*prognotes breaks down and analyzes your favorite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.
You should know the drill by now. After my essay-length examination of “A Night on the Town” we’ve still got a lot of album to get through, so let’s get right to it!
*prognotes: The Dear Hunter’s Acts
7. “Is There Anybody Here?”
After the whirlwind of alcohol-fueled reflection, doubt, and discovery, our protagonist is very much on a downward path towards self-destruction. He may have found The Lover, but he is in no shape to be one to her. The ghosts of his past, namely his half-brother, are haunting him, and combining that with what appears to be some degree of war-forged PTSD and a plethora of alcohol, you have a recipe for disaster. “Is There Anybody Here?”, both musically and lyrically, is easily one of the most powerful and darkest songs Casey has written, and it only becomes more tragic once you understand the degree to which The Boy is suffering. There’s a sense of time moving quickly throughout this song while The Boy seems almost frozen in time, frequently likening himself to a paralyzed or dead body inside of a tomb. This is the lowest point of the series thus far for our protagonist, and we’re here on the ride with him to rock bottom.
I lay my body down
To rest my weary head
I think I left someone there;
I left myself for dead
Is there anybody here who can tell me where I am
Or at least where I have been?
Because I fear I’m lost
And I cannot be found
Mercifully, the lyrics for this one are relatively straightforward and literal, all variations on the same theme about The Boy experiencing flashbacks to the battle where his brother died. Because of his decision to swap identities at that moment though, technically he is the one who wound up dead and buried. He left himself there on that battlefield, and without his identity, he has no bearing for his own self. This lack of self is a complete existential nightmare, fueling a proverbial death spiral in which The Boy knows he cannot be himself but also does not feel capable of completely disappearing into his brother’s identity. At best, he can create a facade with a rotten foundation.
I left my soul exposed
To frail hands who hold
My fate up in the air
And through their fingers fall
The meaning of it all
Down to the floor it goes
It’s fun picturing this song dissolve into a “pink elephants” type of scene here as The Boy completely loses control of himself in his alcoholic fugue state. I don’t believe he is referring to anyone in particular here except to say that he’s left his fate up to chance at this point, and he can feel himself falling through the cracks and disappearing.
So is there anybody here who can tell me where I am?
Waking in the afternoon
A captive in a passive tomb
Moments turn to long Decembers
Stoking fires from dying embers
I try to move a limb
But there’s a disconnect within
A devil in the alchemy
A phantom staring back at me,
I touched upon most of this in the opening paragraph, but we get the sense of time moving quickly in reality while moments feel like an eternity for The Boy. He is completely non-functional as a person and can’t even summon the will to get himself out of bed most days. He likens what he did back on the battlefield with his brother to an act of alchemy, exchanging one life for another in an act of darkness. The phantom staring back at him can either refer directly to his brother, who is haunting his thoughts and dreams, or it can refer to The Lover, who serves as a constant reminder of his brother and who he is supposed to be.
A pain I simply can’t express
From troubles I have long repressed…
…and then, there’s you
Once again, The Boy references The Lover and his inability to talk to her as himself or about any of the things that’s plaguing him. The irony in him finding a woman who he could finally have a fulfilling relationship with is that he can only do so under the guise of another person. And until he can come to terms with who that person is, he will be stuck in this purgatory he’s created for himself. Lyrically, the last line is also a clever hand-off as we transition from being fully submerged in our protagonist’s head to the POV of The Lover for another much-needed perspective.
8. “The Squeaky Wheel”
The name “The Squeaky Wheel” is a callback to the track that this song in many ways feels like the musical sequel to, “Smiling Swine” from Act II. In that track, “the squeaky wheel” was used in reference to The Boy’s first face-to-face introduction to The Pimp/Priest as an impediment to The Boy’s afterglow from his first sexual encounter with Ms. Leading. In the case of this song, it’s a bit less clear who or what “the squeaky wheel” is supposed to be. As a track that is from the point-of-view of The Lover, it would make sense for it to be a reference to her, essentially serving as a necessary reality check for both The Boy and the audience as we pull back from our protagonist to see how his self-destructive behavior and wallowing is negatively affecting those around him.
Indeed, The Lover is really the character who draws the shortest stick in this chapter, as she is first left wondering if she’ll ever see her love again, only to be utterly disappointed and ultimately taken advantage of by the man she thinks is her fiancee but in reality is just a scheming, no-good sad sack. But at least she has this one song to air her grievances!
