River of Deceit Interpretations
River of Deceit
This one is by Jordan. <firstname.lastname@example.org> It is a very well thought out and good interp.
I haven't put the thought into this it deserves, but if I don't do this on
the spur of the moment I probably never will. I agree, to a degree, with
previous interpretation, but I think they've missed some things. I believe
the song is about false hope and the destructive cycle it intiates. I see
the song as being less hopeful.
I always look for the irony first, probably because it hits me the
hardest. The line "my pain is self-chosen" screams with irony and
self-mockery, as implied by the correlation between that line and the next
in each verse. So the Prophet says- does Layne Staley believe in the
prophet? Only under the surface of the river.
I could either burn- face the desolation of the truth, that he is trapped
in this river of deceit which allows him to believe that his pain is
self-chosen; or cut off my pride and buy some time- find some false hope,
some other source to support the idea that he is currently in control of
himself and his pain. What are the implications of "my pain is
self-chosen"? If it was true, he would be fully in control of the
situation, the pain would be something that he was using and that he
commanded. That is the crucial illusion. That IS the river of deceit.
The verses deal with the lies; the chorus, the core of the song, is the
core of the message. "The only direction we flow is down" At this stage
there is no salvation. The singer can either face the fact that he is at
the mercy of his pain, or continue to swim in the river of deceit- believe
that there is some higher plan behind it all, some path to salvation,
believe that he is the master of his pain (my pain is self-chosen)
2'nd verse- same theme but Layne Staley, a much greater lyricist than
given credit for, has reversed the symbols. The dilemma at heart is still
Although drown is in the first option, as burn was in the previous verse,
this time it represents continuing in the river, continuing to allow the
self-deception to carry on to its eventual nadir (never clarified, but use
your imagination). "pull off my skin and swim to shore" is the same
possibility represented before as "burn" Here Layne Staley seems to change
his mind- maybe directly admitting + confronting the hopelessness of my
situation will eventually lead me out- but this thread is plucked in the
next line- "now I can grow a beautiful shell for all to see" Right back to
where we started. Layne Staley doesn't really think shells are beautiful-
he thinks they are a continuation of the deception that he tried to
abandon in the previous line. If you need further evidence, "for all to
see" is the deciding factor. It screams with irony- everyone can see the
shell, everyone can hear the prophet, we all work together to convinced
that pain is self-chosen. In truth, by twisting that brief flare of hope
"swim to shore" to an ironic, defeated conclusion, Layne Staley is
reinforcing his central message: There is no shore. His pain is not
self-chosen, he does not control it, and he is incapable of facing that
truth. Thus the river of deceit flows down.
This is not nearly as polished and organized as its predecessors, but it
is correct. So I believe, anyway. The first guy almost had the sense (he
understood the pop-psych- religious implications of "my pain is
self-chosen) but how he missed the fact that that is the central flow that
feeds the river of deceit is anyone's guess.
Layne does have to come off his Ivory Tower, but the song also says
clearly that he belives doing so will destroy him, and that he is
The second guy is also close, but he fails to understand that growing a
new shell is just another cycle in the river of deceit. Layne thought he
could pull off his skin and swim to shore- and then found out that he was
wrong- there is no shore.
Layne in weakness is convinced (by the Prophet and becuase he wants to)
into believing that his pain is self-chosen, etc. By the end of the verse
he discovers that he was wrong- that the choice implied in the 3'rd and
fourth lines, a choice that is only there when one's pain is self-chosen,
does not really exist. And so we move to the chorus. It all fits together
perfectly and the uncertainty comes from the delusion. There is either
false hope or no hope, lies or damnation, with the lies leading to
damnation anyway in the end. "The only direction we flow is down"!!!! How
can you miss this!
Sorry about that. This is such a well-written song: If you aren't a
dedicated Layne Staley fan, you could easily miss the changeovers from
irony to honesty.
You have my permission to take out anything that seems aggressive or
insulting: I don;t want to offend anyone.
This one was sent in by Eric Jette
This is a phenomonal interp.
Ok, this is just off the top of my head, but I'm going to try to
interpret "River of Deceit," which is my favorite Mad Season song,
although "Wake Up" is a *very* close second, and "Long Gone Day" is
definitely third. Usually when I like a band I slightly dislike their
hit songs, or at least don't think they are the best songs or the most
representative songs of the band, but in this case I really like "River"
and I get the sense the band does, too. And if I hadn't heard it on the
radio, I would never have heard of the band and gotten the album just so
I could hear it again (and again, whenever I wanted) and then I would
never have heard their other cool songs.
Having said that, my interpretation:
There are some fairly obvious religious and (pop) psychological
metahpors here. Mix religion with pop psychology, and you get the idea
that we can and should control our destinies, or that we are at least
responsible for the bad stuff in our lives. ("My pain is
self-chosen.") The prophets of Hebrew scripture were always warning the
people of Israel that they weren't living according to God's command,
and thus God would destroy them. (And, in fact, they were destroyed, by
the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, not to mention other
difficulties.) But the prophets also said that if they followed the Law
(Torah), they would prosper. (Read Deuteronomy, for example.) In
addition of accusing the Hebrew people of being disloyal to God, the
prophets criticized the rich and powerful for maintaining the status quo
and for not taking care of the needs of the poor and sick.
