WARNING: THIS BLOG POST DEALS HEAVILY WITH THEMES OF RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM AND TERRORISM. IF YOU FEEL YOU CANNOT STAND SUCH SUBJECTS, PLEASE STOP READING.
Personal Choice: The Dichotomy of the Rifle’s Spiral
Whenever people ask me “What kind of music do you listen to?” I always give them what I think is the worst possible answer to that question: “I listen to anything.” I think it’s a bad answer because it negates the question at hand. The person who asked you might as well have never asked you, because they didn’t really get a definitive answer; they haven’t really learnt anything about you. But in my case, I honestly think it’s the best answer. If I narrow it down to a few particular genres, then that isn’t truthfully an accurate representation of all the music I listen to, but if I don’t narrow it down at all, I look like a bit of a knob.
That being said, when I chose the song Know Your Onion by The Shins for my portrait presentation, I didn’t choose it because I enjoyed the song musically. I chose it because the meaning behind the song is something of great pertinence to me. It was, more or less, a song that reinforced what I was talking about in my soul. I was unfortunately cut short from presenting the entire piece, but I stand by my choice of the song nonetheless.
The writer of the song, John Mercer, is not only a brilliant poet, but also the lead vocalist of The Shins. The song The Rifle’s Spiral, released in 2012 alongside its host album Port of Morrow, is another world musically from the much senior Know Your Onion from their 2001 album Oh, Inverted World. The song reflects the bands 11 year growth both as philosophers and as musicians.
When one first hears the song, The Rifle’s Spiral, the name of which even evoking a certain ambiguity, one hears an upbeat indie-rock song with average vocals, and lyrics that sound at first as if they were made up on the spot. The song however, has a very dark message that is well hidden within it’s masking cadence of cheery electro indie rock. I’ve stated before that I appreciate art, and moreover, abstract art, far more when there is a meaning to it. An intentional and designed meaning to it that derives from the artist’s experiences and feelings. I think this song is a perfect example of how poetry can be deeply meaningful (and by deeply I mean concise), cryptic, and graciously unpretentious at the same time. That’s why I think it’s important to share this song with you guys.
Before you proceed any further, I implore you to give a listen to the song. Indulge yourself in the unappreciated pleasure of a first impression before we tear this song apart, and void your mind as best you can of any assumptions you may have of it’s meaning. Pay mind to the visual if you must, but try and focus more on the music. The story told through the video itself is an analysis for another day. Enjoy.
Now take a moment, and think about what you just heard before I tell you what it means.
Done? Great. Mercer’s statements about the song go as follows “I was thinking about religious violence and what it must be like to be in a situation where it seems that your fate has brought you to battle. The song is written from the perspective of somebody funding and paying for suicide bombers to engage in that horrible activity. Just the perverse and grotesque thing that that is, and you know, living in the age we live in and my disrespect and fear of religion in general just fueling that intense hatred and appalling violence.” That is certainly is a weighty message, one that the music seemed to have no issue carrying right above everyone’s heads, including mine. This is by far, one of the most cryptic songs that Mercer has ever written. The song is about suicide bombers. Moreover, the song as a whole is about religious warfare. Religious violence. I, however, feel like the song is a statement of war in general, and the what it is like to give your life for a cause that meets no end. I fell in love with this song the very first time I found out about its meaning, and my heart and mind raced with a desire to pick it apart. That said, I’ve chosen to analyze this song and it’s meaning as more of a poem than a piece of music. So without further ado, let’s get started.
The Rifle’s Spiral
Dead lungs command it.
Dead lungs. I wondered for a long time what dead lungs could imply. I think that in the context of this songs message, dead lungs refer to dead people. Lungs are the organ that regulate breathing, one of the most important processes the human body undertakes. Lungs are essential, important; we couldn’t live without lungs. Lungs in this case, represent somewhat of the ideological sine qua non that fuels religious warfare. The words of people, long dead people that are essential for the survival of an idea. Those words, those ideas, those dead lungs, hold power over the followers of a belief. The dedicated extremists, who will do whatever is necessary to satisfy their ideology, just as the dead lungs command it.
You pour your life down the rifle’s spiral
The Shins aren’t known for having eponymous lyrics in their songs; quite often the titles of their songs never appear in the lyrics, so the fact that this line is the only one of it’s kind in the song, leads me to believe that it is of great relevance to the central idea of the text. After much rumination, it seems to me that this line puts into perspective one’s decision to devote their life to a cause, highlighting the essential idea of the entire piece. An excerpt from an article I had read while doing my research for this piece states; “When a bullet is fired, the expanding gas from the powder forces the bullet out of the cartridge and down the barrel with great speed. The rifling in the barrel causes the bullet to spin as it travels out of the barrel.” The rifling in the barrel causes the bullet to spin as it travels out of the barrel. That is where I believe the meaning of this line lies. To pour one’s life down the rifle’s spiral, is to become one with the spinning of the bullet- using yourself as a weapon to kill. More poetically, to give your life to a violent cause- in a violent manner. Whether that be via a literal bullet shot, or a suicide vest.
And show us you’ve earned it.
