophecy
Adorned in stony skin
We never ever (never ever)
Ever had to lie to move ahead
But here in oblivion
We cling to what we can
So in the end (in the end)
We can say that with these hands
We took it all back
It all back

Thinking back on his youth back home at The Lake and The River, he remarks on how he could be the naive, honest individual he was without worrying about being crushed by the cynical forces of the world. Here out on the battlefield and at war though, you have to become hardened and transform yourself to protect against the world stealing everything from you. It’s an important admission to make as he realizes that the same transformation that altered the man in the tank will also likely happen to him the longer he’s out here. War forces us to whittle down our humanity until there’s only slivers left that we lock away and protect at all costs.

So let us force a smile
And pretend that we’re alive
Oh, but somewhere
None of this happened
The bullets removed themselves
Life is beautiful

I have a home above the lake where I could

Forget the words
To the songs that we’ve heard
The passages read
All the names in a world
That have brought us this pain
From the wounds we’ve sustained
A cold calloused heart
Sitting still in this cave of a chest
So abandon a life from before
A boy and his innocence…

Nevertheless, The Boy knows the only way to stay alive here is to force a smile and pretend everything is fine. He can’t help but keep thinking back about his childhood home and his past, before all of this happened, where there were no bullets, and everything was more innocent (which, in itself is a complete delusion given what happened to Ms. Terri). These memories are the only thing keeping him going though, and in the interest of self-preservation, wrapping them up in nostalgic haze is necessary. There’s acknowledgement in the very end though that he also must completely let go of his past life and his innocence to stay alive here. There’s also some pretty heavy foreshadowing about “abandoning” his past life that will be addressed in short time.

 

“Go Get Your Gun”

https://youtu.be/7WeFFBvgpkk

Go get your gun
Get your gun
And let’s find out what it does
Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot
We haven’t won
And if we win
And if the morning light sets in
We’ve cheated fate again

And to those who die
Please try to understand
That for those who die
We tried the best we can

With our one foot in the grave
While the other one’s kickin’ its way
Right down to hell

It’s best to imagine this track as a song the soldiers sing in a bar as it fades into a montage of The Boy and his fellow soldiers continuing the routine of going into battle, taking lives, and doing what they can to stay alive. Following the realizations of “This Beautiful Life,” The Boy has fully succumbed to this life and has turned what would have once terrified or sickened him into simply going through the motions. Knowing he could die at any given moment, every day lived is a day on borrowed time and another chance to inflict as much damage and take as many lives as possible. The transformation and hardening he feared so much from “The Tank” through “Mustard Gas” is complete, and he’s simply another cog in the great machine of war.

Go get your gun
Get your gun
Imposing penance one by one
You’ve got a virtue in a vice
It forces fate you’re taking lives
With all the history to guide
You’ve got a passion in those eyes
So aim it straight and true

There isn’t a whole lot to analyze deeply in this song beyond what I’ve already said, but I’d like to stop a moment and admire the beautiful sharpness of the lyrics present here and throughout the track. It’s a perfect mixture of catchy while being absolutely devastating if you pause to think about it. This song is a wonderful summation of the psychological tolls of war and how it robs the identity and humanity of all those involved. Without ever getting too overtly political or lazily broad, this track and others throughout the album manage to explore the dehumanizing and barbaric realities of war as commentary that’s as relevant for military conflicts today as it would have been back in WWI. Not that its primary purpose is to do so, but it’s refreshing to see music deal with this subject matter that isn’t just a blanket and lazy “war is bad/fuck the politicians/soldiers are machines” screed. The fact that it’s playing out in the backdrop of an overarching story and character drama certainly helps with that and allows the exploration to be a bit more subtle and nuanced.

“Son”/“Father”

https://youtu.be/Rq0RQb5FTNQ

We lay aligned
And move to disguise
With a soul below
Only the eyes above
Slowly and silently
Slip away

“Go Get Your Gun” represents the last glimmer of levity (even if it’s ironic) in Act III. The final three songs are deadly serious, and for good reason. The first two tracks, “Son” and “Father,” represent the climax of the album and one of the darkest and most important moments of the series plot-wise thus far. Throughout this chapter our protagonist has done his best to keep alive some shred of the innocence he took with him when he first embarked on his journey, but with each subsequent piece we’ve seen that part of his identity chipped away. If “Go Get Your Gun” signals his act of transition into a hardened war machine, then “Son” and “Father” represent the full aftermath and ramifications of that transition, albeit with The Boy fully aware of what he’s become and despising it.

Sleep now in the soil
The dust in the debris
A stolen smoke ascends
Leaving the shell to atrophy
Meet with the earth
As the sober spirit sings

There are numerous theories about the specifics of the plot running through these two tracks, but here is the one that makes the most sense to me contextually and that is most borne out by the lyrics themselves. Since The Boy was saved by his half-brother, the two have become close, though he has never told the other the truth (or what he suspected to be the truth) about their familial ties. Once again the two are out in battle though, and the half-brother (or The Son) steps on a landmine and is mortally wounded. The Boy is devastated at the loss. However, in that moment the combination of his hatred of what he’s become and his natural inclination towards negatively impulsive behavior that’s caused him trouble throughout the series places some very devious thoughts into his head.

