Friday, October 30, 2009

Josh Ritter's "The Temptation of Adam"

I haven't done a post about a song (or poetry) in a good long while, but Josh Ritter's track, "The Temptation of Adam," has been on my mind a lot recently. I've discussed it with a few people and come up with some interesting and divergent close readings, so I want to explore the track here. I'll start by posting the song and lyrics before I get into the meat of my rant.

If this was the Cold War we could keep each other warm
I said on the first occasion that I met Marie
We were crawling through the hatch that was the missile silo door
And I don't think that she really thought that much of me

I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the Bomb
She just came along and started to ignore me
As we waited for the Big One
I started singing her my songs
And I think she started feeling something for me

We passed the time with crosswords that she thought to bring inside
What five letters spell "apocalypse" she asked me
I won her over saying "W.W.I.I.I."
We smiled and we both knew that she'd misjudged me

Oh Marie it was so easy to fall in love with you
It felt almost like a home of sorts or something
And you would keep the warhead missile silo good as new
And I watched you with my thumb above the button

Then one night you found me in my army issue cot
And you told me of your flash of inspiration
You said fusion was the broken heart that's lonely's only thought
And all night long you drove me wild with your equations

Oh Marie do you remember all the time we used to take
Makin' love and then ransack the rations
I think about you leaving now and the avalanche cascades
And my eyes get washed away in chain reactions

Oh Marie if you would stay then we could stick pins in the map
Of all the places where you thought that love would be found
But I would only need one pin to show where my love's at
In a top secret location three hundred feet under the ground

We could hold each other close and stay up every night
Looking up into the dark like it's the night sky
And pretend this giant missile is an old oak tree instead
And carve our name in hearts into the warhead

Oh Marie there's something tells me things just won't work out above
That our love would live a half-life on the surface
So at night while you are sleeping
I hold you closer just because
As our time grows short I get a little nervous

So I think about the Big One, W.W.I.I.I.
Would we ever really care the world had ended
You could hold me here forever like you're holding me tonight
I think about that great big button and I'm tempted

I liked this song from the first moment I heard it, but until I really looked at the lyrics I wasn't giving the song the full credit it deserves. I heard the basic story of two lovers in a missile silo at the end of the world, and I enjoyed the clever references to nuclear signifiers like "I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the bomb." When I stopped to give the song a closer reading though, I was amazed at the complexity and metaphoric depth of the ballad.

The last lines of the song reveal that "The Temptation of Adam" is not the woman, Marie, as my casual first listening suggested. Rather Adam is tempted to end the world in order to secure his relationship that he fears "would live a half-life on the surface." In order to maintain the great love that he has found he actually considers bringing about the apocalypse because he believes that is what it will take to keep Marie.

I was initially reminded of songs like "Polly" by Nirvana or "Every Breath You Take" by The Police in terms of the psychological makeup of the narrator; clearly Adam is unstable if he's willing to kill countless souls in order to keep Marie. Ritter's song is much more complex than those songs, however, because its narrator is not so obviously unhinged and different from the listener. "The Temptation of Adam" cleverly intermingles a sense of love that seems honest and relatable with frightening neurosis.

By stalling the reveal of Adam's true nature until the end of the song, Ritter allows us to empathize with him right up to the moment when he suddenly becomes dangerous. The only hint comes halfway through the song, when Ritter sings, "And I watched you with my thumb above the button." The line is cryptic but vaguely ominous on the first listen, and when its full implications are revealed it actually becomes even more creepy. Thinking of Adam as both a potentially dangerous and stalker-ish figure redoubles our surprise at finding out who he really is, and our horror when we remember how relateable he once seemed.

The delayed-reveal forces us to consider whether or not we can still relate to him in his psychosis, and reflectively changes our entire understanding of the ballad. It furthermore forces us to reevaluate our thoughts on the types of feelings he describes given how quickly they evolve into a dangerous obsession. It's an elegant and intelligent unreliable-narrator surprise ending that adds depth to every subsequent listening.

That's mostly what I wanted to say about the song. I'll add one last thing, which is to observe how incredibly beautiful this line is: "You said fusion was the broken heart that's lonely's only thought." I'm not sure I have any idea what that means, but it's a touching and aesthetically pleasing sequence of words that sound perfect and profound in the context of the song.

It reminds me of a great article that Alex Ross wrote on obscure rock n roll lyrics in the context of Pavement. I read the article in the booklet that accompanies the rerelease of Brighten The Corners, and unfortunately only the abstract is available online (unless you have an online subscription to The New Yorker). In any case, even the abstract is worth a quick read, but maybe I'll work on posting a full version one day. In an amusing side note, the basic premise of the article somewhat undermines the majority of entire post. Despite this I think that with the exception of the line about fusion the song is largely a narrative one and is therefore open to literary analysis. So there.

Josh Ritter's "The Historical Conquest of Josh Ritter," is amazing and available at


  1. This post makes me miss the nuclear paranoia of the 80s. Oh come on, don't tell me this song didn't remind you a little of I'll Stop The World And Melt You.

  2. You didn't mention it in your article, so I'm not sure if you picked up on the larger context/metaphor of the song. This is a parallel story to the Biblical account of Adam in the Old Testament. Like the Adam in the silo, Adam in the garden had a decision to make between the good of mankind, and his own happiness with the woman he loved. Adam in the Silo could only stay with the woman he loved if he started WWIII, while Adam in the garden could only stay with Eve if he ate the apple, and brought sin into the world. When understood in this context, there are too many metaphors to list. Josh is the best storyteller I've ever encountered.