Eventide’s “The City is Dead”

Interpretation of any artistic medium is largely subjective. What makes one person love a song or fires the imagination of another is highly individualistic and dependent upon a complex system of personal and cultural cues. As such, consensus on something like song meaning is impossible. While those of a critical bent tend to focus upon certain key features or aspects and ignore others, in truth, most of the time, those features are the product of a shared cultural milieu even if both critic and artist are blithely unaware of such. Thus, every time, every time an artist creates and every time a patron experiences, they are participating in a larger shared collective human experience. Jung referred to this as the collective unconscious. Those of a more esoteric bent might call it the ether, but the fact remains, that no human creative product is an island unto itself. Each artistic creation is related to and a part of every single creative endeavor that has ever existed even if an artist is unaware of such.

  Eventide’s “The City is Dead” effectively demonstrates that a simple song can have a rich complexity of meaning. In fact, this song beautifully exemplifies Hemingway’s Iceberg technique. Like an iceberg, the words which compose the lyrics are only the visible part of what the song contains—the rest lies beneath the surface. In this short analysis, I propose that we can see at least three distinct levels in the song: 1) an exchange or a relationship between two individuals 2) a discourse on the need for belief and 3) an exploration of the Wasteland as depicted in the Grail legend. Of these, the third will be the primary focus of this analysis.

            However, it is necessary to explore the other levels to demonstrate exactly how rich this song is. The words, “eyes,” “knees,” “tears,” “blood,” “hand,” and “face” are all descriptions we use to speak about human beings. Then when we add in direct commands like “turn around and go the other way,” and “get down on your knees,” along with the use of the second person pronoun, “you” we see that one person, a speaker is talking/singing to at least one other person, either directly or as a form of lamentation. Moreover, the suggestion of the “pain we hold inside” indicates that the conversation between the parties is deeply emotional. When we add to that, “touch my hand upon your face,” we get the sense of a deep and intimate relationship between two people. But, since there are also words suggestive of conflict like “blackened,” “cold,” “dead,” and “rain like blood mixed with fire,” we also sense that there is an impasse between those people. When we then combine that with those direct commands like “get down on your knees,” we can conclude that the speaker is trying to convince the other party of something, to come to her/his point of view.

            This then leads us to the second level we see, that of a discourse on belief and this widens the focus beyond two people to include all of us who are hearing the speaker sing. Throughout the song, the speaker is commanding or pleading that we “gotta believe in something” and that we need to “get down on our[sic] knees.” This implies that we who are listening are lacking in belief, specifically supernatural belief. This is further clarified by the phrase, “because the city is dead, the city is dead, it’s fallen,” conjuring images of death, decay, and destruction, a dystopian, unviable construct. While acknowledging that the city “was prettier then, prettier then while alive,” it is obvious that that state no longer exists. It is barren and devoid of life, a bleak nihilistic expanse. All the prettiness once afforded us by the technological wonders that define a city are now “blackened haze.” Our reliance on “prettiness” has fallen short and we have no justification or explanation for the decay. The “science” is“further away now” and no longer offers any kind of assurance, the “closer we[sic] get” to death. As such, the speaker/singer implores us to “believe.”

            Questions of civilizational decay and the need for belief present in the second level of analysis cause us to reflect on one of the most significant literary tropes in western literature and mythology, that of the Wasteland. The Wasteland is a key component of the Grail legend as depicted in medieval romance. Whether we view Wolfram’s Parzival, or Chrétien’s Perceval, we are presented with images of a barren desolate landscape when questing knights from Arthur’s court come upon the Fisher King’s realm. Moreover, we soon discover that the state of the land is directly tied to the condition of its king whose unhealed wound in the thigh, or groin is the reason that the land is infertile and unproductive. Only after the noble quester asks the correct question of the wounded king, “what is the grail and whom does it serve” is the Fisher King healed and the land restored.

            T.S. Eliot, in his seminal work, “The Wasteland” uses the wasteland motif of the Grail legends as a commentary on modern society. In the first part, “The Burial of the Dead” he writes:

              Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many,

Sighs, short, and infrequent were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Eventide’s lyrics “Sunrise, blackened haze, stop the train cold in its place “and, “because the city is dead, the city is dead, it’s fallen” are conveying much the same feeling as we see in the above passage. In fact, Eliot’s notion that modern society is the Wasteland has become the central reference point for countless dystopian songs, music videos, films, and works of art. As such, finding evidence of this in a current song should not surprise anyone, but what Eventide adds to this tradition is far more than a mere recognition of the link between society and the Wasteland. Precisely because we are encouraged to “believe in something” throughout the song, we are brought back to the reason Arthur’s questing knights set forth in search of the Holy Grail—like Gawain, Perceval, and Galahad, we need to seek something outside of ourselves, something numinous, or otherworldly. And even though the song ends with an acknowledgment that “the world’s in a state of divide,” the driving message of belief affords us a way out of the Wasteland, we too can become the seeker who finally asks the correct question so that the land is restored once more.

Published by Krista S.

Lifelong lover of books and music. Dedicated to sharing and mentoring.

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