*prognotes breaks down and analyzes your favorite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.
Hello again! If you’re just jumping into this series at this point, stop! I have handy links beneath here to the first two pieces of this series, as well as my previous entries on the Acts series. If you’ve been following along though, then you know we’re about to jump into the real meat of Act IV. We’ve caught up with our protagonist, roughly figured out at least some of what he got up to after the war, know that he’s determined to return to The City under the assumed identity of his half-brother, and that he’s still all sorts of messed up emotionally from everything even as he proclaims he’s putting it all behind him. With being officially back in The City, he’ll find that many things have changed, but some things have remained all too much the same. And as for himself, well, first he has to figure out who the hell he really is.
*prognotes: The Dear Hunter’s Acts
6. “A Night on the Town”
Ah yes, The City. In Act II, The City served a critical purpose to our story and our protagonist by serving as the setting that would provide him his first lessons in the harsh realities of the world outside of his bubble at The Lake and The River. Yes, he had his first romance and his heart broken for the first time there, but don’t forget that he also had to go through some other pretty terrible stuff during his first stay there, including an extended period of homelessness and living on the street because he would spend all of the money he made working for The Pimp/Priest as a driver to see Ms. Leading. He did not leave The City on particularly good terms, essentially running away from his wrecked relationship in hopes of finding stability and adventure in The Army.
Upon returning to this bustling fictional metropolis, he likely feels he has come back far wiser and more clear-eyed than before, and though that is likely true, it can’t make up for the scars and baggage he continues to carry with him from the war and the time prior. If my theories and extrapolations from “Remembered” are to be believed, then he has returned to The City with the specific intent of finding his brother’s fiancee, The Lover, and continuing his life with her. What he finds when actually making it there is probably overwhelming in itself, and with the added stresses of his situation it’s not surprising that his first stops would be to the bar – or, to be more precise given the time, whatever speakeasy he can find his way into – to calm his nerves and build up the courage to go to The Lover’s house and “reunite.” “A Night on the Town” then is a whirlwind series of observations about himself and the people The Boy sees, as well as a looming crisis of confidence and identity that all leads to a plethora of alcohol and, ultimately, the first meeting between him and The Lover (with a large caveat).
I’ve been misplaced in so many ways
Broken battlegrounds, hiding veils of delicate deceit
Yet here I breathe
Teeth still gleam from holy water
While millions of lambs migrate to the slaughter
My head in a bag and my hands are bound to my feet
Starting off with a certain bitter swagger, The Boy leads off by saying essentially, “I’ve been through the wringer and have experienced some heavy and awful shit, but ultimately I’m still here and standing.” Still standing isn’t the same as doing well though, and that implication extends to the people he sees around him, as he moves immediately into the struggles and pain of these men. One of the many things I love about “A Night on the Town,” much like “In Cauda Venenum” from Act III, is the political/historical subtext within the lyrics. Where “In Cauda Venenum” featured subtle lines about the objectification and valuation of human life as soldiers in war from the people in power who send them off to die (“Replacing a bond for a body, and the players, the politicians, who say what they need to say.”), “A Night on the Town” is largely about what happens to those soldiers when they return from war.
Without getting too deep in the weeds here, World War I was really the first major global conflict in which the cultural concepts of long-term and permanent effects of war on the individuals who fight first extended from the physical to the psychological. The introduction of machine technology, chemical warfare, and more opened up a whole new world of horrors, and the toll it took on soldiers on the battlefield has been documented thoroughly in literature from the period. However, as much as we have serious problems with how we deal with the physical and mental well-being of our war veterans now, back then there really wasn’t even the language or science to describe what these soldiers were going through. The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” would not begin popping up until much later in the century, and the closest term at that time that was somewhat clinical was “shell shock.”
Shell shock was not viewed as much more than an unfortunate side effect of war and just something that some people would have to deal with – at worst, it was viewed harshly and negatively as a sign of weakness and cowardice in soldiers on the battlefield. It was written about and studied more thoroughly in Britain, where much more of the population had been involved in the war and affected. In the US however, perhaps due to its late entry and lesser involvement compared to its European allies, paid even less attention to the deep psychological damage done to its veterans in the war. Soldiers returned from the war, and life basically went on as usual. Those who would struggle adjusting back to civilian life would find little in the way of help and resources from the government.
Which brings us back to the song and lyrics. The Boy observes the goings-on of the people in The City who went about their normal lives while millions were slaughtered overseas, and he likens his condition to being bound together with a bag over his head, clearly unable to function as the rest of these people do. This is the first indication we get from him that he’s really suffering from the war, though it’ll be explored more thoroughly in the next couple of tracks.
And voices sing:
“Were we erased like common thieves?
Tossed in a cell to feast with the fleas
All because we never had written a word.”
He also likely comes across other war vets wandering around The City, either out on the streets or in the “bars,” and as he talks to them and trade stories, we hear their collective voice in the second verse. They ask if they’ve been “erased” or forgotten like petty criminals. The reference to criminality and jail cells might imply that many of these veterans now work for the mobs and organized crime that proliferated in the Prohibition Era, an obvious refuge for soldiers looking for work and a new family who could understand what they’d been through. There’s also a potential dig at the glorification and accolades thrown towards the few soldiers who became celebrated authors like F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Those few individuals turned their experiences into lasting careers and fame, but the rest moan that they’ve been left behind.
What will I see, tonight in these eyes
And what will I know when the morning comes?
What will I see, tonight in these eyes
And what will I know when the morning comes?
