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Pompeii: An Analysis

Pompeii: An Analysis

Back in 2013, an extremely underrated pop song hit the radio and never completely left. Since then it has managed to pick up top-ten placements in various countries until as recently as February of 2019, but still seems — to me — unappreciated for it’s quality as a work of art.

That song was Bastille’s Pompeii. I’d like to explain why this song is so good.

As the title suggests, this song was inspired by the Roman city of Pompeii, which was famously consumed by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The destruction happened so suddenly that the city’s inhabitants were buried alive in poses that seem to indicate that they knew death was coming, yet somehow caught them in the moment, freezing them in time.

But as we look into its structure and lyrics, I think this inspiration may pave the way for a deeper and more generalized understanding of the meaning of the song.

Artists are notoriously coy about giving clear and direct explanations of the meanings of their works, and there is good reason for this. The true artist, who is “inspired” in their composition, pulls their work from beyond their own conscious intentions. Perhaps from some God, perhaps from their subconscious, perhaps from something else, the work just seems to “appear” before them, like Michelangelo “freeing the sculpture from the marble,” or Leonard Cohen describing a “baffled king composing hallelujah.” Further, the artist — like the Magician — is well aware of the dangers of excessive explanation of one’s craft. It can ruin the magic of the experience for some (my hope is that for readers of this blog, understanding will increase enjoyment, rather than decrease). Dan Smith has his explanation for the song, but aside from being a shy and self-effacing character personally, Smith — being an artist — may not actually be the best explicator of the meaning of his own song.

So allow me to offer mine…

The song kicks off with an attention-getting, ancient-sounding chorus:

He-heu, heu
He-heu, heu
He-heu, heu
He-heu, heu

He-heu, heu
He-heu, heu
He-heu, heu
He-heu, heu

This chant-like, almost Gregorian repetition is not just some arbitrarily-chosen pleasant sound, but a Latin word for “alas!” It sets the tone for the song in two ways: first, with a somber, sad emotional feeling (this is also achieved by the descending note-progression of the chant), and second, by turning our eyes backwards in time, to Roman antiquity. Both of these feelings are subtly and powerfully emphasized with a distant, deep, and barely audible drum.

I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

Our entrance to the proper lyrics of the song is a sudden, attention-grabbing transition. From something impersonal and choral, we get a voice that speaks in the first person. From something repetitive and in another language, we get complete sentences spoken in English. From a gradual musical descent, we get something that varies sharply, and ends where it started (C#). From something that sounds very old, we get something distinctly modern; a young, male pop-artists’ voice over synthesizers.

This dichotomy between the “old” sound and the “new” sound represent two themes which are “speaking to each other” throughout the song. This is a classical musical technique, but it plays into a theme which we see pop up in the subject-matter of the lyrics later on.

As for the lyrics themselves, they seem somewhat ambiguous. Who is this “I” who was left to their own devices? Smith says that he imagined two people, encased in ash, speaking to each other after hundreds of years of boredom. I suspect, however, that this was just an inspirational starting point: the sentiment is more generalized. After all, who isn’t “left to their own devices?” The feeling of having “nothing to show” is also a common feeling, from having wasted time or having pursued some goal in vain.

Coming from the modern, young voice, the lyrics ring true with a modern, young audience, who almost certainly wasted a fair bit of time in their late teens and early twenties (or perhaps beyond), with not much to show.

But, as we will see, the sentiment may be even more general than that…

And the walls kept tumbling down in the city that we love
Grey clouds roll over the hills bringing darkness from above

If you listen carefully, you can hear the very faint sound of the ancient chorus, as if in the far distance — though still dominated by the modern synthesizer. This is the beginning of the “conversation” I spoke of earlier.

The scene-setting here is epic, almost biblical. Walls tumbling down, death from above… it’s literal, in reference to the city of Pomeii, but are iconic in a way that seems timeless and perhaps symbolic. One can feel as though one’s own, personal “walls are crumbling,” or that some darkness is coming from above.

This more metaphorical interpretation is valuable because the emotional power of image of one’s beloved city collapsing around you is intensely personal. Most people can connect with that feeling of anguish, of powerlessness in the face of loss and destruction, not merely by empathy, but by connection with similar experiences in their own lives.

Why would we make this leap? Why isn’t empathy sufficient to understand the lyrics? More on this momentarily.

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?

For anyone who has suffered serious loss, that first pair of lines — “But if you close your eyes // does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?” — is incredibly emotionally intense, because it taps into what Elisabeth Kübler-Ross referred to as “denial” in the normal response-cycle to grief. We try to pretend that what just happened didn’t actually happen, that we’re just dreaming, and that perhaps if we just close our eyes and open them again, our loss might evaporate.

