Pompeii by thebutterfly-d7b67fi.jpg

Date Aired
March 22, 2014
Running Time
Previous review
Next review

Todd plays "Pompeii" on the piano.

A pop song review

Todd: You ever have one of those songs you have no idea what you think about it?

Video for "Pompeii"
Dan Smith: But if you close your eyes

Todd (VO): Yeah, this is one of them for me. I don't know if I should take it seriously because it certainly takes itself seriously, but it's backed up with one of the goofiest gimmicks I've heard in years; and I don't know if I like it because it's certainly catchy and there's nothing wrong with it, but it's also maybe more grandiose than it can justify; and I don't know how to contextualize it because I have no idea where it fits in with the modern music scene, so I'm not even sure what I'm supposed to be comparing it to.

Todd: Well, anyway, this is the song "Pompeii"...

Todd (VO): ...by the band Bastille.

Todd: I mean, it's a British band with a French name, singing about a place in Italy. I'm already confused.

Todd (VO): So I guess this is this year's winner of the Fluke Indie Hit Sweepstakes. Actually, I think I should retire that phrase. I mean, they've been happening often enough that you can't really call them flukes anymore. For that matter, I don't know if you can call them indie. Like...

Todd: ...when I say indie, I don't mean it's unpopular. Obviously, that's not the case. It's just I've always used it to describe a certain sound—you know, a tone that was more cerebral and nerdier and more alternative than mainstream pop. But I honestly don't know if I can tell them apart anymore. Like here, for example, let's listen to one of the biggest alternative songs of the last year or so.

Clip of The Naked and Famous - "Young Blood"
Alisa Xayalith: The bittersweet between my teeth
Trying to find the in-betweens

Todd: Now let's compare that to...oh, I don't know, some dumbass Swedish DJ electronica about partying all night.

Clip of Icona Pop - "All Night"
Icona Pop: Our winter melts under the summer skies, the summer skies
The seasons change, our hearts will stay the same, yeah, stay the same
We got that burning feeling starting...

Todd (VO): Yeah, yeah, see, I couldn't tell you what separates Swedish House Mafia from Capital Cities.

Todd: So, yeah, Bastille would be the winner of the Fluke Increasingly Common Indie Vaguely Alternative Electro-Pop Hit Sweepstakes Entitlement Program.

Todd (VO): But if electro-pop rock acts like Bastille are mainstream now, that's not a terrible thing. I've been predicting the death of the "in the club" era of music for a while now, but I think at this point, we can declare it officially over. [Brief clips of "We Can't Stop" by...] Even Miley's party song doesn't really sound like a party song. [...and "Timber" by...] And I guess there's Pitbull, but Pitbull has always defied rational explanation, so let's not worry about that.

Todd: But anyway, that's where we're at in popular music.

Todd (VO): What about this one in particular? What does this song mean? So silly, and yet so very, very earnest. And it's certainly incredibly catchy, but I'm not sure what it's about.

Todd: And who the hell are these guys?! Where do they come from? Well, let's find out.

Before the hit

What was that?

Clips of "Flaws," "Laura Palmer" and "Bad Blood"

Todd (VO): Okay, so these guys are BΔstille. They're pretty new, but they've been building up buzz for the past year or so. And their frontman, the guy with the Eraserhead hair there, is named Dan Smith. And from what I can tell, their first big hit "Pompeii" is not at all uncharacteristic for them because Smith also likes classical references that make you feel smart for recognizing them, but only, like, the really, really famous ones. In this case, songs like [picture of The Fall of Icarus] "Icarus", [cover of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner] "Albatross", [DVD case for the second season of Twin Peaks] "Laura Palmer".

Performance on Yahoo Music

For what it's worth, Smith started out as a singer-songwriter type, but was such a terrified, stage presenceless wuss that he got himself a full band to help carry the load.

Todd: Let's see how he described the kind of music his rock band makes.

Interview on radio.com
Dan: I don't think we think of ourselves as anything in particular, you know. We don't see ourselves as a rock band, we don't see ourselves as a pop band. I don't know.

Todd: [beat] Okay, well, that was no help at all. Let's just look at the song.

The big hit

Stop that! This is not a One Hit Wonderland episode, all right?

Clip of "Things We Lost in the Fire"

Todd (VO): Bastille are already doing pretty well for themselves right now, and now I've practically guaranteed they'll have another hit because I can't predict these things for crap!

Todd: I thought the new Pope was gonna be a Buddhist, for Christ's sake. Still, I'm just saying...

Video for...

