"[A]s far I'm concerned, the songs are almost completely lyric driven."
-Dan Messe, Crud Magazine, 13 March 2022
This meanings section is a collection of quotes from band members about the meanings behind their song lyrics, album titles, and band name. Songs can and do mean different things to different people, but I think it's interesting to know the inspiration behind songs. Meanings for the cover songs aren't about song content so much as what spurred the band to record them.
This is the page for songs on Departure And Farewell. Click Meanings on the left menu for the main page.
Click on a title to jump to its meaning. Click here for lyrics.
"'The original idea for the album was that we wanted to wrap everything up in a nice bow,' says Dan Messe, the band’s keyboardist and chief songwriter. 'And a lot of the early songwriting was about that.' ... 'We hope it’s not a swan song,' Messe says. 'We certainly have more things we want to say. And we have more songs in the pipeline.'”
"A final thought about the new album: its name, 'Departure and Farewell,' says goodbye. Much of its music feels elegiac, and the last song on it is called 'So Long,' so it’s fair for a devoted fan to wonder if this might be the end of the band. 'We all feel very hopeful that this is not the last Hem album,' said Messé. 'We still have a lot more to say.'”
Although Dan mostly wrote the song about the dissolution of his marriage, Sally says, "I do think about that song [Departure And Farewell] as being about death." Dan adds that this song, the album's first song, intentionally sets up "So Long," the album's last song.
[Sally Ellyson & Dan Messe, Echoes, May 27, 2022]
Sally: "I agree with you so much about the beauty of listening to an entire album. It is a journey that is not lightly decided. I mean, when we put together an album, we think very carefully about what song will go first, what leads into it, and it's so important to take our listeners on that journey." Dan: "Absolutely. Even when we're writing the songs together, we think about the order of the songs [on the eventual album]. So for example, the first song, which is called 'Departure And Farewell,' the chorus is 'I'll find a way to say to you, so long, my love. So long.' And the last song on the album finishes with 'so long, my love.'"
"Our inspiration is often driven by loss. There’s this idea called tzimtzum, which has been sort of inspiring to us. I guess tzimtzum can be sort of summed up as creation through contraction. There’s this Gnostic creation myth that goes: first there was only God, and in order for there to be the room for creation, God had to withdraw. Within what was not God, there came room for the universe, the world, and us. We play with that a lot in our songs. In fact, this next song is called 'Departure And Farewell,' and we use an image of a camera pulling back to sort of signify that. So the camera, it has to withdraw in order for the frame, the world within the frame, to expand."
The jack pine is a tree that only seeds when burned. As explained at Wikipedia, which knows everything: "It is fire-adapted to stand-replacing fires, with the cones remaining closed for many years, until a forest fire kills the mature trees and opens the cones, reseeding the burnt ground."
"The lodgepole pine doesn’t yield its seed willingly. Seasons can come and go and years—even decades—can pass, and the seeds remain locked in the cones. There is only one catalyst for this unusual tree to reproduce: fire. As flames rise to the tree’s crown, the cones open, bringing forth the seeds of new life. It’s a striking image, one that formed the basis of 'The Jack Pine,' a song that stands as the centerpiece of Hem’s extravagantly bittersweet five-years-in-the-making album, Departure and Farewell. It’s also a perfect summation of this unusual chapter in the band’s life, which started as a breakup before becoming a rebirth—a point lost on none of the members. 'The metaphor of fire, burning everything to the ground for something to be reborn, was a powerful one,' notes guitarist/vocalist Steve Curtis, who originally wrote the song to mark the dissolution of his 15-year marriage. 'But it proved to be prescient, not just foreshadowing the themes of the album but the things that were yet to come for us all.'”
Steve: "I remember sitting at Dan's piano and telling him about this idea for a song called 'The Jack Pine' written about a tree who drops its seeds, like all trees do, and the seeds kinda sit and wait and do nothing and languish there until a fire comes through and tears everything down, knocks out the canopy, scorches the earth, and that's the moment when these seeds say, 'You know what? This is my time to try something out and grow.' It definitely stuck with all of us as a good and really powerful metaphor for what the band was going through and what many of us had gone through personally too. I, along with a few others in the band had just been through a divorce, and--” Sally: "Only one other person!" Steve: "The whole metaphor of seeing colossal change as an opportunity to really turn something around is a nice way of viewing colassol change that's handed to you, or that you walk yourself into it."
[Steve Curtis and Sally Ellyson, The Bob Edwards Show, July 15, 2022]
"All these new songs are having conversations/arguments with past songs. 'Last Call' is currently having it out with 'When I Was Drinking.' 'Last Call' also just punched 'Pacific Street' in the nose for good measure." This song is a sort of sequel to "When I Was Drinking."
