Stay out super late tonight

Picking apples, making pies

Put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us

We’re half awake in a fake empire

We’re half awake in a fake empire

–The National, Fake Empire

This week a new artist to me (and wonderful guitarist), Molly Tuttle, released a cover of a favorite song of mine by The National. As I listened to her slow and eerie rendition the lyrics of the song started to impact me in a different way. Before, the driving point of the lyrics had simply been what it means to live in a ‘fake empire’. Now with this fresh listening the first part of each verse spoke to me.

What does it mean to adjust to picking apples, dance to our ‘gay ballet on ice, bluebirds on our shoulders,’ in the midst of a fake empire? I began to think of the trivial again. Perhaps real resistance comes in seeing the empire we inhabit as fake and finding a way to be among the half awake and “picking apples and making pies.

Being built the way I am, I decided to check out Genius to see what others heard in the song. This was the summary of the meaning:

  • The opening track of The National’s 2007 opus, “Fake Empire” describes the hedonism and escapism of a culture lost to excess in the wake of its diminishing status as a world superpower. Simply, the everyday demands of life are too difficult for us to really care about America’s sociopolitical climate, therefore we are “half-awake” to these concerns in our “fake empire.”

Well, that’s a bummer! As I clicked on the lyrics I found a link to an interview with Matt Berninger, band member and author of the original song. Asked if it was about war he states, ‘Fake Empire’ has political allusions, but it is also just a song about going out and forgetting your troubles. If anything, it’s more about trying to avoid thinking about the state of the world.’ Given the politics of the band I’m guessing he’s arguing we should be more concerned about following the state of the world but it leaves open the door to my interpretation that forgetting our troubles is necessary in the face of something that is ‘fake.’

With both these paths, another line stands out to me, “Let’s not try to figure out everything at once.” It reminded me of the thoughts of Wendell Berry and one in particular that I’ve tried to claim as we live in the ‘fake empire’. In the documentary about Berry, Look & See he says, “This is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you cannot put it all back together again. What you do is the only thing that you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them back together. Two things. Not all things. That’s the way the work has to go.”

Whether the song is about two people watching Rome burn while fiddling or reclaiming our humanity while confronting a fake world it seems we are struck not trying to figure out everything at once. We cannot put everything back together in this age of divorce. Instead, perhaps can we pick apples/make pies and collect ourselves by figuring out one thing at a time.

Posted by Matthew Shedden

Matthew Shedden is pastor at Defiance Church in a small mountain town in Colorado. There he tries to reclaim the trivial by spending with his family, fly fishing the Roaring Fork, skiing, and cooking.

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