Turn Off Shuffle:
Concept Albums Explained

by Paul-Newell Reaves

Emilie Autumn

Enter Ophelia [distracted]… (She sings.)
Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5

It’s 2006: black is in, Industrial music is having a moment, and– 10 years after the Baz Lehrmann’s blockbuster film “Romeo+Juliet”– Shakespeare is still pretty cool. 

And child violin prodigy Emilie Autumn has a sickness.  She might be a hypochondriac, she might be an insomniac, she’s definitely a megalomaniac– as she proudly claims in the “Interview With EA” appearing at the end of the album.  However, for this album she has a more literary diagnosis in mind: Opheliac– a direct reference to the Ophelia character in the Shakespeare play Hamlet.

Just as a refresher, Ophelia is the love interest of the young Hamlet. They’re both going through some tough times, poor kids, and Ophelia goes mad, then drowns herself. So as we journey through Emilie Autumn’s masterwork– track by track, lyric by lyric– let us pay special attention to what Autumn does with her water imagery.

The album opens with the title song, “Opheliac”,  and her first words, words, words are “I’m your opheliac”. There is a key possessive pronoun, here, your. Emilie is a self-diagnosed opheliac only in relationship to this non-gendered you figure. In a single line she has made vast statements about current understandings that feminine memory centers around inter-personal relationships, as well as developing her self-diagnosis into one of possession.  She is not only an opheliac, she is someone else’s opheliac.  

She follows immediately with two more lines of almost equal interest, “I’ve been so disillusioned/ I know you’d take me back”.  These lyrics can be interpreted in two simultaneous ways, depending on whether a that is implied in-between the line break. As any fool can tell– I’m being clever with that little clause and quoting the gravedigger from Hamlet– that is often implied in such a way.  The sentence construction would then become, so disillusioned that/ I know you’d take me back.  Or, without an implied that it could be, I’ve been soooo disillusioned/  And I know you’d take me back

So what do these different readings mean?  Without a that, and with the emphatic sooooo, these lines become a key statement relating to opheliacism, broadly. Emilie Autumn seems say that Ophelia, and all who identify with her, are not born opheliacs, no, it is disillusionment that onsets this condition.  I’m your opheliac/ because I’ve been soooo disillusioned./  Also I know you’d take me back.  Opheliacs once had illusions about life, and now, with those illusions taken away, they are really feeling some kind of way, indeed.  And illusions are a crucial part of the equation– one cannot be disillusioned if one never had illusions to begin with.  It’s certainly true in Shakespeare’s work– Ophelia was not at all sure about young Hamlet’s affections, but she discerned he was honorable in his importuning.  This turns out to be nothing more than an illusion.  In both of these texts, both Autumn’s and Shakespeare’s, if you never had any illusions, ever, you cannot be a true opheliac.  If you never, ever had illusions, you’re just kinda bitter.

In the second understanding of this couplet, however– I’ve been so disillusioned that/ I know you’d take me back– Emilie knowing that she could return to the relationship is a direct result of being disillusioned.  Emilie knows her ex-lover would take her back because she has been disillusioned.  This reading is curiouser.  A closer look is in order:

Which illusions of a true opheliac, such as Emilie Autumn, would need to disappear in order for an ex to take her back?  Wait, that’s not the right question– which illusions of a true opheliac, such as Emilie Autumn, would need to disappear in order for her to know that an ex would take her back?  

Only the true opheliacs know their own personal answers to this question.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on Ophelia’s madness.  Shakespeare does the mad character a lot; but maybe about half the time, they’re pretending– their madness is an antic disposition, they only proclaim madness.  Ophelia definitely goes mad for reals.  

Not sure what it is about wearing flowers that equates to true madness in William Shakespeare’s unusual mind– King Lear also wears flowers in his madness scenes.  But sticking to the play at hand, there are stark differences between Hamlet’s pretense of madness and Ophelia’s apparent madness.  Whereas Hamlet’s scenes have a great deal of potent wordplay, a lot of obscure profundities, and probably many more hidden references that no scholars know of, the Bard gives Ophelia’s last scenes little more than meaningless babbling on her themes of Death and Marriage, and way fewer comprehensible statements on those themes, and– as no one can forget– much more singing about them.

