I found Theatre of Tragedy through their older stuff, around the time Musique came out. It’s common for fans of the band to disown their newer stuff, but I’ve found I enjoy each album for what it is. Still, it’s their older albums that interest me the most. They’re pretty interesting and distinct, particularly the vocal parts. The song, “…A Distance There Is…” isn’t quite representative of their self-titled album as a whole, but it’s one of my favorites anyway.
I’ve never been much for analysis, preferring to just listen to music for music’s sake. I roll my eyes equally at bands who leave their lyrics “open to interpretation” and fans who find that cop-out so incredibly artistic. Conversely, I’m coming to appreciate subtlety in art more and more, and becoming equally irritated at heavy-handed symbolism and writing to the least common denominator. I’ve wondered if there really are songs that have something to the lyrics worth pondering on but that still convey a deliberate intent on the part of the artist.
Well, last week these two topics intersected, and I felt like writing about the result….
First, the song itself:
And the lyrics as written:
Come in out of the rain thou sayest -
But thou ne’er step’st aside; and I am trapp’d -
A distance there is…
None, save me and the bodkin -
Pitter-patter on the roof:
Behold! – ’tis not the rain; thence me it has to be -
I will not drink thy vintage wine, my dear;
Thou hast heed’d that I am of innocence,
Yet thou let’st thy lass into peril -
Thou let’st me be parchéd;
My heart is of frailty,
My pale skin is huéd damask.
When thou thy tears hast hidden, “Come back!”, thou sayest -
There I soon am to be – but how am I to run
When my bones, my heart thou hast me bereaft-
But run thou sayest; I run -
And there and then I behold that a time will come
When I again dead will be.
Thou tell’st me to leave without delay -
I leave with my bodkin and my tears in my hands;
Lo! – the shadows, the sky – descending;
So by a dint of smite I gait
Ere I run and melt together with dusk.
Yon the reach of my mind I keep this event,
But it seems as if naught is to change anyway?!
After all these years thou left me down in the emotional dephts -
The sombre soakéd velvet-drape is upon me hung,
Turning my feelings away from our so ignorant world:
All the beautiful moments sharéd, deliberatlely push’d aside -
…a distance there is…
And now the analysis…
I think this song is describing a feeling, a particular moment in time. It’s about a woman struggling with her love for a man who uses her. There is a lot of atmosphere both overt and subtle going on here, with rain and sorrow being complementary themes.
The lyrics (as are all the lyrics in Theatre of Tragedy’s first albums) are in an archaic dialect, and while I’ve read some complaints that it’s nonsensical in terms of Middle English, say, I think it lands firmly in the realm of “artistic license and/or native speaker who isn’t perfect” as opposed to “modern speaker trying to look artsy.” The real pet peeve and giveaway for me is misuse of ‘-est’ and the second person singular (I’m looking squarely at you, Brave Fencer Musashi!), which are used correctly enough here.
Interestingly, but I don’t think intentionally, the language itself adds something of a “distance” between the listener and the song itself. It forces you to wrestle with the wording to make sense of it, and by virtue of that alone evades the heavy-handedness that could easily ruin a song like this.
The thing that is most interesting to me, however, is the way the chosen words have multiple complementary meanings, adding up to the same story no matter how you interpret them. At the same time, they add a depth of substance, a texture if you will, to the subject that adds more with each line than is said directly. This fits in nicely with the timing and intensity of the music, which starts slowly and builds up through much of the song. Space between verses is sometimes filled with a violin that complements Liv’s airy voice, connecting some verses and leaving others somewhat divided.
With all of that going on, I kind of have to do a point-by-point to get full coverage here, so that’s up next. The lyrics as sung are slightly different in places than the lyrics as written, but not in ways that change the meaning. There are also parts that are left out from the live recorded performance, which I’ve taken to put less emphasis on those parts of the lyrics as far as interpretation goes. Finally, the album version is played with a backing track of rain and rumbling thunder, which adds its own emphasis to parts of the lyrics too.
The song begins with the sound of rain and rumbling thunder, which persists through the entire song in the background, punctuated at times by sharper peals of thunder that serve to vary the monotony and emphasize parts of the lyrics too. There is a slow, moving piano part that reinforces the feeling of ‘rain’, lightly at the start here. You hear footsteps walking nearer, panning from left to right and transitioning briefly from something like gravel to a wooden porch.
