Music reviews aren't where you generally go to get info about ancient history. But every now and then, a song or an album does warrant an excursion into the distant past. Such is the case with "Pompeii," the first big global hit from the up-and-coming British synth-pop act Bastille.
So here we go: Pompeii, of course, was a Roman city on the southwest coast of Italy that plopped itself down uncomfortably close to Mt. Vesuvius. In 79 AD, that slumbering volcano erupted without warning, burying the city and its estimated 20,000 inhabitants, many of whom have been "preserved" for two millennia in the exact poses they were in when 20 feet of ash and pumice fell from the sky.
That macabre event serves as Bastille's melancholy muse. An infectious and upbeat rhythm has likely been the vivacious key to this song's surging sales success. But the story its lyrics tell is a mournful, introspective one as we're invited to imagine what it might have been like to be one of Vesuvius' victims.
"And the walls kept tumbling down," we hear early on. "In the city that we love/Gray clouds roll over the hills/Bringing darkness from above."
What might someone's final thoughts have been in such a moment? Frontman Dan Smith sings from the perspective of a man who simply closed his eyes and imagined better times even as death rained down: "But if you close your eyes/Does it almost feel like/Nothing changed at all?/And if you close your eyes/Does it almost feel like/You've been here before?"
And then this twice-repeated concession to harsh reality: "How am I gonna be an optimist about this?"
Interestingly, however, the band proceeds to employ some spiritual words in parsing the tragedy, perhaps implying that such losses can become catalysts prompting those of us who remain to ponder our own human foibles, frailty and failings.
First, Bastille suggests that those who died in Pompeii never had a chance to relinquish their vices or deal with their shortcomings: "We were caught up and lost in all of our vices/In your pose as the dust settled around us." That's followed with the repeated question, "Oh, where do we begin?/The rubble or our sins?" That line, especially, can be heard as contrasting the outward destruction with the similarly destructive ravages of sin inwardly, upon our souls.
So just as Imagine Dragons has done recently with its hits "Demons" and "Radioactive," we're seemingly offered a glimmer of something redemptive amid all that despair and destruction.
The video (wisely) steers clear of visually depicting the song's dramatic subject matter. Instead, we get something of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers sci-fi twist. Smith plays the part of a wary resident of Los Angeles, as inhabitants are slowly being overcome by something that turns their eyes wholly black … and leaves them smiling blankly. Smith runs into the first such victim, a waitress, and immediately flees. But he keeps encountering these calmly creepy black-eyed automatons, forcing him to flee even farther, into the desert.
But there's simply no place he can run—just as was the case for Vesuvius' defenseless victims. The video concludes with Smith turning to face the camera, his own face blank and eyes turned inky after failing to evade the fate he desperately sought to avoid.