Show us that you have earned the right to call yourself a supporter of our cause by giving the most valuable thing you have; your life. The idea of initiation in terrorists groups and even many militaries is one of immense popularity, and often a ritual that is taken very seriously. To prove your dedication to a cause, often death of others by the sacrifice of your own life is often heralded as the purest way to display your devotion.
Cleric’s fog will recede right before your eyes.
This line is definitely a favorite of mine in this song. This line touches more on the aspect of religious warfare as a whole, rather than the very specific case of an individual suicide bomber. A cleric, according to Merriam Webster, is a priest or religious leader, especially a Christian or Muslim one. Fog, when used in wartime context, is a very suggestive word. The fog of war refers to the confusion and the loss of communication in the heat of a battle, but in this sense, I take fog to refer to the religious teachings of the long-dead cleric, which cause blind devotion in their followers. Blind devotion that extremism, religious in particular, demands and places upon it’s followers. Let’s look at our translation so far: The blind devotion to your religious cause will recede right before your eyes. Many wars that humanity has fought were fought over a difference of religious beliefs. The Crusades, the Holocaust, modern Islamic warfare etc… Warmongers use this religious spin to drive a sense of culture and morality into their devotees, their soldiers, or even their common citizens for support. But once a soldier out on the field, dying, nothing that the clerics of spoken, none of the religious rhetoric they’ve engrained in you- clerics fog- mean anything apropos of the grim reality of war, suffering, and death that you now know- it all recedes right before your eyes.
So long to this wretched form.
In many religions, some sort of afterlife is typically present, and it idealized as a way to incentivize good behavior in their followers. Many say that the life we live on earth holds no candle to the life that awaits us after death. The life we live on earth, in the context of this line, this wretched form pertains to the life that we live on earth. This line implies a departure from that life, the only departure that is truly viable being death. Death, at the cost of the lives of others. Terrorism.
Them grey eyes on the subway
I believe that the mention of grey eyes can refer to two things, each of which I will list, since there are two instances of this line in the song. This instance, I take to refer to the judgement of a terrorists god. Grey is considered widely to be a neutral color, between black and white. A neutral colour that judges the mistakes of all the gradients in between. I think that the grey eyes on the subway allude to the idea of god in the eyes of the suicide bomber. The figure that assures what they are about to do is for the better of their religion.
Long before you were born
When one devotes their life to a religious cause, they often believe that to have been their destiny. A predetermined decision has already been made, long before you were born, that you will die taking the lives of others to prove a point. In terms of the song, the terrorist was always intended, by his or her god, to be an instrument of terror and death to unbelievers.
You were always to be a dagger floating
Straight to their heart.
You were always destined to be a weapon striking this target. Mercer’s use of the term “floating” in place of words such as “racing “ or “hurling” disguises the fact that a weapon by its very nature must be aimed at a target. “Floating” implies looseness, and laziness, contrary to the connotations of precision and intent carried by other words such as “racing” and “hurling”. This is meant to downplay the violence of a knife penetrating flesh. This is intentional, as a terrorist, or any organization that propagates religious or ideological violence, must distance its followers- the one’s carrying out the violence- from the horrid acts they are committing. This is done through reassurance that what they are doing is for the betterment of humanity, and the punishment of unbelievers.
Listen, now, we won’t tell anyone.
But you’re gonna tell the world.
So life ain’t then any fun.
This line refers to how the kind of life the terrorist wants to live isn’t possible while people exist whose beliefs contradict theirs. The power that the non-believers hold prevents the terrorist from enjoying a society that conforms perfectly to their beliefs. This is why the terrorist, in their sick and twisted pathos, is willing to be a bomb and kills others.
Now your viscera unfurls
Viscera means bowels and intestines. Unfurl refers to the rolling out of flags or large pieces of fabric. Quite literally, “Now your intestines and other innards roll out”. Mercer’s meticulous use of the word “unfurl” is not without intent. The word unfurl carries connotations of flags. In this case, it implies the planting of a flag on behalf of a nation, and in this case, a religious one. Needless to say, this line is in reference to the deaths that suicide bombers cause for their religion or cause, and the horrid reality of the acts they commit.
As you rise; rise from your burning fiat,
Go, go get my suitcase, would you?
This is a hard one so please bear with me. A fiat is a formal command or decree. The decree, in this case, I believe is the order from clerics to kill. To say “rise from your burning fiat”, as I interpret it, is to allow that fiat-to consume you in a fire of passion, and allowing you to rise into a superior being. Usually this fiery passion means death for you and others. The second stanza, “go, go get my suitcase would you” may seem random and nonsensical, but when put in the context of this song’s meaning, actually makes a lot of sense. It satirizes the stanza above it. The former line implies that the act of terrorism being committed rises you above mortal limits through death- which is juxtaposed by the latter line – commanding the completion of a very menial, worthless, and almost insulting task. The second stanza puts into perspective how little the followers of a violent religious organization are valued. It delegates their entire life, which we’ve established previously in the song, to be one destined to serve a great cause into mere menial labor. It’s kind of like saying “yeah, you think you’re doing god’s work, but at the end of the day, you die a meaningless wretch, while we prosper from the fear and sorrow you create.” An individual terrorist may think the terrible act they carry out for their cause to be the most important thing that he or she will ever do, however to the terrorist organization, it is tantamount to carrying a suitcase.