There’s my suitor, struggling to find his footing
Lost, awoken alone, after sleeping off inebriation
I forget that I’ve been holding my tongue for so long
Cause we had a run, so don your Sunday best and wake up
At the outset, we know that there has indeed been a significant time-jump of sorts since The Boy’s first encounter with The Lover in “A Night on the Town.” The Lover’s attitude here is of someone who has been having to deal with this drunkard’s act for quite some time while but has worked incredibly hard to maintain appearances both in public and, seemingly, in private with him. But, you know, it’s Sunday, so get your drunk ass out of bed and get dressed so we can go to church, you know, like normal couples do.
You went missing, never mind the life I was wishing for
Cause you’d had enough, but at least you got enough to fake it
I’ll keep smiling, optimistically denying what I feared the most
That you disappeared and leave me wondering
Was I just a playful pawn, a trophy you had won?
Someone who could lift you when you’re low?
Innocence to prey upon, or allies in the sun?
Heaven sent, or just hell bent on love?
Like The Boy, The Lover is also constantly putting on a facade with a rotten core. It’s clearly important to her that she makes this relationship work and that the two of them are viewed publicly as a happy couple, but deep down she knows it’s a complete farce. From her perspective, her fiancee completely abandoned her not only by fighting in the war but then simply disappearing for a time after the war and then showing up completely unannounced. It’s not surprising then that she holds this bitter resentment and fear that he only views her as a trophy or someone to have fun with and play loving couple with when the times are good. As soon as opportunity arises though, he could be off again or simply dispose of her.
Darling liar, always running through the brier
What, the cuts aren’t enough?
Just an aggravation you’d forget like
Promised patience, halitic alleviations of
What I should’ve known was a sign of future expiration
The question with this verse is whether The Lover suspects that The Boy isn’t who he claims to be or if his being branded a liar is only due to the lies he has to tell her to cover for the lost time after the war. I suspect it’s the latter as there’s no other indication in the story that she is onto him as a fraud, at least to that extent. But she certainly suspects that there is much that he’s not telling her, and she recognizes that he’s in a lot of pain, but evidently not enough to come clean with her. She then kicks herself for not seeing it sooner, despite the fact that she possibly had nothing to worry about then when it was actually the man she fell in love with in front of her.
So will I marry a myth? Or is there room for second chances?
The lust lives in the dark and may never show
Well, the battle ended years ago
Now this is how you say hello
Well where’d you take your leave?
Or would you rather keep another trick up your sleeve?
Do you remember love?
How you said you really never could feel enough?
Well did you give it a try?
Why don’t you open your eyes and let me know?
In the bridge she dredges up all of the secrets she’s been hinting at throughout, namely where he went after the war and why he didn’t contact her. Ultimately though, The Lover very clearly still holds out hope that the man she fell in love with is still there and that she still lusts for him, but she does not love this version of him. She wants him to be someone he’s not simply due to the fact that the man she wants is dead, though even if that weren’t the case this isn’t an uncommon scenario for couples after one member returns from war and has to transition back into civilian life. Here you have both factors at play, and the result is both parties suffering for it.
What will happen to us?
Do you think we’ll make the cut?
Should we give it a try?
Give an eye for an eye?
Give ourselves to the lie?
In the end, The Lover seems almost resigned to their unhappy fate together, at least for the time being. She’ll keep biting her tongue and playing the part of the happy couple with him in public in hopes that someday it’ll turn true behind closed doors. As for church, well, it turns out that it’ll be exactly what The Boy needs to snap him out of his spiral and give him new purpose, just not for the reasons one would expect.
9. “The Bitter Suite IV And V: The Congregation And The Sermon In The Silt”
It wouldn’t be much of a story if The Boy re-entered The City and didn’t eventually cross paths with his nemesis The Pimp/Priest. To be perfectly honest, even in a story that requires some pretty fantastical logical leaps of faith to begin with, the whole concept of The Pimp/Priest is interesting and fun in a pure character sense, but it can be a bit difficult to justify logically upon much scrutiny. His existence requires the majority of the populace of The City to be utterly unaware that the priest of one of the most popular churches in town also operates one of the most popular brothels and holds the reputations and lives of its patrons for ransom through financial extortion and other favors, and it also requires a widespread, systemic level of corruption from the institutions of power and authority in The City (politicians, police, etc.) and tacit acknowledgement and acceptance of his role.
This isn’t to say that such a scenario would be inconceivable, particularly during a period in which corruption and collusion between the political class and organized crime became a cliche. But his existence and role in the narrative is by far the most cartoony and archetypical of the bunch, both of which are played up to their most deliriously extreme in the continuation of “The Bitter Suite.”