Todd (VO): ..."Pompeii" doesn't seem like the kind of song that you build a career around, because the song is dominated by...

Todd: ...one particular thing.

Bastille: Eh-eh-o eh-o
Eh-eh-o eh-o
Eh-eh-o eh-o
Eh-eh-o eh-o

Todd: I...can't...I don't know what to do with this.

Bastille: Eh-eh-o eh-o
Eh-eh-o eh-o

Todd (VO): Is is...ancient monk tribal chants of some kind? Is it supposed to be Roman? Greek? Druids? [clip of The Lion King] The background singers from "Circle of Life"? Who the hell knows?

Todd: And yet, it works.

Dan: But if you close your eyes

Todd (VO): It captures your attention, and it sounds great. It fits for a song named after an ancient city that is, to this day, [painting of Pompeii] the go-to example of the wrath of the gods. The song feels big—big enough to justify such an outsized reference full of such weighty imagery.

Todd: And at the same time, it's goofy as hell!

Todd (VO): In fact, honestly, whenever I hear this song...

Todd: ...I kinda wish [opening clip of...] the Muppets still had a show with musical guests, so they could have Bastille on, because, you know, it would be absolutely perfect. Like, you know...

Clips from Muppet Treasure Island and Weezer - "Keep Fishin'"

Todd (VO): ...a volcano in the background, Muppet monsters doing the "whey oh, whey oh" parts, and the Bastille guy trying to be serious and not laugh.

Todd: Try and tell me you'll be thinking of anything else when you hear this now.

Dan: And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love

Todd (VO): Now, about that classical reference, in case you didn't already know. Pompeii was a city in the Roman Empire that was [painting of destruction of Pompeii] completely wiped out in the year 79 AD by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. [clip of trailer for Pompeii] You may have seen it in that recent movie you did not see. I saw it, I don't really recommend it, unless, for some reason, you want to see 90 full minutes of Jon Snow from Game of Thrones [image of Jon Snow...] making that face like someone keeps flicking paper clips at the back of his head.

Todd: And by the way, that's a hell of a coincidence, isn't it?

Todd (VO): A song and a completely unrelated movie about the same historical event with the same name out at the same time.

Todd: You think they released the song to piggyback off the movie? 'Cause it happens.

Clip of...

Todd (VO): Destiny's Child named a song "Survivor" right when Survivor was the biggest show on television, so yeah, I think that's what happened here.

Todd: No, wait, I take that back. That doesn't make any sense.

Clip of "Girl on Fire" by...

Todd (VO): 'Cause, like, when Alicia Keys tried to capitalize on a movie's success, she at least did it with an [screen capture of The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire] actual successful movie.

Todd: I don't think Bastille was predicting that a [image search of posters for movies by...] Paul W.S. Anderson movie was gonna capture the public's imagination.

Todd (VO): Anyway, "Pompeii" uses the imagery of a sudden, world-ending disaster, and uses it to build to this chorus.

Brief clip of Animal drumming
Dan: But if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all?

Todd: Um...[video of a city in ruins with an air raid siren blaring] not really? I mean, even with my eyes closed, I can still smell the smoke and hear the screaming and the rubble collapsing.

Dan: And if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
You've been here before?

Todd (VO): I was here before. It's my city.

Todd: I mean, it wasn't covered in lava and dead people before, but yeah, it was here. Ha ha, thank you, that was yet another edition of Todd Takes Abstract Lyrics Too Literally Theatre! It's a living.

Todd (VO): Actually, hold on. What is this all a metaphor for, exactly.

Dan: ...as the dust settled around us

Todd (VO): Sounds kinda like maybe a breakup song, which, if it is, it's a little over-the-top to compare your angst to the death of thousands of people. But hey, he never specifies. It could be anything. Perhaps it's just a catchall for any number of disasters that have happening and caught people by surprise. Natural disaster, emotional disaster, who knows?

Todd: Hell, for all we know, it's not a metaphor at all. Maybe it's [another painting of...] literally about the destruction of Pompeii. Although you could make a strong case that it's about anything but Pompeii.

Dan: And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love

Todd (VO): This is a sticking point for me. The walls of Pompeii...

Todd: ...did not come tumbling down. They got covered in hot volcano crap, [pictures of present-day Pompeii] but we cleared all that out of the way now, and everything's still standing. You can go there and walk around next to them right now.

Todd (VO): So ignoring Pompeii specifically, it's just...something bad happened. But even in the wake of horrible tragedy, you can still rise above it,...

Todd: ...which is what that soaring chorus is about.

Dan: And if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
You've been here before?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

Todd: No one was asking you to?

