Lyrical Analysis

I’ve always been into trying to figure people out, but since training to be a therapist, it’s hard not to think sometimes that this curiosity (that was once merely a habit and is quickly becoming a means of livelihood) can get out of hand.  Particularly because so often, there are no real answers, only hypotheses that can feel at times like a stretch.  That’s not to say that there’s no enjoyment to be had in it.  Some of the most bizarre, hard to understand, and seemingly inapplicable theories are often the most interesting and indeed, the most rewarding to conceptualize from.  But one problem that I’ve had since my early undergraduate days is with the alarmingly high incidence of one particular reaction when people find out I’m a student of psychology.  They want to know if I’m analyzing them at that second.  Now I always respond with something to the effect of, “are you paying me this second?”  Better yet, they ask if I know what they’re thinking.  Now that I think of it, maybe I do…

So allow me to indulge and feed the stereotype that all psychology types are walking psychoanalysts, on the lookout at every opportunity for clues that yes, you do actually want to murder your dad and sleep with your mom.

I started getting interested in picking apart song lyrics not long ago.  In particular, songs that make mention of therapy, and there was one by one of my favourite bands of the last decade that I thought would be fun to have a look at from the special perspective of one of my favourite theories of psychotherapy.

The song: “Dead Letter and the Infinite Yes” by Wintersleep.  The theory: Existential Psychotherapy.  If you’re not sure what that is, an explanation is really beyond the scope of this post, so do check out the wikipedia article.

I found a letter it read
“Our existence has serious side effects”
Turned on, turned on the television
It’s telling me the world is collapsing
I think it’s coming and it comes so fast
I’m hearing whispers of an infinite yes
And I don’t know why it is
Our bodies are dead, why you look so sad?

And my therapist said
“We’ve evolved through a series of accidents”
There’s been talk of chemical imbalances
Restless sense of detachment, nausea and/or violence

I think it’s coming and it comes so fast
I’m hearing whispers of an infinite yes
And I don’t know why it is
I feel it coming, I think it’s real and significant
I think, I think, I think a little too often
That’s what my therapist said
We’re alone in this wilderness
Left to choke on the pills and to feed on the viruses
I think it’s coming and it comes so fast

I think it’s coming and it comes so fast
I’m hearing whispers of an infinite yes
Our bodies are dead, why you look so sad
Our bodies are dead, why you look so sad

There are several key themes here that jump to life right away.  Note the 4 existential givens, as set forth by Irvin Yalom, arguably the Grand Poobah of American existential therapy: the inevitability of death, the paradox of freedom and responsibility, ultimate isolation, and meaninglessness.  The issue of the inevitability of death is fairly obvious from the first verse: “the world is collapsing,” “our bodies are dead.”  Even from the title of the song we are alerted to the issue of death by the inconspicuous mention of the Dead Letter.

Aloneness… isolation.  “We’re alone in this universe, left to choke on the pills and to feed on the viruses.”  A picture is painted of a cold, indifferent, and ultimately meaningless world.  Perhaps the “infinite yes” speaks to this – a sense that no matter what, the answer is always the same.  Our efforts to prolong life, to self-preserve, are ultimately in vain as the reality of life – that it ends in death – only moves ever closer.

The subject of the song is presumably seeing a therapist of some kind.  We can deduce that whatever is ailing our protagonist, one of the proposed treatments has been medical – this theme permeates the song: “our existence has serious side effects,” “talk of chemical imbalances,” and “restless sense of detachment, nausea, and/or violence” listed as if side effects on the side of a pill bottle.  And in the end one is left to “choke on the pills and feed on the viruses.”  Clearly our therapist didn’t pay special attention to any kind of therapeutic relationship here.  One is left with a feeling of abandonment.  Of foreboding.  The end of the world itself seems to be inevitably approaching with increasing speed.

But the issue remains: how is the song’s subject choosing to live inauthentically?  According to our chosen theory, this is the means by which we encounter difficulty.  It might be possible that the songs object, the one who looks so sad, may play a role in something here.  Our protagonist seems concerned about this sadness, and puzzled.  At the same time, it may be that this is all okay, that it is accepted, and that no ‘difficulties’ are being experienced.  After all, the song carries a tone of indifference to what seems to be happening.  It is the emotional reaction of the other, this puzzling sadness…

Our bodies are dead.  Unlikely that this is meant literally.  But we could take a shot in the dark and say that perhaps this is a larger statement about the world, that the physical has lost meaning, after all – what separates us from the amoeba?  The tree?  The rock?  Fundamentally it is not a physical difference, but a mental or even spiritual one.  Cells die every second.  Our bodies are dead.  Our worlds will collapse, which means that the finity of life – the fact that it will be cut off, snuffed out, pulled away – gives us something akin to purpose.  It is as Yalom said: “Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of it saves us.”

And so in a way we can conclude that our protagonist may in fact be alright.  And alright in existential terms does not by any means mean happy, free from anxiety, or anything like that.  Rather, it means to experience life as it is, moment by moment.

I’d take some anxiety in order to be able to say the same about myself.