Leave, leave it behind
This truth is harming you
Leave, leave it behind
Set out and start anew
Your life hereafter
Will cure all your troubles
And recast a history

Turn and walk away…

In a moment of great internal conflict, he contemplates stealing The Son’s dog-tags and starting life anew as him. His mind is telling him to leave behind everything in his past. The truth of both what he’s become and what he’s discovered about his family are too much for him to bear, and he believes that stealing his half-brother’s identity will be just what he needs to get a fresh start. It’s a moment that’s both incredibly twisted and exceedingly ill-conceived for our protagonist, but as I’ve noted before and Casey has made abundantly clear through this, The Boy is far from a hero in this story and more often than not simply has terrible judgment and makes awful decisions that he seems incapable of learning the correct lessons from.

And what of the father?
Will he analyze?
And what about the mother?
Will she discover the truth
Behind this lie we’re living?

As we transition into the “Father,” an immediate flaw in our protagonist’s plan becomes evident. He cannot steal his brother’s identity because his father knows who he is already (though he likely doesn’t know that he’s also his son). He also worries that his brother’s mother will see immediately through him and his lies once he returns to The City.

(I knew I kept this for a reason)
(I knew I kept this for a reason)
Now everything we’ve ever had
Is here for us
Now everything we’ve ever had
Is here for us

As he continues steeped in conflict, he dreams about what his future life could be like. He could return home to a mother who is still alive, loves him, and will take care of him. All the things he dreamed of and wished for as a young boy can be there for him. He wants so badly to be loved and live a normal life in which he can love and be loved that he’s willing to take the most drastic measures to accomplish it. And suddenly we come full circle as The Boy remembers the bottle of ethylene glycol he received from The Poison Woman, and he immediately knows what he must do.

Don’t worry about the father
You’ll take care of him
And as for the mother,
She always loved her son
And you look like him

The Boy decides that he will poison his father (who, to be fair, kind of had it coming for sexually abusing his mother), and that his plan will work out just fine because he looks similar enough to his half-brother that the mother will either not notice or will delude herself into believing that it’s him so she won’t have to deal with the truth — that both her husband and son died in the war. As I alluded to in “In Cauda Venenum,” the title of that track, which once again roughly translates to “The poison is in the tail,” turns out to be a prescient statement. Our protagonist has crossed the threshold of morality in this decision to commit patricide, and though he would probably like to deny it, he has become just as bad, if not worse, than The Tank, The Poison Woman, The Thief, and the Mustard Gas crew. He’s taken two lives — one symbolically and one literally — in service to his own selfish desires, and no amount of dreaming about starting a new life will ever erase that.

“Life and Death”

https://youtu.be/O_AgwXR1Los

When we dance
It looks just like fire
When we sing it
It sounds the same tone
We all have hearts
We all have homes
But when we die
We die alone

As our protagonist carries out his plot successfully (and presumably is not suspected by anyone of doing so), he and the remainder of his troop carry out the rest of their duties in the war. This final track appears to be from the perspective of both The Boy and his fellow soldiers as they comment on the fragile and almost futile nature of life. In the end, when we die we are all boiled down to the same thing. Our identities cease to be except in memory, and all the things we had and thought we were cease to matter. We try to surround ourselves with people and things and everything that brings us meaning in our lives, but in the end we all wind up in the same place: dead and alone.

Oh, what a mess
As everything descends
Oh, what a mess
But everything amends

Such it was so long ago
We always tried but failed
And now with new found consciousness
We stand here waiting
Waiting to die

The Boy thinks about all that has transpired in this chapter of his life and comments on what a mess everything is, but he still believes that life has a way of evening things out in the end. At the same time however, there’s the acknowledgement that sometimes one has to let go of their past and who they were then in order to survive. The cost of doing so and possessing a “new found consciousness” though is essentially be leaving themselves hollow husks of the people they once were. They simply exist, just going through the motions and waiting to die. There’s perhaps some hints towards PTSD (or “shell shock,” as it would have been known back then) in how the horrors of war change and permanently affect people in negative ways.

One of these days
You will learn to love again
One of these days
He will learn to love again

However, through all of this, the one thing our protagonist has not completely let go of is his desire to find love. He comforts himself by saying that he will learn how to find it and give it again, and he appears to be joined either by his fellow soldiers or perhaps The Oracles in agreement. In the end, that’s all this story has really been about, and to that end, our protagonist’s story and mission are far from over.


Good lord, I do believe that is it! It’s been quite an experience writing all of these, and on the precipice of the glorious Act IV’s release, you can rest assured that I will not be stopping here for too long. From what I’ve heard, there will be more than enough to pull apart and analyze in the future, and I can’t wait to receive the album and a lyrics book so I can do just that.

On that note, and as always: the flame is gone, the fire remains.

-NC

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