You’ve thoroughly blown their minds.
Their brains are literally “blown” both because of the subject’s explosion, but also in the sense of the unrest and civil divide that terrorism places in the hearts and minds of it’s victims.
And now I must have passage home
Your life’s two veins from your heart.
The line “And now I must have passage on the lines, Two veins from your heart,” is a hard one to analyze, because I haven’t yet been able to decipher the accurate lyric. Some sources say it is “I must have passage home, your life’s two veins from your heart, though it could also be “passage on the lines to veins from your heart,” which are all equally confounding (confusing). The passage (access to) must lead to something with a religious element to fit with the rest of the song. Perhaps a more simple interpretation, the two veins from your heart could be two wires coming out of a vest – wires connected to a bomb, hence two ‘veins’ from your ‘heart’.
I believe that the song takes somewhat of a shift here. The writing, although it remains as cryptic as before, relates (in my interpretation at least) more to real world events regarding terrorism, and the underlying tones within the stanzas turn from ambivalent to cynical. The voice turns from remorse to acceptance. These shifts are reflected in Mercer’s voice in the first post-riff stanza.
You’re not invisible, now.
You just don’t exist.
Your mother must be so proud.
You sublimate yourself, granting us a wish.
This is mockery of the terrorists views. Not from the perspective of a violent religious organization, but more from the perspective of people like you and I. Despite their sacrifice, there’s nothing for them after death, so instead of being a spirit in paradise, the bomber has simply ceased to exist. “Your mother must be so proud” is pure sarcasm. While you sublimated yourself (did something to make yourself purer— blowing yourself up for your god, in this case), you actually did us a favor by dying. One less terrorist in the world.
Primitive mural on the wall,
to fortify your grim resolve.
This next stanza of four lines are my favorite in this song. They relate the most to real world events, and touch on the hatred that many extremist ideological groups hold for western civilization (Communism, National Socialism, Islamic Terrorism, etc etc…). Primitive mural relates to the many religions that decorate their places of worship with religious ornamentation. For example, Catholic churches may have paintings of the crucifixion, statues of Christ, and various crosses. An extremist may show these beautiful artworks to a trainee in an attempt to inspire them further to kill themselves for their religion. In other words, to fortify their grim resolve.
And made the glitz of a shopping mall
The “glitz of the shopping mall” is part of what contradicts the terrorist’s beliefs. It symbolizes the immortality of western civilization in the their eyes. There have been many terrorist attacks on shopping malls, because the tend to be dense with people. One high-profile example is Al-Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate Mall, in which at least 67 people died. Malls are also common sites for bombs in Israel, and places where lone shooters can strike.
another grain of indigent salt for the sea.
Indigent means poor or needy. Mercer’s first definite allusion in this song is made here. This is a reference to Christianity specifically, but perhaps it could be seen as one to all religions in general. Jesus Christ called his followers “the salt of the earth,” and said “the meek shall inherit the earth.” It’s not too much of a stretch to assume indigent and meek could be considered synonyms, especially since “the meek” are also the “poor in spirit.” By linking salt to the sea instead of the earth, the allusion is subverted. By calling the terrorist a grain, it is also implied that they are one of many, indistinguishable from their peers. The terrorists sacrifice, in other words, accomplished nothing.
Good night to these wretched forms
All them gray eyes on the subway
My second interpretation of this song’s chorus are more in line with the themes established in second post-guitar solo portion of the song. The subway is another reference to western civilization, and the grey eyes refer to Europeans or those of European descent. This line highlights (again) differences between the terrorist and their potential/intended victims. The mention of a subway is an allusion to previous terrorist attacks, specifically those targeted at subways. For example, the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground, or the 2004 Madrid bombings.
So long before you were born
you were always to be a dagger floating
straight to their heart.
Religious extremism accounts for an incredibly small percentage of religious people, and it is often the most violent who are the most outspoken and demand the most attention. It mustn’t be forgotten that the fundamental theme of the song is not religious extremism, but ideological extremism and the futility of war in general. The little value placed on human life for what are trivial and petty interests thrust upon the common man by corporate, political and (religious) officials. This in an amazing song, as it highlights the disgusting nature of organizations who use religion to propagate terror and suffering to no end, and whose influence has been the undoing of many a naive child. It does all this, while remaining a fun song to listen to, with excellent riffs, both vocally and musically.
This was a hard stanza to decipher. I honestly think that my interpretation is a stretch. I think this stanza refers to the terrorist, who, for the sake of future machinations of their violent ideological organization, must remain anonymous. Hence, the bomber will tell the world while the organization will remain safely able to fund more terrorism in the future. I’m not confident with this interpretation because it doesn’t match the reality of terrorism and ideological warfare that we can observe today. Terrorist organizations are so quick to claim acts of mass murder as their own doing that it becomes hard to take seriously. Any organization that incites violence and murder to further their cause and strike fear in the hearts of heretics will take whatever opportunity they can get to allow their intentions to be known.