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Analysis of "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"

I really regard Blue Oyster Cult's 1975 classic, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper", as one of the top metal singles ever made. It's one of those rare songs that meld music and lyrics into a consistent thematic achievement. Sure, if you want to be technical, every song is Art, but there are certainly different levels of song craftsmanship just like the stick figure is to Michelangelo's "David".

Traditionally, the Reaper character is an aggressive agent of Death. With his soul-slicing scythe, he is the bringer of oblivion to those whose mortal time is up. When he shows up, you turn your ass around and get the fuck out of there as fast as possible. He's someone you ultimately fear.

That's the simplistic, easy method of writing The Reaper character; a chase-you-down, machine of doom. It's not the BOC way and anytime a twist in personality is done to archetypical characters, I find it fairly interesting. I'd like to offer up my view of the song.

Almost every musical moment of DFTR is subtlety and softness. Vocally, the lyrics are smoothly delivered with some whispery harmony and never is a word shouted. Drums are muffled with almost the entire snare removed and there are no crashing cymbals. The guitars are laid-back with no squalling notes, no feedback and no disharmony. All the instrumental sounds are arranged to match up with the casual and the dramatic descriptions of the lyrics. The famous 4 opening notes ring out in repetition like waves of memory rippling through the expansiveness of time.

Musically, each line of the song usually ends with an A minor chord. In simple terms, major chords are usually happy sounding and the minors are the sad ones. Thus, the space between lyrical lines is occupied by the depressing last note. It's an unconscious effect that brings the listener down after each line ends.

Without knowing the authors intent, the lyrics are poetically ambiguous and open for some personal interpretation. You could effectively argue that the song is about a pact between lovers with no actual Reaper character, but I like envisioning a suicidal female whose desolate situation gives her an ethereal contact with him. Within her moments of solitude, he gives her grand visions of the afterlife until finally she accepts and embraces his promises of the void.

The Reaper is essentially a salesman selling the concept of Death and pure nothingness is never one of the benefits. His demeanor is comforting like a charming companion who makes you feel better and lifts your spirits. Everything ends, yet everything is so much better in the hereafter. You can live forever, you can fly and you'll never be alone. What more could a person ask for?

Even though the woman is despondent, the Reaper keeps all his early interactions with her calm and objective. Her name is never mentioned, but the Reaper notably refers to her as "baby"--a term of affection between close friends or family and in between some of the verses is the soothing, pseudo-lullaby, "La...la-la...la...la".

Lyrically, the Reaper doesn't comment on any of the hardships and tragedies of Life. His words only speak of Death in positive, broad terms. Death is a naturally occurring circumstance and he suggests that what dies is continually reborn anew. The most elemental earthly processes are seen as circular and everlasting the way they were by ancient civilizations and world religions.

"Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain"

It's never said explicitly why the woman is so dispirited, but the descriptions that the Reaper gives throughout the second verse suggest that she has lost her lover. The Reaper implies that she could be with her ex again by referring to the lead characters from Shakespeare's play "Romeo and Juliet" who both commit suicide.

"Romeo and Juliet
Are together in eternity..."

A sense of universal togetherness is also added with the lines:

"40,000 men and women everyday... Redefine Happiness
"Another 40,000 coming everyday... We can be like They are"

There is a musical interlude after the second chorus that lends a powerful moment to the song. Dramatically, I see it as the buildup of tension and anxiety in the female. A lonely guitar solo builds up to a storm of menacing drums, bass and guitar mimicking her mental confusion until they all fade out to a single held note and the four repeating lead notes of the verses. She has shed her indecisiveness about leaving life and is ready for the approach of The Reaper.

The final verse is extended out and written with a bigger theatrical visual to lend a sense of excitement to the songs conclusion. On her last night of sadness he appears with full melodrama; the wind picks up, the candles go out and the curtains billow. The Reaper doesn't order or force her to go with him. She shows her acceptance of Death by running straight to him and after turning, she says a final goodbye to Life.

When Death becomes attractive; it's romanticism. Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" is a well-crafted, thought provoking piece that is rarely approached in terms of musical artistry. To me, it is not just a great metal song, it’s in the upper-echelon of all songs.



"(Don't Fear) The Reaper"
---------------------------
All our times have come
Here but now they're gone
Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
We can be like they are

Come on baby... Don't fear the Reaper
Baby take my hand... Don't fear the Reaper
We'll be able to fly... Don't fear the Reaper
Baby I'm your man...

Valentine is done
Here but now they're gone
Romeo and Juliet
Are together in eternity...
Romeo and Juliet

40,000 men and women everyday... Like Romeo and Juliet
40,000 men and women everyday... Redefine Happiness
Another 40,000 coming everyday... We can be like They are

Come on baby... Don't fear the Reaper
Baby take my hand... Don't fear the Reaper
We'll be able to fly... Don't fear the Reaper
Baby I'm your man...

interlude

Love of two is one
Here but now they're gone
Came the last night of sadness
And it was clear she couldn't go on
Then the door was open and the wind appeared
The candles blew then disappeared
The curtains flew then he appeared
Saying don't be afraid

Come on baby... And she had no fear
And she ran to him... Then they started to fly
They looked backward and said goodbye
She had become like they are
She had taken his hand
She had become like they are

Come on baby... don't fear the reaper


--Frank Hill

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