Ode to Sleep

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Yet another Twenty One Pilots commentary. Maybe if I write enough of these, I can actually get through to them (no success yet)!

Today I will comment on a song of theirs that I have come to really love of late. But first I wanted to share an excerpt below from a recent interview with lead-singer Tyler that I recently came across. He tells of the origin of their band name. It’s quite remarkable and gives me hope they will not succumb to the industry’s tendency to corrupt rising talent. What these two Christian young men are doing in their music is precisely what the Catholic Church should be begging young men and women to do: live your secular genius with abandon by leavening, salting and enlightening the world, from within, with the transformative power of a thoroughly Christian humanism. “All our music is thought through the lens of our fans’ world,” Tyler said, “to help them find meaning and hope.” That’s a shepherd’s heart, seeing the world through another’s eyes in order to help lead them out of danger toward the path of life. And they clearly have a special place in their hearts for young people who feel adrift and rudderless. Had he met Tyler and Josh, St. John Paul II might have said this about their music:

Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption … in shaping a masterpiece, the artist not only summons his work into being, but also in some way reveals his own personality by means of it. For him art offers both a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for his spiritual growth. Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them. The history of art, therefore, is not only a story of works produced but also a story of men and women. Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture. (Letter to Artists #10).

Okay, here’s the interview snippet with Tyler:

MR: And finally, probably the most important question. Why Twenty One Pilots? Why not Twenty Two or Twenty Three?

TJ: I was studying a play in college called All My Sons by Arthur Miller. The story was that the main character was building airplane parts for the current war. He learned that some of those parts were faulty, and he had a decision to make: “Do I send them out because I need to make the money to feed my family or do I recall the parts because they could be dangerous?” Well, he ended up sending the parts out, which is the wrong decision, and twenty-one pilots died because of that. He spends the rest of the play trying to justify why he did that, and at the end of the play, he ends up offing himself. Anytime we have a decision coming our way, there is the easy route, the route that gets you the money or the fame or all the benefits right away. But in the end, it’s the wrong decision. A lot of times, the right decision takes more work, and that band name is a constant reminder for us as individuals and as a band. So, that’s where Twenty One Pilots comes from.

Now on to the song, Ode to Sleep.

What richly complex lyrics! I will only say a bit about my interpretation and allow you, if you are so disposed, to think more about them yourself.

It seems clear that Ode to Sleep is a masterfully subtle reflection on the endless cycles of diabolical temptation, sin and repentance. In all of their songs, tensions between being “awake” and being “asleep” are defining. Wakefulness refers to hopeful freedom found in right-thinking (the literal meaning of ‘orthodoxy’) while sleep refers to the deadening of conscience that binds freedom and leads to ultimate despair. I think here of Matt. 25:5 or 1 Peter 5:8. Assailed by the dark words of demons that threaten destruction and death, and tempted to make those words his own, the author in the end renounces them. He repents of his thrice betrayals (as Peter’s mvp!), his participation in the shedding of the sun’s blood (cf Malachi 4:2; 1 Pet. 2:24), as well as the sin of the “whore” who, in Scripture (cf Revelation 17), personifies humanity’s betrayal of her nuptial covenant with God. This “4th” sin captures our ongoing struggle to stay awake throughout life.

Even the trees and clouds speak to him, calling him to face the Judge in repentance — which he does (I see an allusion here to Psalm 96:9-11). In fact, the last words of the song are: “I’m sorry.” Only mercy preserves hope.

Then there’s one other line I totally love. The author tells the moon, symbol of the sun’s reflected light shining in the darkness, “take this weapon forged in darkness, Some see a pen, I see a harpoon.” This is most certainly a reference to the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” So here Tyler acknowledges he has this pen in hand, and yet refuses to again use written words to wound others (maybe even in his music?). Those harpoon-words are the same blood-drenched “penned” words that once put the Sun to death (I think here of Matt. 27:25 or Mark 15:33). This also makes me think of Dostoevsky’s masterful line: “One can kill with a spear or with a sneer.”

I include here the “official” music video that also tells the story of their ascent to fame between 2011 and 2014. Below the video are the lyrics.

I wake up fine and dandy but then by the time I find it handy,
To rip my heart apart and start planning my crash landing,
I go up, up, up, up, up to the ceiling,
Then I feel my soul start leaving, like an old man’s hair receding,
I’m pleading please, oh please on my knees repeatedly asking,
Why it’s got to be like this, is this living free,
I don’t want to be the one, be the one who has the sun’s blood on my hands,
I’ll tell the moon, take this weapon forged in darkness,
Some see a pen, I see a harpoon.

I’ll stay awake,
‘Cause the dark’s not taking prisoners tonight.

Why am I not scared in the morning,
I don’t hear those voices calling,
I must have kicked them out, I must have kicked them out,
I swear I heard demons yelling,
Those crazy words they were spelling,
They told me I was gone, they told me I was gone.

But I’ll tell them,
Why won’t you let me go?
Do I threaten all your plans?
I’m insignificant.
Please tell them you have no plans for me.
I will set my soul on fire, what have I become?
I’ll tell them.

On the eve of a day that’s forgotten and fake,
And the trees they await and clouds anticipate,
The start of a day when we put on our face,
A mask that portrays that we don’t need grace,
On the eve of a day that is bigger than us,
But we open our eyes ’cause we’re told that we must,
And the trees wave their arms and the clouds try to plead,
Desperately yelling there’s something we need,
I’m not free, I asked forgiveness three times,
Same amount that I denied, I three-time mvp’ed this crime,
I’m afraid to tell you who I adore, won’t tell you who I’m singing towards,
Metaphorically I’m a whore, and that’s denial number four.

I’ll stay awake,
‘Cause the dark’s not taking prisoners tonight.

Why am I not scared in the morning,
I don’t hear those voices calling,
I must have kicked them out, I must have kicked them out,
I swear I heard demons yelling,
Those crazy words they were spelling,
They told me I was gone, they told me I was gone.

But I’ll tell them,
Why won’t you let me go?
Do I threaten all your plans?
I’m insignificant,
Please tell them, you have no plans for me,
I will set my soul on fire, what have I become?
I’ll tell them, you have no plans for me,
I will set my soul on fire,
What have I become?
I’ll tell them,
I’ll tell them,
I’ll tell them,
I’ll tell them,

Please tell them, you have no plans for me,
I will set my soul on fire, what have I become?
I’m sorry.

2 comments on “Ode to Sleep

  1. oneview says:

    Amazingly, before you started these Twenty One Pilots posts we had ordered tickets for our whole family to the TOP concert this coming July 10 in Kansas City as a 17-year-old birthday present for our youngest. The older kids are meeting us in KC and it will be a mini family vacation. So very much appreciate these posts because they are helping us (parents) get familiar with the music and lyrics, which means we will enjoy the concert much more! Encouragement to continue the posts!

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