Transmitting The Tea Party’s “Alarum”

Transmitting The Tea Party’s “Alarum”

It’s probably not a great idea to take stage banter too seriously, but I could not resist taking up Jeff Martin’s request to explain to him whether the lyrics to “Alarum” make sense. I saw the Tea Party play in Ottawa last week, and Martin prefaced the song with an explanation, describing how Dante thought that one method of seeking inspiration would be to descend into the depths of Hell and work back out. Martin suggested that “Alarum” was the result of a similar process of descending to and then escaping a personal Hell. Indeed, the lyrics of the entire Transmission album, on which the track was released, are about grappling with darkness, and the disc itself channeled that journey into new creative directions for the band.

      Ordinarily I wouldn’t have thought twice about writing a response about this song, but it blew me away when they played it live, and the discussion of Dante got me thinking about a paper I wrote as an undergrad about the punishment the suicides suffer in Hell. Thinking back to those classes, I remember being somewhat disturbed that Dante considered depression a sin associated with sloth. The prof. explained it in salvational terms: the suicides believe that their misery is so deep, their pain so extreme, that God Himself cannot rescue them. Their despair is a sinful denial of God’s grace, and therefore a violation of Catholic belief. The punishment of the suicides is to be tossed haphazardly into a forest where they grow into twisted trees. Then they are tormented by harpies that continually tear at the leaves and branches and otherwise inflict pain. The punishment is fitting because the suicides failed to respect their own bodies due to their lack of faith in a divine plan, and now they have no control over what happens to their new bodies.

     With this section of the Divine Comedy in mind, I considered the lyrics of “Alarum” and Martin’s preface. If we take Martin at his word, we can understand the song originating in a desperation perhaps not quite as deep as that of the suicides. His description of a “Piranesian dream” suggests a feeling of entrapment since piranesian architecture, so some online research tells me, is associated with Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an eighteenth-century neoclassical architect most famous for his gloomy prison motifs. So, we have a framing story in which the singer imagines giving into despair, becoming imprisoned by some external force. Since this is a dream, not a memoir, the song is about only toying with whether to allow the darkness to swallow the speaker. The idea of what submission would mean is evident in the anguished, yet almost desirous chorus:

Oh no, nothing matters matters     

When it takes me

When it rapes me, breaks me                 

Shakes me down

Reminiscent of Dante’s views on depression and suicide, Martin here sings about a belief that everything is hopeless and without meaning. As it is for the suicides, the result is passive acceptance of the torment inflicted upon a body without motion, and this violation of the soul and body results from first giving up all claim of stewardship of that body.

     Martin elsewhere imagines succumbing to other of the seven deadly sins, especially lust, and these instances are also defined by lack of control. He describes “lust” that “feeds on the fear”, being “seduced by the fear of devastation”, and becoming “luxuria’s slave”. Incidentally, the lustful in Hell are described as being blown about by the wind. Like the suicides, their sin is lack of restraint, though to a lesser degree. Of all the sins, lust is the least severe and the easiest to succumb to. In fact, in Purgatory, souls only go through the punishments fitting for the sins they have committed, but everyone must pass through the fire on the terrace of lust to purge any remaining inclination toward sin. Lust, for the speaker, is paired with anger, particularly at himself. The two sins (along with vanity) are conflated most of all in the final stanza:

A quick escape from the edge of commination                

I slept the night with my spleen spleen   

A vain excuse, I was searching for some answers       

I broke away from the scene        

Because after all animality's an instinct    

And it's luxuria's slave

Sleeping with spleen implies wrath and lust feeding off each other, a point made clearer by the admission that animality, the absence of human reason to control passion, leads to sexual slavery. The excuse, presumably, is that we can’t control our animal instincts, but the vanity of the claim lies in denying that we have the power of self-control; we are of course not merely animals, otherwise why would we even need to think of the excuse?  The passage leads to the speaker’s redemption, his “escape from . . . commination,” and this requires admitting that anger, despair, and lust are not valid justifications for each other.  

    Dante’s journey through the Inferno is designed to prepare him for divine truth by seeing, but not taking part in, the punishments of the damned. Martin likewise describes his own “slide . . . down a staircase” to “taste the truth” through “a seizure of the senses” with “a foot in the grave”. The language mirrors the descriptions of lust and the other sins in terms of letting go control, but here submission is to truth, and this is an active decision to fight against baser impulses. The language of sin is by contrast characterized by passion or folly that overwhelms sense and shuts down receptivity to any ideas at all, replacing thought with action only: The sins of despair, lust, and wrath in the song are described often in terms of overwhelming sensation, confusion, or violence (“Senses reeled, distorted,” “fury of a madness,” “stumbled through the enigma of reason,” “a rip in the heart”). Only the “seizure of the senses”, as in seizing control, allows the speaker to open his mind to absorb the lessons without being fully consumed by the appeal of sin – to “taste” rather than to be consumed; One foot in the grave means that the other can emerge with the truth.

     With its Dantean influences and the darkness of thought this song chronicles, the archaic word for alarm, “Alarum”, is a fitting title that captures the idea of a warning found in an old book about the dangers of embracing sin. The alarum is described as the speaker’s own raving scream that “caused a cracked mirror”, an apt description of how an overly critical look at the self can lead to despair and self-directed anger that shuts out the potential for betterment (or accepting God’s grace for Dante). This alarum tells us not to focus on our immediate thoughts and feelings or to use our pain to justify sin, but to look at the bigger picture of our lives and the world around us. We can use these moments of despair to grapple with the darkness and emerge closer to the truth about ourselves. Until writing this paragraph, I had been unsure what the “it” in the chorus refers to, but I think it can mean feelings like those described throughout the song. In moments of despair, lust, anger, vanity, we open ourselves up to be broken down, but if we heed the warning, we can allow ourselves also to be built back up, better and stronger.  

 

 Alarum - Audio

“Alarum” Lyrics (Thanks to Google Play Music)

I took a slide, slipping down a staircase

A piranesian dream

My senses reeled, distorted by the darkness

I lit my way with a scream

And in the rave an alarum caused a

Cracked mirror

I got confused by the sound

I turned around and touched it from a distance

And then it fell to the ground

 

Loud cry from the shallows

Lust feeds on the fear

Walls crack under pressure

I think the end is getting near

 

And in my mind was the fury of a madness

That consecrated the dirt

I stumbled through the enigma of the reason

And celebrated the hurt

And then I found through an act of desperation

A subtle rip in the heart

I was seduced by the fear of devastation

And then it tore me apart

 

Oh no, nothing matters

When it takes me

When it rapes me, breaks me

Shakes me down

 

A quick escape from the edge of commination

I slept the night with my spleen

A vain excuse, I was searching for some answers

I broke away from the scene

Because after all animality's an instinct

And it's luxuria's slave

To taste the truth, it's a seizure of the senses

And it's a foot in the grave

(Written by Jeffrey John Burrows, Jeffrey Scott Martin, Stuart Chatwood • Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc)

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