There’s a couple of ways to interpret this track’s chorus. “These eyes” can refer to The Boy’s as he ponders what he’ll see in The City, what he’ll learn from the people he talks to, and, more importantly, what will happen when he finally meets The Lover. He can also be referring to The Lover specifically and wondering what he’ll see in her eyes, whether she’ll accept him, and what he’ll learn about her.
Must we remind of exchanges existing so long ago?
Would we arrive at agreeable musings
Sentimental or just confusing
We lost what we had but we took it back
Friends in the gutter, enjoy one another
Just give yourself to the dust and the dirt where you stand
More commiseration with his fellow war vets it seems. They trade stories and attempt to reminisce about their experiences with a positive spin in spite of everything they’ve lost, but ultimately they know they’re broken, essentially feeling themselves sink into the earth beneath them. Also an important piece of subtext to keep in mind throughout this is the role of alcohol in this part of the story. As mentioned and commonly known, alcohol prohibition in the US, which began with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920 and lasted until the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, was at best only mildly effective in curbing the consumption and abuse of alcohol in the country. At worst, it was utterly counter-productive, creating a crime-driven black market economy fueled by alcohol, guns, corruption, and power. For our protagonist, like many of his fellow war vets, alcohol became a crutch to deal with all sorts of pain, and throughout this track you can essentially envision The Boy becoming progressively more shit-faced as his emotional angst over his actions comes to a fevered pitch during the bridge.
I’m not who you think I am
And even if I thought you’d known
I never would have told you so
And more alarming
I would have done the very same
Would have stole more than your name
Would have cursed and bought the world on your shoulders
I was in the wrong place
At the right time
In said bridge, The Boy suddenly addresses his dead brother head-on, essentially admitting that it wasn’t just a spur-of-the-moment decision or flight of fancy that led him to stealing his brother’s identity. He says he knows what he was doing all along. He never revealed the truth about their relationship or about their father to him, and even if he suspected he knew, he would never admit it. More revealing, in spite of the clear anguish it’s providing him, he would do it all over again. He would steal his name, he would leave him for dead, and would have done worse if he needed to in the name of self-preservation and selfishness. It was coincidence that led him to that pivotal moment, but he was the one who ultimately made the decision to take advantage of it.
And what’s the worst I’d see
By giving myself to the earth below me
Not knowing how far I’d fall, by casting away the ordinary
Just how long can I stay in illusions formed here long before me?
And how long can I breathe this stolen breath here underneath?
The Boy’s drunken fugue state continues as he ponders what he’s truly sacrificed through his decisions. The self-assuredness and brazen cockiness of the previous passage fall away, revealing the deep insecurity and pain that lies underneath. He claims he had no idea how difficult all of this would be, how far he would fall. The frequent references to falling and sinking into the earth mirror the fact that by trading his identity with a dead man, that he is in fact already dead and buried. He wonders how long he can maintain this ruse and at what cost. He is a thief running away on borrowed time, and sooner or later he knows it will catch up to him.
There’s that subtle smile that did me in
An agony reminds where I’ve been
“I’d never let this happen again.”
Where’s your heart?
Mimicking the patriarch
After the alcohol-fueled instrumental climax swells and dies, we’re left with the moment The Boy has been waiting for and perhaps dreading this whole time – his first encounter with The Lover. There’s some contention within the fan community about whether this is about The Lover or if The Boy actually encounters the infamous Ms. Leading here, which is the hinted implication as the piano theme of “The Bitter Suite” enters and the lyrics follow a similar pattern. Casey has gone on the record saying that Ms. Leading does not make a direct appearance in this album though, so the allusions to her and “The Bitter Suite” are both a red herring and also a manifestation of The Boy’s drunken state. He finally confronts her, but in his inebriated haze conflates her appearance with Ms. Leading’s, likening The Lover’s smile to hers.
It’s a bit unclear who says “I’d never let this happen again,” though the implication appears to be that it comes from her, which one can assume means either that she would never lose him again or that she would never let him abandon and hurt her like that again. Remember that as far as she’s concerned, her fiancee has been alive this whole time but suddenly dropped off the map for possibly years, so both options are equally valid. Meanwhile, The Boy hears this and knows that he’s using her for his own selfish purpose, much like his own father did with his mother. She doesn’t know any better for now though, and he must deal with that fact and the accompanying guilt of everything. The Boy’s downward spiral has been set in motion, and it’s only just begun.
So, I’m going to be perfectly honest here. I really did not expect to spend so much time and space breaking down “A Night on the Town,” but looking at everything that is involved in this track, it’s really not surprising. This piece encapsulates so many important story and character details while also bringing in a huge amount of historical context and subtext that it’s, simply put, one of the richest and densest tracks Casey and the band have ever put together. Even relatively minor details like the instrumental outro that features a solo piano melody from “Mustard Gas” swelling into an orchestral maelstrom has significant meaning beyond its obvious Easter egg purpose. It’s a reminder of the deep trauma of The Boy’s time in the war, both from the perspective of the combat and carnage he witnessed and the identity schism he put in motion.
This will play an even more evident role in the following track “Is There Anybody Here?”, but in the interest of getting this material out there and also not bombarding you all with more posts that are well over 5,000 words in length (trust me, I know, ain’t nobody got time for that), I’m going to release this one as a standalone post and hopefully feature the following 4 tracks in the next post. We’ll see though. As much as these things take an extraordinary amount of time and effort to pull together, I’m seriously enjoying them and don’t want to skimp on details I find to be interesting and, if not absolutely necessary to understanding the basic plot and characters of the story, add more dimension and detail that I hope will enhance your enjoyment of these brilliant pieces of work. So, I’ll see you for the next entry, hopefully not in the wrong place but at the right time.