Lyrical Analysis: “Graves” by CALIGULA’S HORSE

2018’s In Contact by Caligula’s Horse was one of the band’s greatest releases to date—a carefully crafted album that tackled many themes both lyrically and musically. One of the album’s most memorable songs is a fifteen and a half minute epic that carries some of the most provocative imagery. I was struck by how viscerally I connected with the emotions of the song’s voice even upon the first listen. This is a song that merits a deeper look, and although the pronouns in the narrative are often impossibly vague, even the cryptic nature of the lyrics is intriguing—forcing the listener to examine the relationships therein in attempt to better understand the experience of the characters. Lyrically, “Graves” is a deeply interesting song that uses the metaphor of rival stone masons to examine the costs of obsession, and the fear of failing to realize one’s ambitions, particularly in regards to maintaining healthy fatherly relationships.

There are a lot of hints that the speaker of the song is a builder of some sort—someone who works with stone to complete a vision, which he fears he will never realize. Repeatedly we are reminded that his “hands shaped stones.” There are images of “carving out the world you stole,” and “the thought of it crumbling to dust.” There are even passages where it appears bricks themselves may be addressing the speaker, “We are the soil that joy gave form. Help me finish it.”

Additionally, the speaker fears an impending disaster that threatens to undo the work he’s yet to finish, which he describes as a flood or crashing waves. “All unfinished dreams—waves rushing in.” “Rising waves cry.” Even when he speaks of finding hope, he describes “waves receding.”

Though these waves are clearly used as a metaphor, the disaster they represent is much harder to solidify. A lot of the lines in this song are difficult to decipher simply because they are manifested as internal dialogue, and as such, the speaker doesn’t bother to explain who the pronouns pertain to. Who is the “him,” the “you,” and the “her” throughout the verses? It’s largely up to the listener to fill these gaps in where possible, which can be frustrating, yet it becomes an interesting exercise trying to piece the puzzle together.

The lines that both hit me the hardest and that I find perhaps the most miffing are “what if I’m just like him?” and “what if he’s just like me?” Lines like “we are the dream and these are my father’s hands” imply that the speaker is recognizing traits of his father in himself, and he doesn’t like what he sees. He then asks “god for the strength not to be” (like his father, presumably), to fight rather than flee. This implies that his father was unwilling to fight for his family during a crisis the speaker fears will reoccur. Certainly, the “him” in this instance is someone who didn’t have the will to stand and fight, but rather fled, and this decision haunts the speaker to this day. Perhaps, now he is facing fatherhood himself for the first time, and fears he could have the same failings.

However, it gets complicated when, later, we get the line “he’ll go first,” and “he was always the better.” We can assume that this “he” is another builder? It’s clear that the speaker is a mason. Lines like “these hands shaped stone” make that fairly clear, so we have to assume that the “he” in this instance is someone the speaker sees as a superior builder, but whether this “he” is also the speaker’s father remains unclear.

Regardless the context of the narrative revolves around the speaker becoming a father and coming to terms with both what this event means for him, as well as how it informs his complicated relationships with both his father and the shadowy competitor whom he envies and vilifies. The speaker sees the arrival of his first child as a potential deadline for his life’s passion—perhaps the metaphorical waves he speaks of. He says, “I sold my youth, wasted all day young, and it’s over, over.” Later on, he says “Faith is fading like the sun; The work left undone. Now that it’s been taken from me.” It’s a foregone conclusion that his work has been “taken” from him, marked by this occasion.

And yet, there’s another thievery going on. It appears that the supposed building the speaker is working on is either the dream of his competitor, or the competitor stole the build plans/contract from him. Part of why this is so unclear is in how the lyrics are delivered. There are three separate pieces of dialogue that are spoken simultaneously. Unraveled, they read as follows:

He’ll go first. You know that is true. Hope sings to the dust of you. He was always the better—the thief who shaped the lie. Dreamed for nothing. Just take back what’s yours. Don’t keep me waiting.

Know it is all that’s left of your dream—broken pieces in your weary hands, dreamed for nothing.

No more hope. Truly be rid of you. Is all this nothing to you? Fear. Dreaming. What if they were right? All unfinished dreams—waves rushing in. I wait.

“He was always the better—the thief who shaped the lie,” implies that the competitor was both a superior builder, but was also a thief who perhaps stole the speaker’s vision.  However, it also says “The man arise from earth. The life the lie is worth.” If we assume “the lie” is the building itself, stolen from the speaker, is he saying this building is his entire life’s worth, which has been stolen, or is he saying it would be worth taking the life of his competitor to reclaim the building?  What is it he fears “they were right” about?  Who is the “you” the speaker wishes to be rid of?  It’s all very unclear, but intriguing.

Regardless, it is clear the speaker’s obsession with completing his dream leads to immense conflict with his wife:

I beg you, break stone beneath me
Knowing that she won’t forgive me

Not this time, not again
She married my anger too

Here, we get insights about how the speaker has difficulty controlling his anger, and literally breaking stones is an outlet for that, while allowing for his constructive passion as a builder. Through much of the lyrics, the speaker is struggling with whether he will choose to devote himself to his family or recommit to his obsession with completing his building. It’s clear what he has chosen in these lines.

Another concrete idea that repeatedly comes up is how the speaker has found reconciliation through the birth of his son, though whether this is reconciliation with his own father, his adversary, or both—if they are one in the same—is unclear. “Naked in the wild, all was reconciled, as I held my child.” It’s a powerful image, with some fine assonance to boot. Certainly, he could mean that he found reconciliation with his own father through the experience of being one himself, or with his rival by understanding a greater importance in the responsibilities of fatherhood, perhaps willing to let go the fact that his rival stole his life’s work.