While I wouldn’t proclaim that Autumn’s text makes any kind of direct reference to this parenthetical Opelia sings in Shakespeare’s work, it’s the encapsulation of Autumn’s project.  Opheliacs sing.  Why, because ’a was mad.

Well, that’s over 800 words, and we’re through three lines of the first song.  This is clearly very rich material.  But we will now begin to move through the lyrics of “Opheliac” more swiftly.

After the first two verses comes a lengthy bridge section to the song, which has a great deal to say, very rapidly.  The lyric, “Studies Show: intelligent girls are more depressed because they know what the world is”, makes a strong  philosophical statement– though I am unsure as to which studies she refers.  But the statement becomes, it is not a person’s depression which makes the world depressing– rather it is the knowing the depravities of the world which makes a person more likely to be depressed.

This section continues rapid fire, “don’t think for a beat it makes it better when you sit her down and tell her, everything’s gonna be alright”– this is quite profound, actualy, and very self-aware.  Suffering is momentary, yes.  And, yes, everything would be alright if the one suffering could wrap their head around this difficult didacticism.  But the nature of pain and suffering forces us to focus on the now– our bodies and our minds are sending us unignorable signals that something is immensely wrong.  In intense pain, we cannot escape from the moment.  Therefore any and all advice in a future tense will offer no relief.  

(My reaction to anyone sharing their intense, unescapable pain?  I often say, “yeah, wow.  That sucks.”  It seems to usually be appreciated.  I think most people who suffer want to feel special, want to be told that what they suffer is greater than what anyone else does.  Feeling special does make it slightly better.)  

The first half of the bridge then ends in a great laugh, with a bitter aftertaste.  “She speaks in third person so she can forget that she’s me”.  Hehe– there is very little that makes the author of this column laugh quite as dependably as self references in the third person.  But, ouch, forgetting one’s own selfhood has become a way of escaping one’s internal state of being.  Alas, poor EA!

With the second half of this bridge section comes the second direct Hamlet reference of Autumn’s text, and the most lengthy one at that.  “Doubt thou the stars are fire. Doubt thou the sun doth move.  Doubt truth to be a liar.  But never doubt I love you”.  Yeah.  Shakespeare wrote that, all right.  Yet, yet– Emilie Autumn takes this reference in three fascinating directions by repeating almost the entire quotation, but not all of it at first: for the first two iterations she sings, doubt thou the stars are fire. Doubt thou the sun doth move.  Doubt truth to be a liar.  But never doubt.  Do you see what she did there?  She left out the I love you, leaving only the imperative to never doubt.  Only in the third repetition does she add more Shakespeare, never doubt I love.  But she gets even more sophisticated.  She never includes the final you from the Shakespeare quote in the lyrics of this musical bridge section.  But the chorus immediately on its heels begins with that word.

Shall we delve into the meanings of these three directions?  But never doubt is the first iteration.  Doubt’s a tough one.  Especially when in love.  And it’s a scary one, too– what if you doubt that god exists, but then, when you reach the end, it does exist after all?  

Because this speaker, this opheliac, is doubting a lot of undoubtable stuff, here.  Even pre-Copernicus, the Sun obviously moves about a fair amount– and Hamlet was first performed not quite 60 years after “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” was published in Nuremburg.  What do we make of it, being told never doubt, when we are doubting so much already?  Sounds to me like this lyric is a statement that gives advice.  Don’t doubt, silly doubter, EA seems to be saying.

Next iteration, never doubt I love.  Well that’s an easy one.  You can doubt all of the above indubitabilities, but know that I am capable of loving.  In my reading, that basically translates to, do not doubt that I am capable of loving myself.

Never doubt I love you completes the quotation.  Note the lack of hyperbole, here– Shakespeare, and by extension Emilie Autumn, say nothing more than this: no matter how much you doubt, do not doubt that I love you.  They do not ask for the stars, or promise you the Sun, all they say is that their love need not be doubted.  Please, all you lovers and writers of love poems, please, please note that lack of hyperbole.

