What does "Empire" by Of Monsters and Men mean?
Of Monsters and Men released a lyric video for "Empire" on May 15, 2015. The song is from their upcoming album Beneath the Skin, which will be released on June 9th. Unfortunately, whether because Of Monsters and Men isn't popular enough in the United States or because other musical acts like Mumford & Sons are eclipsing them, this album doesn't seem to be getting a lot of press, so those interested in seeing how well this album is going to do will have to wait until it actually comes out.
Unlike "Hunger," "Empire's" vocals are lead not by Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, but by Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson. The music builds in excitement from beginning to end as vocals soar and the instrumentation gives a support that makes this song feel like an epic struggle. The music, like in "Hunger" and "Crystals," isn't a far cry from the music for My Head Is an Animal, but it is well done and very exciting, further supporting Of Monsters and Men's branded sound.
The Meaning of the Lyrics
The song begins with Raggi singing, "Feel the ocean as it breathes / Shivering teeth / See the mountains where they meet / Smothering me." Raggi's environment and everything that surrounds him are working against his desire for the "Empire" that he wants to build-an accomplishment that he's dreaming of. He's counting "down the days," waiting for success to happen. In the meantime, the world around him seems to be in chaos. Even things so normal as the wind and the waves seem to be in battle: "the wind fends off the waves." He seems to identify with the wind while the epic aspects of nature (mountains and oceans) are against him.
This makes sense when one considers how mountains and oceans might be considered empires in their own rights. They are vast and powerful aspects of nature that have the ability to ruin and destroy lives. But Raggi, knowing this, determines to be a "heavy [stone]" because they "[f]ear no weather." He must establish himself so that not even nature can destroy his plans.
Just as in "Hunger," the singer is finding comfort in a "sound," a fact which could suggest that sound is an album-wide motif, perhaps the subject of this album. But here, he specifically finds "comfort in the sound / And the shape of the heart" and ruminates on "[h]ow it echoes through the chest / From under the ground." While this part is difficult to interpret, it seems to be an allusion to love or affection, maybe a relationship with another human being, the "chest" suggesting that the "heart" is a treasure.
Of course, Raggi also could have buried this relationship or memory of a past relationship to keep it safe and protected from the "weather." Perhaps he plans to go back and dig it up once he's established and can support that person.
The establishing process may take him a while, but he's dedicated: "As the hills turn into holes / I fill them with gold." A user on Genius suggests this means that when his efforts are flattened, he finds ways to turn failure into success. Whether true or no, putting gold in the holes instead of mining it out of them may seem odd. Perhaps he is trying to save his money and his success from complete failure by hiding it away. Or perhaps doing this is his way of becoming like the "[h]eavy stones" that "[f]ear no weather"; he's got reserves of gold and accomplishment backing up his next risks.
But sometimes life works out well for people. And even bad things (which rain often symbolizes) can turn out for the good: "And from the rain / Comes a river running wild that will create / An empire for you." This chorus is sung by both Raggi and Nanna, which suggests that it's a response to the preceding verses. Together, they sing the single word "Illuminate" to suggest that things momentarily are coming clear and that light is filling a dark world.
But how does a river create an empire? This works thanks to Of Monsters and Men's strong dependence on mythological-almost magical-geographical imagery. A river is subversive force that cuts through mountains and feeds into the sea, erroding stone and bringing fresh water into salt. Neither the mountain nor the ocean can stop it. It just keeps flowing, and for now it's on Raggi's side.
It's going to create "[a]n empire for you / An empire for two." Raggi will be able to enjoy an empire that will support him and someone else, perhaps someone that he has had to prove himself to and who he loves-perhaps the heart from the from the second verse.
And before the song ends with two repetitions of the chorus, Raggi sings the third verse: "And I paint your body black." Black symbolizes power, darkness, and sometimes fear or evil. By painting his friend's body black, he's embracing at least some of these ideas and preparing for how they can hurt him and that person in the future.
But the world is far from certain. He tries to "hide in your hair." Perhaps by spending time with his friend, he will be able to not worry about whether his empire will fall. But she's distracted, "staring back at me / Like I wasn't there." She is still afraid herself and unable to passionately support him.
Kept from the joy they want, their "bodies become stills," and they "welcome the fear" because it's their normal experience. This fear seems to be that the empire-the establishment, permanence, and comfort-will be taken away. But they reason that "[h]eavy stones / Fear no weather." If they continue trying to establish themselves, they believe they can stay safe even when terrible things happen.
SUMMARY: This song is difficult. There are several different ideas, a few pivotal words that can be taken multiple ways, and a mysterious lover. The ultimate meaning seems to be a search for permanence and safety, something that even the forces of nature aren't able to destroy. Raggi and his friend will continue the search and continue to try to be heavier and heavier stones in an attempt to escape fear.
What do you think about "Empire"? What do you think it means? Is it about fear? And why all the nature symbolism? Thanks for reading!