“Come in out of the rain, thou sayest – but thou never step’st aside; and I’m trapped, I’m trapped – A distance there is…”
The woman is outside, in the rain; he man invites her in. This applies both literally and figuratively. Figuratively, not stepping aside can be taken to mean that he refuses to change his ways, or doesn’t realize that he’s preventing the very thing he’s inviting. The woman is trapped between wanting to accept and being unable to; there is a distance between them that she can’t close – only he can.
“None, save me and the bodkin – pitter-patter on the roof: Behold! – ’tis not the rain; thence me it has to be”
A bodkin is a particular kind of needle; it is blunt with a big eye. It “can be flat or round and [is] generally used for threading elastic, ribbon or tape through casings and lace openings.” The colon helps to group the bodkin with the “pitter-patter on the roof”, presenting an image of needle-like rain, falling sharp and hard. The specific reference to a bodkin seems to be a way to bring an association with (garment) laces and possibly also lace (decoration) garments/undergarments (used once more, later).
So, she says “there’s noone here but me and the rain, and it’s not the rain, so you must be talking to me.”
“I will not drink thine vintage wine, mine dear; Thou hast heeded that I’m of innocence, and thou let’st thy lass into peril(#)”
(#) a soft crack of thunder
He offers her wine. This could be literal: “come in, have a drink”, with a light association with seduction; it can also be metaphorical: the “vintage wine” being akin to old memories: “remember the times we had?”
“I’m of innocence” seems to mean “I’m innocent”; the same form is used in a couple other places too. “You know I’m innocent, yet you tempt me”. “Innocent” has an interesting dictionary meaning here, too. Besides “Pure, without sin, guiltless” and such which is the typical interpretation, there is also “chastity”, lending weight to the undertone of seduction.
“Thou let’st me be parched”
She’s given no alternative, is left wanting to “drink”.
Here, the music is left bare, with a couple rumblings of thunder, and a quarter of the way through the break there is a soft shuffling/rustling sound, which I think is likely a recording artifact but could also be intentional.
The music accelerates here, moving from quarter notes to sixteenth notes, like rain increasing in intensity. There are a couple rumblings, and the violin picks up as a lead in to the next part:
“My heart, my heart, my heart…
…my heart(#), my heart, my heart”
And now a pounding of chords, still sixteenth notes but denser.
“My heart is of frailty”
Here we see “of <adverb>” again, and I take it to mean “my heart is frail.” The dictionary lends meaning here too: Besides (physically) weak, there is also “easily corrupted or tempted” – we can see where this is going…
“My pale skin is hued damask”
Damask is a pinkish color, rosy. She is flushed with (alcohol/passion/emotion).
The pounding of the piano continues into a crescendo of a drumroll, then breaks away back into verse with the piano backing off a bit to the still-moving-quickly “tinkling” of individual notes.
“When thou thy tears hast hidden, ‘Come back!’, thou sayest – There I soon am to be – but how am I to run when mine bones, mine heart – thou hast me bereft(#)”
When he has hidden his tears – gotten over his temporary regret/shame, he wants her again. He knows he’s been cruel, but desire overcomes regret over time, and he gives in. She, hurting, and knowing it’s because of him, comes anyway; they are, in a way, equally at each others’ mercy.
“But run thou sayest”
“I run, I run I run…
I run, I run I run…
I run, I run I run…
I run, I run I run…
I run, I run I run-”
She has asked him – “how can I come running when you hurt me so?” – but he insists, and she complies, even though it causes her much pain (Imagine running without bones, or a heart!)
“And there and then I behold (##) that a time will come”
(##) A sharper/louder crack of thunder.