Track two opens with a water reference, “I will swallow, if it will help my sea level go down.  But I’ll come back to haunt you if I drown”.  And when the song ends, the reference has evolved, “I’ll take a deep, deep breath”.  Sea level, here, seems to reference the immense pressure of the tides.  The opheliac will swallow the water, but only if the pressure yields.  Yet by the end of the song, she is resisting drowning, she is holding her breath in order to not drown.  Implication being that the pressure will never yield, so she will do her best to not drown in spite of that.  Ah, spite, what a great reason to do anything.

The song abounds with other examples of opheliacism, strongest being, “you think this torment is romantic, well it’s not, except to you”.  The romanticized Ophelia and the romanticized Hamlet, they are truly tormented by their inner demons.  And that’s not cool.

The verse lyrics in track three, “Liar”, are, according to wikipedia.org ,  quoted from letters handwritten to Emilie Autumn by an ex-lover.  As Autumn growls the contents of her love letters to us, a third direct reference to “Hamlet” is made.  Ophelia must turn-over the letters written her by Hamlet– to her father, of all people!  Love letters are an extremely intimate form of communication, to be read and re-read alone in one’s boudoir by flicker of candlelight– can you imagine this young girl’s embarrassment, as she opens her most private romance to her father.

Emilie Autumn seems to have zero qualms doing this.

The pre-chorus hosts a lyrical highlight from this true madness known as young love: Emilie’s ex writes, “I want to mix our blood and put it in the ground, so you can never leave”.  Well, that’s inventive.

The true gem, however, appears in verse two: “I’ll spend eternity comparing all my poetry to yours”.  What a perfect encapsulation of youthful creativity and infatuation.  Note the hyperbole– eternity.  The ex-lover has stated directly that the afore referenced comparison of poems will last longer than the seismic dispersal of matter that will spell the end of this version of our universe in a number of years equating to 1.29 x10 to the power of 34.  That’s a large number of years, even when reading poems.

But the larger point, this ex-lover of Emilie Autumn has such insecurity in his/ her/ their creation, that they must live up to the standards of Emilie’s poems.  This type of insecurity is a frequent trait of youthful poets– one which every writer outgrows, of course.  (No, no, that type of insecurity will never get better. So, you young creators out there, you’re just gonna have to get used to it.  For, you must never, Never, NEVER stop making what you do.  Though rejection and criticism will never stop hurting, you learn to ignore it– trust me on that much.)

Now, to the third element of this heavily laden phrase.  By using the word compare, this writer shows such jealousy towards Emilie that, instead of sharing poems with each other, they must compare their poems– implying value judgments.  That’s really not what writing poems is about.

By track four, we are in To-Be-or-Not-to-Be land with a song called “the Art of Suicide”.  It’s a pretty song, with many pretty ruminations about ending it all, and then the song ends with a truly depressing sentiment, “the world is full of poets we don’t need anymore.  The world is full of singers we don’t need anymore.  The world is full of lovers we don’t need anymore”.  Bummer.  Not much that can be said to make that one better.

On track five, EA is seeking revenge with “ I Want My Innocence Back”, still at this nonspecific you figure.  “I will never forget the words you used to ensnare me.  Till my dying day, you’ll suffer for this I swear”.  Notice it is words that create this desire for revenge.  

By the bridge section of the song, “and I demand you put my heart back in my hand and wipe it clean from the mess you made of me, and I require you make me free from this desire”.  There seems to be the chance of some prospect of agency, here, some chance at free will– were her heart back in her hand, the opheliac would then be able to give her heart to someone else, perhaps even love someone else.  But the demand, itself, is not for agency, nor is it for free will.  For Emilie to have her heart back in her hand, in order for her to have agency, this you person must put it back.  The opheliac is not capable of putting her own heart back.

The sixth song, “Misery Loves Company”, addresses the complex romantic desires of an opheliac.  “Do I need you?  Yes and no.  Do I want you?  Maybe so.  You’re getting warm”.  For Opheliacs, needing becomes an extremely complex desire, wanting–so different from needing– becomes a more mysterious desire, while getting warm might be the trait most desired, as in a warm body to lie next to.  This reading of the final line is substantiated later in the pre-chorus: “who’s getting warmer now that I’m gone”.  With EA gone, no one warm will lie next to you at all.