[@hemmusic Twitter here and here, 4 April 2009; Dan Messe scoop to All About Hem, 2012]
"Originally, we had thought this might be our final album, so we were interested in tying up all sorts of musical and lyrical themes. For example, the song 'Last Call' was written as an epilogue to the other ‘barroom songs’ in our catalogue. It begins almost exactly like 'When I Was Drinking' (the first track off our first album Rabbit Songs) and then there are lyrical nods to that song, 'Lucky,' 'The Pills Stopped Working' and 'Pacific Street' throughout."
[Dan Messe, Noisetrade interview, 19 February 2022]
"Tall Steve had been carrying around that first beautiful verse from 'Seven Angels' for many years. I would often have him play it for me when we shared a room on tour, or before a show if I was feeling unsettled, and I in turn would sing it to my kids when the thunder outside got too loud, or the darkness too dark. One night, during a particularly black storm, the one verse was not enough, and we started counting out the angels, and what sort of light each one was holding. By daylight, the song was written."
[Dan Messe, MySpace Blog, 5 April 2022]
"'Steve Curtis had the first verse to ‘Seven Angels’ kicking around for a year or so,' Messé said. 'I always loved it, and would often ask him to play it for me. I, in turn, would sing it to my own kids as a lullaby. One night my son asked me, ‘Who are these angels?’ So, one by one, we counted each angel and described the different sort of light that each angel was holding. The song sort of wrote itself after that.'”
Some branches of faith "have identified a group of seven Archangels, but the actual angels vary, depending on the source. Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael are always mentioned; the other archangels vary, but most commonly include Uriel as well, who is mentioned in the book 2 Esdras. Most archangels are considered to be good angels."
"We put 'Departure And Farewell' as the first song on the album and 'So Long' as the last song. It [the song "So Long"] is tipping our hat to the idea behind the album, but it's really a hello because we [Hem] are back."
"Departure And Farewell," the album's first song, intentionally sets up "So Long," the album's last song.
[Dan Messe, Echoes, May 27, 2022]
Sally: "I know very much what it would be like to go through a divorce by singing this song that Dan wrote about his divorce." Dan: "You can be your best self in song, so here's a goodbye song where you're wishing the person that you love a good journey and telling them that you love them. Anyone who's been through a divorce knows it's not like that, but you hope that eventually you can get to this point where you can say goodbye like this."
[Sally Ellyson and Dan Messe, The Bob Edwards Show, July 15, 2022]
"Yes, there's been tremendous loss, and if there was nothing that came out if it, then it would be meaningless for me. But the fact that I can have a song like 'So Long' be there, it's very comforting to me to know that the loss of my marriage created that. And maybe it comforts someone else when they hear it."
[Introduced as such when the band performed in New York, NY on December 2, 2021]
"At his lowest point Messe wrote 'Tourniquet,' which imagined his surroundings as instruments of torment. 'Brooklyn, I’m broken – I’m breaking apart / Greenpoint pins down my hand, Red Hook pierces my heart / And my blood runs into the Gowanus Canal / Where it sinks to the bottom / And hurts like hell.' 'I wrote that as I was bombing out on those pills,' he says. 'I had almost 14 verses using every neighborhood of Brooklyn. By the time I got to Brownsville it was word salad. But what I love about it is that it’s not just clever wordplay; it feels very true.'”
"Stereo Subversion: So, with Brooklyn as a locale, I think 'Tourniquet'—one of the best songs on the new album—is placed in and around Brooklyn. Dan, that was one of your cathartic moments, that song. Correct?
Dan: Yeah, when I wrote that I had totally poisoned every relationship in the band. Gary, who’s been my best friend for 15 years, I hadn’t talked to him in like nine months. And it literally felt like the Brooklyn that I loved had become dangerous. Every neighborhood that I loved had become toxic. I remember just walking around in this fog and writing down these lyrics of every neighborhood, a play on their names. How many verses were there at one point, Gary? Like 15 verses at one point?
Gary: A lot. It would have been a 47-minute song if we recorded it.
Dan: So after I got clean, I was able to craft it into the song it became. Yeah, I love that song."
"This started out in a really dark time where I was actually unhappy with Brooklyn. So all these neighborhoods that I used to love, like Red Hook and Greenpoint and Prospect Heights, I just started going through and playing off of those names. All these, sort of, darker versions of these wonderful places. ... I'm back to loving it [Brooklyn] again."
Dan wrote this song for his mom after his dad died.
[Introduced as such when the band performed in New York, NY on December 2, 2021]
"This time around, the ethos is bathed in some new textures, with 'Walking Past The Graveyard, Not Breathing' employing a wind ensemble to evoke a New Orleans funeral, while 'So Long' relies on a gospel vocal group, a first for the band.”
"That was written for my mom, actually. My father passed away about eight years ago. She decided not to deal with it, and she just really has been holding her breath for many years. Because the idea that once you finally do say goodbye, once you do open your mouth, and are able to say goodbye, it's hard. It's a hard moment. But I think it's a necessary moment, if you want to keep breathing, if you want to keep on living."