“TBS IV and V” are very intentionally meant to mimic the structure of “TBS I and II” from Act II, in which The Boy first encounters Ms. Leading and is led into The Dime for the first time. Here we have the flipside of that coin, in which The Boy re-encounters The Pimp/Priest in his day form and is led into the pulpits of his church, which is illustrated as being as much of a hollow spectacle as The Dime. Between the myriad musical and lyrical callbacks (“Hey, kid, get a job/god!”), it’s beyond clear that not only do The Church and The Dime serve a symbiotic purpose for The Pimp/Priest, but that the experience of each for its patrons is comparable. Everyone wants emotional release, everyone wants to be entertained, everyone wants spiritual and physical salvation, and they’re willing to sacrifice their morals and their wallets to obtain each.
A quick note about the title. “Sermon In The Silt” is a clever reference to one of the series’ other favorite binary metaphors – The Lake and The River. The idea of The Lake has long been representative of innocence and purity – ever since it was the focus of Ms. Terri’s lullaby to The Boy in “1878” and “The Pimp and The Priest” from Act I (“Sing softly, sing me to the lake; sing softly, bring me to the lake”) – which is in stark contrast to The River, which represents everything The Pimp/Priest stands for as he leads his followers there for baptisms, with sinister undertones of symbolic drowning and death. Silt is, of course, the fine sediment left by minerals in rivers. I don’t think there’s any real significance to this other than reminding us that we’re back in the world of our story’s villain, but it’s still a fun little tidbit.
They come in crowds to hear him speak
And he will greet them in a smile that sticks like vaseline
So do your best to keep your distance, in this instance
You’re a stranger in the weeds
Some things are better left unseen
Back to the story at hand, after The Lover gets her frustrations out to herself in private and The Boy gets his shit together enough to be presentable in public, the couple make their way to The Church. It’s unclear how long they’ve been “re-united” at this point and how he’s avoided appearing with her there up until now, but it is clear that this is The Boy’s first time in this place. He does seem to be aware of what he’s getting himself into though and who he will be seeing here, and he immediately understands the implications of this place and what it would mean to be spotted and possibly recognized by The Pimp/Priest given his history with him. He resolves to lay low and simply play along.
Commanding listeners to believe
Manipulations of narrations ‘Anno Domini’
Not with a whimper, but a bang
He’ll take the stage and leave their jaws upon the floor
Begging for more
So Father, won’t you tend your flock and save us now?
Won’t you save us now?
Come and save us
Though externally he attempts to act “normal,” internally The Boy can’t help but make a few sniping comments at TP/P and his followers, and there’s also probably a not-so-subtle jab from Casey himself at organized religion. He says that TP/P forces people to believe his version and interpretations of the stories and messages from The Bible/New Testament – hence ‘Anno Domini,’ or as it’s commonly abbreviated, AD, i.e. everything after Christ was born. This whole section is there to build up anticipation for the spectacle to come, and TP/P is oh so happy to deliver.
I hear you’re looking for God
Well I can show you the way just as long as you can pay
But the price is going up…
And like a prayer to the air
We deliver you to glory (Pay up!)
I swear you’ll get what you need
And we can lead you to salvation
With the right denomination
It all lies in your hands
Or in your pocketbook to be more demanding
What we and The Boy see unfold is a cavalcade of transparent greed under the guise of salvation. Nothing new for our friend TP/P, but “The Sermon In The Silt” is just flat-out one of the most deliriously fun pieces of music in the Acts series.
Don’t you tread too close to the line this time
Don’t get lead too close to the light this time
You went far too close to the line this time
Line this time
Once again, The Boy understands the risk he’s running in exposing himself by appearing in front of TP/P, but it appears either that he’s unable to lay low or that he’s been intentionally singled out by The Lover and the rest of the congregation because he’s fresh blood. Even in his seemingly perpetual state of existential panic, he recognizes that he’s been afforded this opportunity to start life anew without the baggage of his past, but that he’s running a huge risk here of destroying it all. In order to move ahead with this new identity he has to let go of all the enmity towards those who have wronged his past self, and at the forefront of that is TP/P.
So you committed a sin?
Well, we can rid that with a remedy
The bidding starts at $70
To one and all
Now get your hands ready to make a withdrawal
You’ve got no other way to find what you want
If it’s a saving that you’re craving
And your confidence is fading
The Doctor’s in
I got the cure, because I know where you’ve been…
If you wanna get up
Reserve a room on high
Put your coins in my hat
And don’t ask why
I could break down the remainder of the lyrics here in-depth, but they’re all basically saying the same thing, albeit in incredibly clever and fun ways. We know that TP/P is able to extort money from members of his congregation, particularly the men, by providing them with “salvation” for the sins they committed at The Dime. Even if the people present don’t realize that the man and institution they’re supporting on both ends are one in the same, we and The Boy do, and we’re able to see through his ruse and disguise. The fact that in the cover art we see TP/P front-and-center wearing a plague doctor mask and holding a rosary both gives us the sense of ill unease at the character and his continued success in seemingly hiding his true identity and motives to the public.