“When I again dead will be. Thou tell’st me to leave without delay -
I leave, I leave…
I leave, I leave…”
“I leave with my bodkin and my tears in my hands(##)”
“Lo! – the shadows, the sky – descending; So by dinte of smite I gait before I run and melt together with dusk.(#)”
Here, there is a break and, punctuated by another thunderclap, the piano winds down to the original, slower (but still moving) pace. A lot of the above seems tied together, so I’ve lumped it all up here:
He calls for her, asks her to come running to him, she does. As (or after) that, she knows what will happen (“I again dead will be”); I interpret this metaphorically again, as in, she’s dead to him, or emotionally dead, because when he’s satisfied, he tells her to “leave without delay” – how ill used! – but she again complies. The repetition of “I leave” ties it to “I run”, but she repeats it fewer times and slower, which lends an air of hesitance or reluctance in contrast to the earlier eagerness.
She leaves in tears, and here is the other reference to the bodkin; I can’t see a literal meaning to it in this place, but it has collected many associations: rain, needle, lacings, and reinforced by ‘tears’ it kind of ‘stitches’ this all together into a sense of sharp downpour of pain and sorrow.
This entire section is connected with violin between the verses, seemingly all of a piece, up to the last, and probably most confusing part of the song.
Look! she says, to the shadows and the sky – it will be dark soon. So “by dinte of smite I gait” – this is tricky. “By dinte of” seems, at my best guess, to be akin to “By force of/by effort of”; “dinte” in the archaic sense is similar to “dent” and also refers to the receipt of a sharp blow, a “smite” if you will. Smite is linked strongly with a blow by the hand. Gait refers more to animals than to people, but has an association with being for show; the gait of a horse or a show dog; or “to gait” as to lead an animal in a gait. This verse seems to a lot of people to imply physical violence is present, but I don’t think so. He’s already told her to leave, and she has. I read it as “By force of will, as though resisting a strong blow, I walk away” – as a way of illustrating her pain, pride, and the difficulty of the task. “Before” is the key here – she walks before she runs and “melt[s] together with dusk”; while she can still be seen, she strides purposefully, for show, but then she runs, in tears, when she is far enough to be hidden by nightfall.
So, she leaves, but she doesn’t let him see how much it pains her. There are strong associations with physical violence, but I don’t believe it actually happens, which is supported by the next part:
“In my mind’s reach is this event, but it seems as if naught is to change anyway?!”
She is envisioning this all in her mind; how much of it is somewhat difficult to tell, but by the way the violin ties the words together, and the line “I behold that a time will come…”, I take it to be at least everything from the one to the other.
Finally, the last verse, which is repeated once in the album version:
“After all these years thou left me down in the emotional depths – the sombre soaked velvet drape is hung upon me, turning my feelings away from our so ignorant world: all the beautiful moments shared, deliberately push’d aside”
We’re going back to the beginning now, bypassing her imaginings of what is to come. After all this time, he invites her back. “The sombre soaked velvet drape” is hard to interpret, but it has associations with melancholy and gloom; a velvet drape is a heavy hanging, while drape is also lightly associated with (female) clothing. I take it as the “drape” itself being soaked in melancholy; a heavy weight being wrapped around her, enclosing her and separating her from the outside. It also brings to mind the closing of curtains, shuttering of a house, a drawing-inwards. I can’t support it, but I also have an image of a body laid out, covered in a veil of some kind, this may come from the line about being “dead” again.
This separation is strengthened by the rest; “turning my feelings away from our so ignorant world” – she is drawn into his presence, but nobody knows or cares about this situation. It’s just them. “All the beautiful moments shared, deliberately push’d aside” – I really like the way this line sounds, and find it beautiful in its own right. Since the rest seems to be talking about pushing aside the world outside, it would seem that the “beautiful moments shared” are the good parts of her life away from him, while she is knowingly forsaking that to come back to him.
“…A distance there is…”
Closing out the song, this mirrors the opening, but this time it seems that the distance she refers to is not so much between him and her, but between them and the outside world. Both would exist, of course.
The piano winds down and stops, and the song ends the opposite way it began – with steps walking away, panning from right to left, going from the wood of a porch to gravel (##) and off into the distance. This seems at odds with the conclusion of the lyrics, but I don’t think it needs to be taken literally, the symmetry and the sense of “away” is the important part, I think.
I stated at the beginning that I think the song is describing a particular feeling, a moment in time; I was talking about the complex emotions brought to the surface by this scene – the woman, scorned, but hopelessly beholden to the man, as she goes back to him, knowing the history and the probable future, but knowing she’ll go through with it anyway.