Whatever the case may be, in the end, the speaker continues to struggle with the ideas of accepting fatherhood, finding reconciliation, and moving on from his obsession with finishing his work.

And what am I to say to my son now?
My work undone
And what am I to say to my son now?

Hands shape stone

Reconcile

The final words echo repeatedly as a mantra. “Hands shape stone.” Importantly, this is written in present tense, implying that this simply is what hands do; it’s what they are for, and it would be near sacrilege for the work to not continue. Similarly, he repeats “reconcile” as though he is searching for a way to make things whole again, though the path remains out of reach. The image of men breaking stone in general is often associated with a form of punishment or rehabilitation for past crimes, making it a sort of double metaphor—both the laboring as a constructive pursuit as well as to make amends for immense guilt.

I still haven’t solidified a clear and complete narrative in the lyrics, and we haven’t even touched on the title itself. The speaker refers to “the spit, the second grave, the liar.” Is he referring to his rival here, perhaps threatening to kill him, or is the deed already done? Who is the first grave?  It’s possible that he’s referring to his deceased mother, the death of whom he may blame on himself, or even his father. “We are the fire that whispers our mother’s words—Help me, love.” What help was his mother asking for? Why does her words haunt him in this way? One could assume she died prematurely, perhaps literally in a fire, while seeking undelivered aid from her own son, or husband. Was this the incident in which her father dared not stand and fight, but perhaps fled, failing to protect? If the speaker does blame himself for her death, perhaps the “graves” are the two deaths he feels responsible for—first, his mother, and now his rival, the thief and liar he has killed.  The backstory is purposely unrefined, and so we are forced to work off speculation alone, but the lyrics certainly massage the imagination.

Many of the metaphors, images and pronouns in these lyrics can, and do, have multiple meanings, which is why the lyrics are often hard to understand explicitly, but is also why they are so powerful implicitly. It is easy to identify with many of the conflicts and struggles of the speaker, and one can’t help but find themes important to themselves in the words—issues of familial responsibilities, mending broken relationships, the obsessive search for meaning, and especially fear of failure in all these pursuits. The drama of these themes appropriately matches the drama of the music itself, making “Graves” one of the most intriguing and memorable progressive metal tracks of recent time. Caligula’s Horse have been on a consistent and upward trajectory, so I can’t wait to see what happens with future releases.  Hopefully they can continue to bring us such provocative words to chew on.

 

LYRICS:

Fade heart
World can wait for the weary hands
To learn it’s too late
But I’m spit and I’m rough dirt
What do you want from me?

Fade heart
Tip of my tongue
I sold my youth, wasted all day young
And it’s over, over
What kind of father could I be?

Fade heart
Ray to the spark
At last my light, given in to dark
And the thought of it crumbling to dust
No, I was not done

Fade heart
Beg she won’t see the coward, the cur
Maybe this is me
These hands shaped stone
But I’m scared like you wouldn’t believe it

Fade heart
Only a glimpse
I was wrong, take it back, just let this one live
Then it hits me like ice, to the thought:
What if I’m just like him?

Good god
Give me the strength that I need not to be
To fight, not to flee
Or succumb to the beast underneath
What if he’s just like me?

Naked in the wild
All was reconciled
When I held my child

Naked in the wild
All was reconciled
When I held my child

Quiet mind
Please
Quiet mind
Reach
Quiet mind
Be at peace
Reach

We are the fire that whispers our mother’s words
Help me, love (help me, love)
We are the soil that joy gave form

We are the dream and these are my father’s hands
Help me, love (help me, love)
We are the soil that joy gave form
Help me finish it

Rising waves cry
He’ll go first
You know that it is true
(Know it is all…)

(No more hope)
(Truly be rid of you)
Hope sings to the
(…that’s left of your dream)
(Is all this nothing to you?)
Dust of you
(Broken…)
(Fear)
(Dreaming)

He was always the better
(…Pieces in…)
(What if they were right?)
(All unfinished dreams)
The thief who shaped the lie(?)
(…Your weary hands)
(The images you…)

Dreamed for nothing
(…Dreamed were for nothing)
(Waves rushing in)
Just take back what’s yours
Don’t keep me waiting
(I wait)
(I’m waiting)

He sees me
Waves receding
The child, healing my hurt one day at a time
I’d feared it
Just like me
The child, healing my hurt one day at a time
Storm’s distant
I’m still closer than ever and
I’m healing my hurt
One day I’ll repay this kindness
All he sees me whole? [?]

Her voice is telling me
To breathe and let it be
The lion
Heed my words

The man arise from earth
The life the lie is worth
The liar
Heed my words
Who could fight?

The wound that would not heal
The boy, the broken wheel
The lion
Heed my hurt

The wind that whips the waves
The spit, the second grave
The liar
Heed my hurt
You could fight

We are the fire that whispers our mother’s words
Help me, love (help me, love)
We are the soil that joy gave form

We are the dream and these are my father’s hands
Help me, love (help me, love)
We are the soil that joy gave form

Waves receding and
Faith is fading like the sun
The work left undone

Now that it’s been taken from me
Tell me it was all for nothing
All mine

Play the part, the eyes, and witness
That I can touch you deep, can you feel this?
Alright

Breathe and let it be

Carving out the world that you stole
And bite down on it, dig a new hole
Oh hands

I beg you, break stone beneath me
Knowing that she won’t forgive me

Not this time, not again
She married my anger too

And what am I to say to my son now?
My work undone
And what am I to say to my son now?

Hands shape stone
Reconcile

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s