And the chorus slams it home with an existential statement: “Misery loves company, and company loves more.  More loves everybody else, but hell was others”.  It’s a clever train of thought, and, strangely, puts Sartre in the past tense.  Not sure what to make of that one.

In the seventh track, “God Help Me”, we have some even more intriguing pronoun usage– I know, I know, pronoun usage does not always spell intriguing to any of us, but stick with me.  “God help me… and I don’t know why he’s touching me”.  Until this point in the text, Autumn is always addressing her lyrics to a second-person pronoun, a you figure.  Now we have a he figure.  Could this he refer to the Father-god of Judeo-Christianity?– the song is titled “God Help Me”, after all.  I’ll leave that unanswered, but this he is most certainly an abuser, a troubling cause for opheliacism.  

A more profitable interpretation arises from this abuser figure as a third person he.  The pronoun usage may be read as a distancing from the abuser.  Whereas poetic-waxing ex-lovers are referred to as you, any abuser is distanced from the intimacy of the second person address.  Little things like this– like distancing thorugh syntax, like rephrasing how we conceptualize trauma– little things definitely make things a lot better.

The song continues, “all the world is a judge, but that doesn’t compare to what I do to myself when you’re not there”.  It is after this abuser he enters the picture that the perceived judgment becomes  omni-present, and the flagellating self-judgment becomes unbearable.

Ah, yes– yes, yes– we have now arrived at track eight, “Shalott”, and I will make a bold claim: in this song our friendly, neighborhood opheliac actually dies, and for the rest of the album, the character is dead.

“Shalott” begins with waves lapping on the shore and seagulls.  Uh-oh, water imagery, not-so-good for opheliacs.  Too much of water hast thou, poor Emilie?

The verses of the song are fairytale related– spinning-wheels, handsome riders, and so forth– but this does become a statement larger than the barren, overplayed imagery of Tennyson and other 18th-19th century poets.  For, by playing on the Arthurian legend of Lady of Shalott, Emilie Autumn equates– in my reading– the love of or desire for death as little more than a fairytale, a falsity, an illusion.

The legend ends with the Lady dying on a ship onroute to the illusive castle of Camelot.  Sure enough, the character in EA’s song unties a boat and floats away to a frigid death.  This is the first reference to an actual death in the entirety of the “Opheliac” album.

Now– more fun with pronouns.  The story in “Shalott” refers to the character as her, except in the chorus when the voice returns to an I.  My second bold claim for this track becomes that this separation between first and third person represents two distinct characters.  The distinction is perfectly unified– she is only in the verses, while I only appears in the chorus.  In my reading, the third person she represents the character of the legend, while the first person I remains EA, our opheliac, who is now reading about this Lady of Aurthurian legend.

But back to the textual death of the opheliac character.  The penultimate iteration of the chorus concludes thusly, “I’ve been waiting for the day I will surely die, and it’s here, and it’s here, and it’s here, and it’s here, it’s finally here.”  Although far from an active statement– such as I’m dead now– my reading holds up for the rest of the songs in the album.  Track nine, “Gothic Lolita”– a super, super bad-ass song– contains the lyrics, “I’ve been dead a thousand years… my life was ended by your hands… I’m just a dead little girl”.  The dead part definitely holds up in that one.  “Dead is the New Alive”, track ten, it’s pretty apparent from the title that it’s about being dead.  And the second to last song, “I Know Where You Sleep”– this one’s a stretch– can refer to the ultimate place where we all will sleep, the grave.  As to the final song, “Let the Record Show”– with it’s play on history records or medical records and a musical record, an album– contains these lyrics in the chorus, “I’m paying with my life… you murdered me with your own two hands”

Must there no more be done?  No, not really.  Everything has been done that needs to be done.  Good job, EA.  Strong work.  If intertextuality is one of our essential qualifications for a great concept album– and it is– then “Opheliac”  is lyrically the best album of the 21st century.

more Concept Albums Explained
ready for the real thing? T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” Explained

more from Defenestrationism.net
such as, A Passionate Defense of the Existence of Unicorns

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