Happy Monday, internet. Once again, we’re back with another handful of songs to get you through the week. For the past few months, we’ve been trying to keep our collections each week sharing a common theme or genre. This week we’ll be following that same general idea, but taking a slightly different angle.
Instead of forcing our songs this week to share a genre, we’re going to look at a collection of songs with cryptic or unconventional lyrics, and let that serve as our unifying thread. I’ve been enjoying playing the role of detective lately, searching for clues to reveal alternate interpretations within the lyrics.
Rather than discussing the bands behind the lyrics, we’ll just be focusing on the songs themselves. Our first song comes from a band we discussed last week, the Canadian super-group, The New Pornographers.
The Bones of an Idol
“The Bleeding Heart Show” is the second track from The New Pornographers’ third studio album, “Twin Cinema”. Like nearly every song by the Canadian super-group, the lyrics to “The Bones of an Idol” aren’t necessarily clear. But we can find the meaning behind the lyrics by looking closely at the symbolism behind them.
As always, let’s first start by taking a look at the opening lines. The first verse of any song will likely provide the proper context. We can then use this as a starting point to uncover meaning. We’ll split the first verse into two sections, and dissect each.
“We’re lit by a torch
As we kneel in the court of the king
As we sift through the bones of an idol”
Even with these first three lines, there are many interpretations we could infer. If we want to go the literal route, this would suggest that the narrator is perhaps an archaeologist, sifting through lost remains from a fallen kingdom. But there are other interpretations we can make. But to do so, let’s take a quick look at the second half of the first verse.
“We dig for the bones of an idol
When the will is gone
Because something keeps turning us on”
I’d like to suggest here that the entire song is an extended metaphor. Let’s start with the titular phrase, “the bones of an idol”, because it’s both interesting and revealing. So what do we know about idols? They’re objects of faith, often worshiped, or individuals held in high regard. And because faith came up, there’s the obvious connection to the ten commandments’ decree to not worship any false idols.
But it specifically states that we’re dealing with the “bones” of an idol. That suggests that the idol was both human and mortal, not some deity. It also suggests proof of the idol’s existence, as well as its mortality. But then why search for it? Well, because we often search for remnants of our past, for simpler times. Maybe simpler times when faith was easy to access. This could be what the last line refers to, the thing that “keeps turning us on”.
In the second verse, we get more imagery that suggests reading the lyrics through a lens of faith, as well as additional lyrics that support our previous theory.
“You hold up the cup
You’ve been searching for since you were young
When you still had the bones of an idol
If you still had the bones of an idol
You’d be long long gone
But something keeps turning you on”
The reference to a lost cup instantly calls to mind the legend of the holy grail. In this verse, we also get an additional clue that when the person who is referred to was young, they “still had the bones of an idol”. Together, we can can safely assume that our theory was correct.
Finally, the last verse bring us full circle, as we’re given the third act of a small story.
“You cling to the raft we are missing
By half what we wanted
But we escaped with the bones of an idol
Escaped with the belt and the title
But our land is gone
And something keeps turning us on”
In the first verse, they are searching in darkness for something they lost long ago. In the second, they retrieve something, the cup. And in the third verse, they escape the darkness “with the bones of an idol”, but still only “half what we wanted”.
So in the end, what can we say about The New Pornographers’ “The Bones of an Idol”? If we wanted to be cocky, we could say that it’s clearly about losing and then trying to recover one’s faith. But it might be more than that. It’s evokes feelings of loss, nostalgia, and that little, unnameable hole inside all of us, the one we can’t define, but nevertheless moves us.