*prognotes breaks down and analyzes your favorite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.
Greetings and salutations. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? When I first wrote up my interpretations of The Dear Hunter‘s original trilogy of Acts last summer (start from the beginning here if you have no idea what I’m talking about), I had every intention of continuing that work shortly after the triumphant Act IV‘s release. To be perfectly honest though, writing so much about one band in the span of several weeks pretty much burned me out completely for a while. Between that and having less time these days to write in general, this project has fallen by the wayside for months. I am here to finally submerge myself once more into this wondrous musical universe, however. Before I can jump neck-deep into the nitty-gritty details of the lyrics and everything else though, there’s some necessary catching up and contextual work that needs to be done. So let’s dig in!
*prognotes: The Dear Hunter’s Acts
At its core, Act IV is all about identity – about how we view ourselves against the expectations of others, how we balance ambitions and motivations against our worst tendencies and vices, and how we are constantly running away from and confronting former versions of ourselves. These are themes that run throughout Acts I – III, but Act III turned the symbolic and metaphorical identity struggles of our nameless protagonist, The Boy, into the literal by that album’s conclusion. As you may recall, The Boy was fighting for both his “soul” and his literal life in Europe during WWI, where he discovered he was stationed with not only his half-brother, but his father, who sadistically sexually abused The Boy’s mother, Ms. Terri, who was working at the brothel The Dime back home in The City.
After his brother fell in battle by his side (blown up by a mortar), The Boy made a split-second decision to trade dog tags with him and assume his identity (as it’s noted that they look almost exactly the same). He then murdered his father in secret by slipping poison (ethylene glycol, which he picked up from The Poison Woman) into his drink. It’s unclear exactly what happened immediately after, whether The Boy remained with his platoon or went AWOL, but given that there was likely little reason to suspect foul play in The Father’s death (ethylene glycol poisoning can be easily mistaken for alcohol poisoning based on symptoms), it is probably safe to assume that The Boy stayed put and finished out his remaining time in the war under the assumed identity of his brother.
The beginning of Act IV takes us to some time after the war’s conclusion, and though it’s unspecific in what the exact time gap is, it would appear based on context from the album itself that there has been some significant gap of time between Acts III and IV. There’s mention at one point in the album (“The Squeaky Wheel”) that “the battle ended years ago,” suggesting that The Boy (who really can no longer be called a boy as he is certainly well into his 20s at this point) did not return to The City immediately, perhaps deciding to remain in Europe like many ex-pats at the time did. In terms of specific historical chronology, the US entered WWI in the middle of 1917, around 3 years into the global conflict, and remained in it until the war’s formal end in November 1918. Act III took place sometime during that timeframe, which means that Act IV likely takes place in the early-to-mid 1920s, placing it squarely during the post-war boom decade.
The 1920s have a very specific set of symbolic and historical images in our collective minds, between Prohibition-era bootlegging and gangsterism and the wild excesses of the upper class, forever enshrined by the work of another famous ex-pat, F Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby (a.k.a that book we all had to read in high school that, while important as a piece of that time, many of us can agree was kind of a load of rubbish). It was a time of huge industrial growth and cultural accomplishment in the US, as construction in cities exploded, the movie industry really hit its stride, jazz rose into prominence as “America’s music,” the peak of Art Deco coincided with booming assembly-line industries – namely automobiles – and serious thoughts of automation, modernity, and what could be accomplished with technology entered into philosophic and cultural vocabulary. It was a time of prosperity and growth in the middle class, but it was also a time of huge greed, corruption, and unchecked free markets, leading to the rampant speculation that would create the worst global economic depression in recorded history. Casey pretty much incorporated all of these elements perfectly into the lyrics video for “A Night On the Town,” turning the “Roaring Twenties” into a dizzying collage of lights, flapper girls, booze, and materialistic edifices.
It is upon this backdrop that Act IV takes place. Things are looking up for our protagonist and the people surrounding him, but both internally and externally there is an underlying rot that can only be held at bay for so long. Structurally-speaking, Act IV is itself divided into three distinct parts (miniature “acts,” if you will) over 15 songs. The first third – “Rebirth” through “Remembered” – is the most narratively murky, as it’s never quite clear what exactly The Boy is doing except that he appears to be returning home and then to The City, all the while revisiting his past along the way. This is by design though, as this section serves as a way to ease both longtime listeners and ones perhaps new to the Acts back into this world and story. It’s the equivalent of a lengthy “Previously on…” segment. The second segment – “A Night On the Town” through “The Bitter Suite VI” – entails The Boy’s full transition into life under his new identity, rocky as it turns out to be. And the final third – “King of Swords (Reversed)” through “Ouroboros” – follows our protagonist’s entrance and rise in local politics as he becomes mayor of The City and quickly finds himself in over his head.
Between the fact that this is the freshest material I’ve analyzed for this column and also due to that narrative murkiness that I just mentioned, there isn’t a ton of agreement out there about what exactly transpires through many sections of this album. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all of it and trying to make sense of it all, but more so than ever, what will follow are my own personal theories and readings of the lyrics. So if anyone who reads this has any compelling alternate theories about all of this, I encourage you to share them! Either way I hope you enjoy the next three articles to come, and I will be back soon with the first “mini-act” of Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise!