Friday, October 3, 2014

On "Embody the Invisible"

Here's an essay I wrote a few months ago that was intended to be the start of a Tumblr project about heavy metal lyrics. I haven't had the time to write new stuff or the same ease as I had analyzing this song though. I do want to write more lyrical analysis in the future, including definitely more In Flames songs. Hope you like this.

"Embody the Invisible" by Anders Friden (In Flames)

Today’s selection is the song "Embody the Invisible" from the In Flames album Colony with lyrics by Anders Friden, the band’s frontman. I personally consider Friden to be possibly metal’s best lyricist, and I forecast that much of this blog will focus on his work.

The song opens with two seemingly contradictory ideas.

I demand nothingbut I want it all
But we should pay attention to the specific contrast between “demand” and “want”. To “demand” is to insist. Demanding is activeWanting however, can be passive. We all want things, but often pass through life largely not having all or most of what we want. To “demand nothing” but to “want it all” is to realize that one is filled with desire, but that we are entitled to absolutely none of it, as god is often cruel. And to actively state that “I demand nothing, but I want it all” is to demonstrate a longing for an ideal. These opening lines use desire, and how those desires go unanswered, to demonstrate a basic human suffering.

The next lines elaborate on this difference between the ideal and reality:

What privilege do we haveunder the sunthat gives us the right to the throne?
Again, a choice of two words whose differences are subtle and meaningful. Whereas a “right” is something that is always deserved and cannot be taken away, (at least in theory,) a privilege is a special condition, it is temporary.

For a moment, I want to try an exercise. Read the three lines, now read them while omitting the phrase “under the sun.” To me, the phrase becomes more empty. We have to read more into it (for example I have to explicitly identify “we” as “humanity”) for the meaning that the three lines have together to become clear. So what makes the phrase “under the sun” so important?

I read it this way: the sun is a life-giving force. It is also a constant presence, even in the night, as the light from the sun reflects on the moon to somewhat brighten the night. In other words, we owe everything to the sun, in some fashion. We are subordinate to it. In these lines, the sun is presented as being basically analogous to god.

Thus, when we take the three lines together, we can read it as a statement that, since we lack the life-creating power of something as deified as “the sun” (in this context), then we also have no right to control ourselves the way this omnipresent power does.

Thus, when we read the two “stanzas” (if you will) together as a verse, we get the idea that our wants and desires create real suffering, but that those wants and that suffering are trivial compared the scale of the universe, which is expanded on in the next verse.

Species come and goBut the earthstandsforever fast
All river runstowards the sea
but the sea is never full

These stanzas are comparatively simpler than the first two, both simply meant to demonstrate a sort of scale to existence. The first speaks to the existence of the earth being so much longer than the existence of the life on it. (Which we know includes the human race.) The second demonstrates a sort of “infinite” quality. Less meaningful on their own, these stanzas expand on the idea of scale that the first verse presented which contextualizes human suffering as being small compared to the vast, seemingly infinite life of the sun that gives us life, the oceans that sustain us, and the planet we live and die on.

But though this demonstrates a kind of futility to our wants, it does not erase the suffering that that want creates. Friden CONTINUES:

To discover the loneliness
and be too proud to show the wounds
will forever wander alone through the years
When we ponder on the scale of the universe which our petty suffering exists in, we see ourselves as being part of a vast, uncaring cosmos. We “discover the loneliness.” And yet, in attempting to simply live out our everyday lives, we become “too proud to show the wounds,” that is, we put up a facade of strength to hide our hurt, and thus we face this suffering alone with a CONTINUED unsuredness about our purpose in life.(“Wander alone through the years”)

But I won’t let you nearBeggingBegging for you to understandThe fearthat lives in my soulwhich is an untappedspring
These lines demonstrate in, hiding our “wounds” we often alienate ourselves from others who suffer from a similar sense of existential suffering, but at the same time, to do this is to put the onus on those around us to “understand” our suffering without letting on too much, for fear of feeling weak.

The second half of the stanza is somewhat ambiguously worded, but I choose to read it as the “soul” being “an untapped spring” rather than the “fear,” as it reads as fear inhabiting the soul, our fear of the unknown, which prevents us from accessing joy, wonder, or other positive ways of relating to the universe.

So in finding this contradiction between the all-consuming nature of our fear and sorrow, and at the same time realizing the smallness of that against the scale of all of existence, is there anything we can do to reconcile?

ReadWhat is written on the silent mouthwhat is written in the soulfor which is written in the shining silence we all have to read
This is less a suggestion by Friden and more an observation. Humanity has, of course, always had ways of attempting to contextualize itself in the vastness of existence, and that has usually been through some form of spirituality or faith. But that said, we have no way of knowing that these supernatural forces we intend to communicate with, be it god, allah, or some nameless force of life in the universe, even actually exist. So for Friden, who in this and many other songs seems to struggle with his own sense of spirituality, these unknowable divinities are like a “silent mouth” that refuses to respond to our attempts to have a place in existence. And the “shining silence,” in a related way, is a suggestion of all of the potential beauty and meaning that remains unspoken as a result of god’s refusal to speak. And yet, for us to attempt to find a place, we all “have to read.” When performing the song, the last and first “read” are the same, suggesting “we all have to read what is written on the silent mouth” etc.

My body will be bent from the burdensWhen the shaking floor of life-force
reveals it’s chasm underneath
if only one could be two steps ahead
In this last verse, Friden concludes on the discomforting thought that this struggle to find our place in the universe never really ends, and that answers may never fully appear. At the end of life our bodies “will be bent from the burdens” of living, and life will give out from under us to “reveal it’s chasm underneath,” and we will only be able to wish we had more foresight.

Having concluded ANALYSIS, I turn back to the title of the song, which is not a phrase that appears in the actual lyrics to see if our understanding of the song increases our understanding of the title, and I’d say it does. To attempt to “read what is written on the silent mouth” is to “Embody the Invisible” in a sense, because ultimately, we find ourselves speaking for the unseen and the unknown in our desperate attempts to find greater meaning.
As someone who struggle with faith and spirituality, having largely abandoned it, I relate deeply to how “Embody the Invisible” portrays that lifelong struggle for meaning in the context of all existence. Like many of In Flames’ songs, Friden’s lyrics for this one deal with that struggle with maturity and depth, and it remains perhaps his greatest lyrical achievement on one of IF’s strongest musical effort.
That maturity and depth defies our stereotype of metal, especially extreme metal, and gives us more than enough proof that literary genius exists in the minds of some of these writers that has long remained unobserved.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

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