Heartwork, the 1993 release by Carcass, is easily one of the most compelling metal albums ever recorded. First and foremost, it is an explosion of monstorous guitar riffs, frenetic drumming and raging energy. The music is captivating and overwhelming. Heartwork is a remarkably powerful lyrical album that deals intelligently with issues like globalization, dehumanization and existential dread. While reviews often focus on the music, the lyrics receive scant attention. Jeff Walker, the band’s singer, bass player and chief lyricist, envisions a world that is entirely devoid of human feeling or empathy. Walker’s adept use of language—particularly double entendre—lays bare man’s inhumanity in all of its baseness. His world is an empty one, filled only with sorrow, guilt and deep-seated hatred.
The album behaves like a book, each song a chapter examining a set of widely held beliefs and contrasting them with his vision of a world gone completely insane. Over the next few months, I will attempt to analyze the themes and ideas song by song in an attempt to convey the inventiveness of Walker’s lyrics as well as the perspicacity of his message.
Welcome, to a world of hate
A life of buried dreams
Smothered, by the soils of fate
Welcome, to a world of pain
Bitterness your only wealth
The sand of time kicked in your face
Rubbed in your face
When aspirations are squashed
When life’s chances are lost
When all hope is gone
When expectations are quashed
When self-esteem is lost
When ambition is mourned
…All you need is hate
In futility, for self-preservation
We all need someone
Someone to hate
“Buried Dreams” is a nightmare vision of a world completely unconnected to its humanity. It serves as an overview of the themes that are addressed in each song, and is a great starting point because it contains the most unambiguous lines on the record. In Walker’s “world of hate”, humans begin their journey in life filled with hope, only to see that hope slowly eroded by the fixed nature of reality. This reality is the death and pain experienced by all—immovable, unchangeable and constant. Humans search blindly in the dark for some reason, some deeper meaning that will connect the dots and make the pain they experience intelligible. We fill ourselves with illusions in order to soften the blow of this horrible truth. As the truth becomes more real, we grasp harder at the illusion, but commitment to an illusion will never make that deception a reality. We slowly come to terms with the understanding that there is no connection, there is no one tending the fire and the center simply does not hold. Once this veneer of meaning has been stripped away, there is nothing left to hold onto but pure visceral hatred.
By experiencing hatred for something, we are given the ability to overcome our basic alienation from ourselves, all the while connecting to the other beings around us. Love would be another way to connect, but the drawback of love is that it is fleeting. Its initial joy is snuffed out by the understanding that our basic existential problem—Death—will cause love to one day give way to sorrow and despair. If you connect with hatred you never have to feel loss, because the eventual vanquishing of your foe will be greeted with a feeling of joy and accomplishment. No one mourns the death of their enemy.
On the surface, the lyrics could be read as a simplistic explanation of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. A society like Germany—which was drowning in debt and filled with impoverished humans recovering from the insanity of years of mindless trench warfare—was ready for the message of hate that Hitler brought. I believe the song is meant to have much more of a timeless message with broader overtones about the human condition. The line that universalizes this song is “in futility, for self-preservation, we all need someone…someone to hate.” This is a Hobbesian view of a world of beings so frightened of death that they are willing to do anything to avoid it, even if they know that their actions are eventually pointless. We are willing to create a Leviathan that may kill us for our disobedience in order to be safe. The wall each of us run into is Death, and we are willing to embrace any idea that allows us to fully avoid thinking about our eventual consequence. We even embrace ideas that are self-destructive in order to escape the fear of death. If this isn’t true, then how do you explain war? This horrible irony of our basic condition is that we long to avoid death, but we do so in a way that often hastens its coming.
And so our dreams are buried as we are carried kicking and screaming to our own certain demise. We mask our fears with delusions of enemies all around us. We think that we can stop the inevitable if we bomb that thing or execute this thing, but with our last dying breath we are reminded of the utter futility of it all. Even hate cannot save us. The final, horrible irony of our own “Buried Dreams” is that we will eventually be buried with them.
[If you like what you just read, author Keith Spillett regularly unravels his brains into The Tyranny of Tradition. -Ed.]