(Contemporary Liberation theology, formulated by Latino and Black
theologians, draws a lot on the teachings of the prophets.)
The speaker/singer in the song (whether that be Layne personally, or the
whole band, or a character they created and have given voice) talking of
being pulled DOWN, and sings it over and over. This refers to drowning
(down under the water), and perhaps going to Hell. But on a deeper
level, perhaps the river is telling him something. Perhaps he needs to
get down to earth, come off his high horse, get out of the Ivory Tower,
get his head out of the clouds and away from all the lies and fantasies
he's created that keep him from being honest. He created the lies (to
himself, to others) to maintain an illusion of a life that he thought he
should be living, although it's not really the life he wants or that
anyone else (God, his family, friends, loved ones) really wanted for
him. So the lies don't work. Rather than raising him up to what he
thought he wanted, they're pulling him down to the real world, to the
earth, to the water. But once they've done that, he needs to let them
go or they'll pull him down further, and he won't survive.
Of course, Hell is also DOWN. Satan is in Hell. Satan is the Father of
Lies. Lying is a sin. So is pride. The wages of sin is death (and
burning in Hell). ("I could either burn / Or cut off my pride...").
The problem here is that althougth there's hope for
redemption/salvation, or just some kind of pop psychology "wholeness,"
the singer also realizes life isn't going to be perfect, or easy. He
can't just swim to shore and solve all his problems and life will be
just peachy. He pulls of his skin, presumably a metaphor for the false
face he's presented to everyone, the mask he's been wearing, but then
he's going to grow a beautiful shell for everyone else (a new mask). The
shell may be all shiny pretty, but it's a hard, defensive exterior which
doesn't allow sensation to penetrate, thus cutting him off from genuine
contact with others. Has our speaker really learned his lesson, or is he
only buying a little time only to make the same mistakes all over again?
Since many creatures outgrow and shed their shells, then maybe the shell
is temporary, something he's only going to wear during the healing
process. But there is a warning here that deceit and lies are a hard
habit to break, and sometimes we worry more about presenting the right
image and doing what we think others want, what they expect of us.
Again, I think the song offers hope, but also a warning that it's not
easy to change one's character, negative personality traits, bad habits,
etc. It's not as easy as finding religion, or picking up a self-help
book. It takes hard work, and struggle, and suffering, and sometimes
you're doing pretty well if you can just keep your head above water.
Eric W. Jette
Dept. of Religious Studies
University of Colorado at Boulder
Campus Box 292
Boulder, CO 80309-0292
This one, another great one, was sent in by
After reading Eric's interpretation, I decided to do my own--thanks for
the inspiration! My thoughts on River Of Deceit:
Basically, the over-all theme is that life is full of pain, hope-
lessness, and headed 'down' or inevitably toward death. Because Layne
feels this so intensely, he copes with emotional pain through writing
and drug use (my supposition). Therefore, I see the lyrics as deeply
personal- expecially since the second verse starts with 'at least I
The first part where The Prophet states his 'pain is self chosen'
is an important parallel to the second part where Layne says 'my pain is
self chosen'. Layne likens himself to a prophet, one who has an extra
sense of what things mean, extra understanding and therefore extra pain.
With capitals used for The Prophet, however, Layne points to The Man, or
Jesus. Jesus felt everyone's pain- indeed took on the world's sin and
died for it. In the song the prophet knows his pain is self chosen- he
gives himself up for all, but inside he thinks about his choice- 'I
could either burn (die), or cut off my pride (as a prophet who must live
up to his course in life to die for all) and buy some time' time to
remain alive. But he knows that even in prolonging his life for a
little longer he still has the same dilemma facing him- 'a head full of
lies' which weigh him down, in his gut, 'waist', his gut feeling. What
is Layne saying by presenting the prophet as someone weighed down by
lies? Perhaps that what Jesus taught and how he died for us is 'a head
full of lies'. Perhaps Layne sees Jesus as The Prophet who's self
chosen pain is to die for people's sins to free them, but Layne detects
uncertainty in this decision. The real problem might be what Layne has
been taught as truth by nominal Christendom...that it is lies. The
obvious evidence in seen in the human condition. Layne recognizes that
pain and death are still with us and seemingly inevitable. So Layne
attributes to The Prophet a sense of uncertainty because he will next
compare himself with this prophet.
Layne's pain is self chosen, 'at least I believe it to be'. He
says this because others do not see his way of dealing with his pain or
addiction to drugs as a choice. To others it's something that's got
him. He still feels in control, and so sets out the choice of 'either
drown' die of addiction, or 'pull off my skin' clean up, get off the
drugs which up to this point have been his skin or protection; 'swim to
shore' and put on a new, more 'beautiful shell'. To everyone else he
looks cleaned up (and may be), but it's still just a shell over his
pain. Fortunately, however, the shell and clean up does allow him (and
us who identify with these feelings) to at least go on--to still be
alive even if it is just a shell of sorts. Hopefully the inherently
sad grip of the drug addiction, once shaken, can make way for better
days, even if the inevitable is 'down' to death.
I hear that Layne has cleaned up, so I hope he can find some good
times in the days ahead. Sometimes the underlying sadness never leaves-
but we learn how to better cope with it.
So that's how I see it for now...and I could be way wrong.. and I
could change my mind later, but thanks for the opportunity to express
this way too long opinion!