This knowledge that The Boy has strictly because of his past though – between his direct interaction with him after having sex with Ms. Leading for the first time and then subsequently working for him as a driver, as well as his learned family history in which his mother served under him and was likely murdered by his men – offers him a perspective and advantage that few others have. The problem is that the only way he can act on all of it is by continuing to acknowledge and incorporate those parts of himself and his past into who he is now. All of which leads us to the critical moment in the final track of the second so called “act” of this album.
10. “The Bitter Suite VI: Abandon”
Strangers in the soil
So hide your enmity
Are you living up to ghosts or
Does virtue disagree?
And so we’re back alone with our protagonist. Mulling upon what he just witnessed in The Church, he finds himself a new kind of existential revery. It would seem that he is wandering around in a cemetery (hence the “strangers in the soil”), and he once again has death and those he has lost on his mind. He wonders if he’s letting down all of these individuals who have died while he remains alive through his actions. Perhaps he’s guilty over the idea that he’s been given this miraculous new chance at life under a new identity but that he’s essentially wasted it by wallowing in self-pity and existential angst. He’s likely wondering if he’s living up to the dreams and hopes his mother had for him, or perhaps he’s wondering if he’s letting her sacrifices for him at the hands of The Pimp/Priest be in vain by not bringing him down.
Use your gifts for good
Rescue them from greed
Find a proper voice
As the thistle in the wreath
We now have the critical turning point in this chapter of the story, in which The Boy resolves that he must use his life and the opportunity he’s been afforded living as his half-brother for the betterment of himself and others. There’s unfortunately some crucial details in this part of the story that don’t seem to be made evident in the lyrics but are present in extraneous materials and have been confirmed by Casey and the band. Namely, it’s that The Lover’s father happens to be a prominent politician in the state. Allegedly, the father is referred to as The Senator in the band’s Wayfarer book of photos, travelogues, and other bonus material from the story, including art and notes. Unfortunately, I personally was unable to obtain one of these books as they were sold out by the time the band made it to NYC on their last tour, but I’ve seen The Senator’s existence confirmed in multiple places by other sources. All of this is to say that the subtext throughout this track is that The Boy has decided to elicit the help of The Senator in running for local office in The City with the ultimate goal of stamping out the rampant greed and corruption surrounding TP/P and his cronies.
As for the second half of that verse, there’s an interesting parallel and bit of foreshadowing that’s done here in the visual of the thistle in the wreath. In this instance it appears that The Boy is simply saying that he wishes to find his voice and identity as a servant of the people, as a single thistle in the greater whole of the wreath. The wreath has a symbolic meaning beyond that thing people hang up around Christmastime though. In Christianity (and undoubtedly in religious/spiritual traditions pre-dating Christianity), the fact that it’s made of evergreen trees and its circular nature represents a kind of everlasting circle of life. So we have this circular symbol thrown in at a critical moment in the story, which will come up again that this chapter’s climax, titled “Ouroboros.” At that time the cyclical nature of everything will take on another meaning, which I’ll get to in more detail at that point, but I thought this was an interesting little detail to throw in here.
Move them to truth
Far from ruin
Barricade the myth I made the wolves at bay
I know that history fades
And sympathy dithers away
The city’s son living under my thumb
Recognizing that going into politics is exactly the kind of risky move he had previously sworn to avoid to prevent himself from being exposed for his secrets, he knows that at this point he must, once and for all, subsume any part of himself that is still The Boy and double down on living as his half-brother. He also knows that the further into this lie he goes and the more time that passes, the more serious the repercussions will be if he is discovered. What maybe could have been possibly forgiven as a moment of panic and weakness from a frightened soldier on the battlefield will be viewed far less sympathetically as time moves on and he continues to advance off the back and name of a dead man. But it will be worth it, he thinks, just to be able to have the power to crush TP/P.
You couldn’t compromise
So keep playing with fire
And there you have a pretty succinct summary of this part of the story. Finding himself unable to reconcile his dual identities, he resolves to lean into the identity that he knows has a future for himself and can achieve his long-held desires. Like at almost every crucial point in the story when The Boy is faced with a large decision, he continually shows that he has not learned from the past and his mistakes and takes the much riskier and more ill-conceived path. As always, the flame is gone, but the fire remains, and that fire is about to bring him more power than he’s ever known, even as it simultaneously seals his inevitable fall.
That’s it for this part of the album! We’ve got our final third/act left to go, where we’ll deal with some fun politicking, some less fun heartbreak, and some even less fun blackmailing! And as always, if you think I’ve gotten something completely wrong here or would like to offer up any alternate theories or interesting details and tidbits I missed, please share them! I love seeing people comment with other ideas, especially if they end up making me understand all of this material even better than I do currently.