I personally experienced this reaction as a teenager after I burnt my hand rather suddenly and badly. I saw the skin dripping off my fingers and palm, and thought “this isn’t happening.” I imagine that the feeling would be even worse if instead of an ugly second-degree burn, one had was confronted with a terminal cancer diagnosis, or received a call that a parent or spouse or child had suddenly and unexpectedly died.

But the second pair of lines take us in a different direction: déjà vu. We’ve been here before? How could this be? Did Mt. Vesuvius erupt twice?

This is where merely empathizing with the city of Pompeii fails us in getting a grasp of this song. A mysterious feeling of return, of having “been here before,” implies a repetition, or at least something like a repetition; the completion of some kind of cycle, of which the citizens of Pompeii are a part, and we, as viewers of Pompeii and as listeners of this song, are also a part.

In other words, there is an implied connection made here between the frozen, stone-cast people of the ancient Roman city and us modern listeners.

This connection is not just lyrical, but musical. As these lines are sang to us, the ancient chorus of “alas!” is chanting in perfect harmony with the modern singer. We are connected musically to the past, and the past is connected by music to the modern, synthesized, pop world.

How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

These lines too are sang in harmony with the ancient chorus, although their chant has changed to a drawn-out “ahhhh-ahhhh-ahhhhh.” The sound is one of agreement, as if the despair in finding a cause for hope in the face of death (at the hands of a volcano or otherwise) was an old feeling.

I think these lines are a riddle, one which the ancients wrestled with and which this song wrestles with as well. The answer isn’t provided directly, but it isn’t a purely rhetorical question either. More on this shortly.

We were caught up and lost in all of our vices
In your pose as the dust settled around us

These lines mark a break from the old/young harmony, and a sudden return to the young, modern singer accompanied by the synthesizer. The lyrics themselves are obviously literal, describing the poses and postures of the dead at Pompeii, which were often intimate.

Two people embracing before death

But it also describes the modern feeling of being caught up in life, as if in some heavy current that we can’t swim out of, but aren’t really sure we want to follow, but it doesn’t matter that we aren’t sure because we can’t seem to get out of it. And suddenly, when we face the moment we are in — as if frozen in time — we realize that we’ve been caught up in the vices of life. This can feel like a modern, youthful feeling (it is the modern, youthful singer who is delivering these lines), but the bodies of the Old World show that in fact there is something immortal, and indeed, repetitive about this phenomenon.

…as if we’ve “been here before…”

What I am saying is that Smith is singing as if he is an ash-cast body in Pompeii, and he is also singing as a modern, living person, looking back upon the past. In this second sense, the dust settling around “us” isn’t volcanic ash that is encasing particular people from a particular time in a particular place, but death incarnate closing in on all people, from all times, in all places. The song visually and metaphorically describes the inevitability of death, and the hopelessness that the knowledge of death can bring, and the way in which death freezes our lives for others to gaze upon for the rest of time.

And the walls kept tumbling down in the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills bringing darkness from above

The repetition of the previous verse has now developed its secondary meaning more completely, and to demonstrate this, it has acquired new musical features: first, a female voice, of ambiguous chronological association (past or present) accompanies the first line. Then a male voice harmonizes with the second line, with the addition of a tension-building snare-drum.

These harmonizing voices are neither distinctly modern nor old, but in their sound seem to bridge the divide.

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?

How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

The chorus leads into another repetition of the song’s introductory chanting of “heu,” which is now accompanied by a modern drum-kit and synthesizer – again, and in a different way, bridging the gap between the “old” and the “new,” before dividing again in the most interesting thirty seconds of the song:

Oh where do we begin?
The rubble or our sins?
Oh where do we begin?
The rubble or our sins?

The first two lines are sung almost acapella, with accent piano notes and the distant hint of the ancient chanting. But the second two lines here, a choir joins in, which seems to include Smith, the ancient chanters, as well as the male and female voices which accompanied smith in the second repetition of the chorus, as if speaking for everyone.

The lyrics themselves are a kind of chicken-and-egg hunt for blame, or at least causation: ‘how did this tragedy happen?’ But the very phrasing of the question (“oh where do we begin?”) implies a sort of hopelessness and vanity, that no answer will present itself. The sins may well be linked to the tragedy — such is the nature of moralistic religious explanations of ‘death from above’ — but they also might simply be an alternative phenomena to notice and contemplate, and perhaps to regret, as if to say ‘bad things happen, and sins happen.’ Alas…

And the walls kept tumbling down in the city that we love
(Oh where do we begin? The rubble or our sins?)
Grey clouds roll over the hills bringing darkness from above
(Oh where do we begin? The rubble or our sins?)

