Signs Of Life: A Case Study In Irony And Metaphor

There is a class of albums that I would like to call the “We’re Still Here” albums, where a band that has had a great deal of turmoil like losing their lead singer or being dropped from their label releases an album trying to convince fans that they are still around and still worth listening to. Most of the time these albums flop terribly because no one listens to them, but on occasion at least the albums are modesty successful and achieve at least some praise. While albums like Genesis’ “Calling All Stations” or Van Halen’s Van Halen III or Foreigner’s Unusual Heat have been examples of “we’re still here” albums that have completely flopped, at times the albums have a high degree of worth even if the fans do not really endorse them and they have no hits and few sales and lead to drastic changes like the band being demoted to the independent label circuit. One of those albums is Journey’s Arrival, which was made in the aftermath of an acrimonious split between Journey and its longtime lead singer Steve Perry. Now, while I am a huge fan of Steve Perry’s work both solo and with Journey, I enjoy Arrival and the efforts of replacement singer Steve Augeri, who helmed this effort and co-wrote at least a couple of the songs. One of those songs is “Signs Of Life,” a post-breakup anthem that demonstrates something well worth reflecting in greater detail.

It is a shame that Arrival has so largely been ignored by people who like to dig into the lyrical significance of songs, because “Signs Of Life” is demonstrative of both irony and the powerful nature of metaphor in a way that is seldom recognized. For the purposes of our discussion, I would like to talk about a single section of lyrics at the end of the first verse and including the chorus, as they demonstrate a profound lack of awareness of the nature of metaphor in a particularly striking way: “We need to talk / You give me metaphors. / By the way, / What I’ve been trying to say is / Try to not think about you / I’m not a dead man walking without you / You know I’ll be alright. / I’m showing signs of life. / You had me barely breathing / But I’ve got time for the healing/ And now I’ve opened my eyes. / I’m showing signs of life.” What is most telling about this particular set of lyrics is not any sort of originality or cleverness–the lyrics are banal and cliched to the extreme, so much so that it is almost churlish to discuss the fact that not long before the song was recorded and released there had been a massive hit by another artist called “Barely Breathing” that used just one of the metaphors that fills the chorus to discuss a post-breakup situation to great effect. The irony (and hypocrisy) is that the narrator complains about his partner giving him metaphors, and then he turns around and gives her metaphors right back while being seemingly entirely unaware that he is trafficking in metaphor himself.

This is a common problem. It is hard to be just to other people. The fact that cliches seem so natural and so obvious to us often blinds us to the fact that even hackneyed and cliched metaphors remain metaphors. Nearly every line of the chorus relates to some metaphor that relates to awareness or matters of the heart. We speak of people who are heartbroken as being “dead men (or women) walking,” who are “barely breathing” despite the fact that their lungs are functioning perfectly well and they have no terminal physical illness, but simply immense grief that comes from broken and failed relationships that can and often does wreck real havoc in the lives of people, including ourselves. When we speak of feeling that we are over a relationship as showing “signs of life” that is a metaphor for feeling our spirits revived and perhaps open to a new relationship without bitterness except towards one’s ex. Even the idea of insight being related to opening one’s eyes is metaphorical in that the eye being conceived of is the eye of the mind and not the eyes of our body. And so it is particularly telling and unjust that the narrator (and presumably the songwriters) would condemn someone for giving others metaphor immediately before giving a lot of them back without being aware that they are metaphors.

There is nothing inherently wrong in giving others metaphors. Analogical reasoning is one of the few ways that we have of transferring insight from one field to another, and is a vital quality in developing sound intuition. To the extent that we can recognize patterns and draw parallels and make sound comparisons, we can transfer hard-earned insights in one part of life to other fields and other areas of life and thus gain insight without having to suffer a great deal of disastrous bad experiences in re-learning old lessons in new contexts. Parables and fables regularly attempt to provide insight through the use of analogies and metaphors that are sometimes so obvious and so powerful that the metaphorical language is used without being aware of the source of the metaphor. So it is that we speak of talents, as personal abilities and assets in our lives, without being aware of their connection with the immensely heavy and valuable measurements found in the Gospels in such places as the parable of the talents. The power of metaphor is not something to be disregarded and slighted in the laest.

It is also true that there are some aspects of our mental and spiritual and emotional world, if not all of them, that are completely tied up in metaphor. Scientists speak often of the mind/body problem, where we know a great deal about the brain, but have a hard time connecting what we know about the physical brain to the operation of our subjective understanding of ourselves and our world that is wrapped up in our views of the mind as being something that is at least partially nonmaterial in nature. And if the problem of the mind is serious, the problem of the heart and spirit are no less so in this nature. Although the physical heart is related to the sensation of feelings, in the beating of the heart and its change of pace based on our emotional state, when we talk about matters of the heart we are left nearly entirely in the realm of metaphor, because we lack something physical to discuss when we speak of being barely breathing and heartbroken when we have emotional difficulties in our relationships. The same is, of course, true when we are dealing with spiritual matters. Anywhere we lack a physical understanding and recognition of has to be approached through analogy and metaphor, by comparing it to something concrete. The abstract is always metaphorical in nature because it can only be dealt with indirectly as well as by comparison with the concrete world that we can at least presume to know and work with, however problematic our sense data happens to be. And thoughts and feelings and beliefs and ideas about relationships and expectations of ourselves and others and questions of justice and equity are always abstract in nature at least partly, always suffused with a high degree of subjectivity that makes us less than just judges in our own causes, and always leaves us vulnerable to the mistaken idea that we deal concretely and openly with such matters while others do not. We all stumble in the dark, and it would do well for us to be more merciful and understanding to those who stumble more or less blindly along with us.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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