Musically, this is the anteclimax. For the first time, the ancient chorus and the lead singer seemed to be at odds with each other, tied together only by the snare-drum. The conflict builds tension, and the snare drum adds to the feeling of this tension like a ticking clock, or perhaps like the drum accompanying an imminent execution at the gallows.

The musical opposition — more so than the lyrics — seems to imply a kind of finger-pointing, as if the tragedy is blamed on the old by the young and on the young by the old. But notice that within the lyrics, the walls “kept” tumbling down, rather than merely coming down, as if the walls are always coming apart.

After the singing and the snare give way, a deeper drum from the kit transitions us back into the harmony between the voices of the chorus:

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this? If you
Close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all…

And finally, the opening chant of “Alas” carries the song to its conclusion.

The likeness of ourselves to the dead of the past in their tragic flaws and fateful — indeed, destined — deaths should be pretty disheartening to anyone who believes in progress. How can we be optimistic about solving our problems if they are essentially the same problems that have been with us since the days of Rome?

Yet — as is the case with many tragedies — there is a kind of paradoxical happiness in the song in the very connection we find with other people. We may be experiencing the same problems that our ancestors had to go through, so there is no resolution. But we are at least not alone in having to endure these sufferings. We are suffering the epic destruction of the city of life together.

Lest the reader think I am being excessively liberal in my poetic license here, I want to reference a passage from the Iliad (incidentally a tragedy itself, and the prelude to the destruction of a city) which describes the center of Achilles’ new shield:

He wrought also two cities, fair to see and busy with the hum of men. In the one were weddings and wedding-feasts, and they were going about the city with brides whom they were escorting by torchlight from their chambers. Loud rose the cry of Hymen, and the youths danced to the music of flute and lyre, while the women stood each at her house door to see them.

Meanwhile the people were gathered in assembly, for there was a quarrel, and two men were wrangling about the blood-money for a man who had been killed, the one saying before the people that he had paid damages in full, and the other that he had not been paid. Each was trying to make his own case good, and the people took sides, each man backing the side that he had taken; but the heralds kept them back, and the elders sate on their seats of stone in a solemn circle, holding the staves which the heralds had put into their hands. Then they rose and each in his turn gave judgement, and there were two talents laid down, to be given to him whose judgement should be deemed the fairest.

About the other city there lay encamped two hosts in gleaming armour, and they were divided whether to sack it, or to spare it and accept the half of what it contained. But the men of the city would not yet consent, and armed themselves for a surprise; their wives and little children kept guard upon the walls, and with them were the men who were past fighting through age; but the others sallied forth with Mars and Pallas Minerva at their head—both of them wrought in gold and clad in golden raiment, great and fair with their armour as befitting gods, while they that followed were smaller. When they reached the place where they would lay their ambush, it was on a riverbed to which live stock of all kinds would come from far and near to water; here, then, they lay concealed, clad in full armour. Some way off them there were two scouts who were on the look-out for the coming of sheep or cattle, which presently came, followed by two shepherds who were playing on their pipes, and had not so much as a thought of danger. When those who were in ambush saw this, they cut off the flocks and herds and killed the shepherds. Meanwhile the besiegers, when they heard much noise among the cattle as they sat in council, sprang to their horses, and made with all speed towards them; when they reached them they set battle in array by the banks of the river, and the hosts aimed their bronze-shod spears at one another. With them were Strife and Riot, and fell Fate who was dragging three men after her, one with a fresh wound, and the other unwounded, while the third was dead, and she was dragging him along by his heel: and her robe was bedrabbled in men’s blood. They went in and out with one another and fought as though they were living people haling away one another’s dead.

Iliad, Book 18

This artifact is described in greater detail than any other item in the entire story. This shield is described in such detail because it is the central metaphor of the entire story, one which identifies the city with life itself, and even while depicting a city at war and a city at peace, the peaceful city is still struggling through trials and suffering. Perhaps both are doomed in the long run. As a metaphor, they must be, because like the hero Achilles who is gifted this heavy shield depicting the cities of life, all of us are doomed to die.

Pompeii may have been a Roman city, but it borrowed much from Greek culture, and perhaps even more than the Greeks, the Romans were an urban civilization. The city was their soul, and the analogy of the city to life may have been even more apt to a Roman than to a Greek. Perhaps as apt to a modern, urban millennial musician as to an ancient Roman.

Across time, nothing really changes. And if we close our eyes, we may even feel as though we have been here before.

That seems to be the message and the power of Bastille’s “Pompeii.”

Whether or not this feeling brings us despair or solace is a question of perspective, and — hopefully without overreaching too much — I might even suggest that learning to take solace from its powerful chorus, rather than falling into despair (or perhaps solace in the despair) is a good gauge of wisdom. It is, at the very least, the mark of connection with the wisest among those who died in our fiery collective history.

And we can at least take solace in that.

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