Todd (VO): I mean, was there? Was that an issue? Who asked? Where did that come from? You didn't seem to have a problem figuring it out just one line ago.

Todd: Okay, let me be clear about this. Most of this review is just general observations and stupid, pointless nitpicking. It's my oeuvre. But this part genuinely bothers me; it's my biggest problem with the entire song.

Todd (VO): You get these verses about tragedy and calamity catching you unaware, destroying everything you know, and it's dark and it's unhappy and conflicted; but then the drums kick in, and it all resolves in this glorious chorus about finding peace and transcendence even in the darkest of times, and it's glorious, it's wonderful.

Todd: And then...

Todd (VO): ...he doesn't even make it to the end of the chorus before he changes his mind completely and starts singing about he can't even pretend that there's anything good about this at all!

Todd: What the hell were you thinking, Dan Smith?! I mean, yeah...

Todd (VO): ...then he goes back to the first line.

Dan: If you close your eyes

Todd (VO): So I guess that could be an answer to himself.

Todd: "How am I gonna be an optimist about this? Here's how." So I guess you could...no, it doesn't work for me. It's structured all wrong. The chorus is supposed to be answering the verses, not itself.

Todd (VO): Like, that chorus kicks in, and it's magnificent. It's almost like [clip of "Where the Streets Have No Name" by...] U2. Like, this is the exact thing that U2 is good at. But if they wrote like "Pompeii", their songs would sound a whole lot different.

Clip of "Beautiful Day"
Bono: It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away
It's a beautiful day

Todd (VO): [singing] Although it's not really that beautiful
It's getting kind of cloudy
It's...it's actually kind of a shitty day

Todd: You see? Although I wouldn't mind if they covered some U2 songs. I would love to hear their version of [possible single cover of...] "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (Oh Wait Here It Is)". Am I entirely off base here? Maybe I'm misinterpreting what the song is about.

You know what? Enough speculating, why don't we cut straight to the source? [pulls out phone and searches...] Dan Smith, what is this song about?

Okay, okay, it says: [appears over picture of Dan] "[The song] is essentially about fear of stasis and boredom. Being quite a shy, self-conscious person, I was afraid my life might get stuck."

What? It's about being stuck in a r... I...

Todd (VO): I thought this was about coping with tragedy of some kind. How is it about boredom and stasis? Is the [another clip from Pompeii] gods wiping cities off the map boring to you? That doesn't make any sense.

Todd: Oh-oh-oh-oh, wait, wait, wait, I get it. It's like, you know, you can close your eyes and cover your eyes and go "la la la" and pretend that nothing bad has happened at all, but that just traps you in the same cycle of willful ignorance that brought you to this point to begin with, so that's obviously not a good thing to do.

Well, gee, buddy, you sure didn't make it sound that bad!

Todd (VO): Sounds like closing your eyes is pretty awesome! Background monks seem to think that's worthy of a celebration.

Todd: Now, see, if you ask me, the best line in the song is this one.

Bastille: Oh where do we begin?
The rubble or our sins?

Todd (VO): I get it. After the disaster, do you just get to work rebuilding things the way they were, or do you look deeper and make some harsh judgments about what you were doing wrong to begin with? If they wanted to make the song make more sense, that would be the chorus, and the part about closing your eyes would be the closing tag.

Todd: [looking at phone] Actually, wait, hold on, there was more to the interview here.

Shot of Edge Music page: "Bastille Singer Says 'Pompeii' Is Song About Two Corpses Talking"

[now he gets it] Oh.

Todd (VO): Okay, now it makes sense. This song is literally from the point of view of the...

Todd: ...actual victims of Pompeii [pictures of...] stuck in stasis because their bodies have been literally preserved in hot ash for millennia, buried in volcanic debris, frozen in the final moments of their violent, fiery demise for all eternity.

[Music kicks in]

Whey oh, whey oh
Whey-whey oh, whey oh

Todd (VO): Well, I get it now, at least. And I get why the chorus disagrees with itself—because it's from the point of view of two different people. Although I guess I would've done the second verse in, like, a different voice. How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

Todd: So...do I have a verdict here? I guess I like it. It's fun...

Todd (VO): ...and upbeat and catchy. Even the silly parts make it even better, even if you see it as camp, and I do; that doesn't mean it's still not powerful or affecting. Ask Journey.

Todd: So I'm giving this a tentative thumbs up, and...well, we'll see where they take it from here.

In the video, Dan turns around, showing his new giant, black alien eyes
Bastille: Eh-eh-o eh-o
Eh-eh-o eh-o
Eh-eh-o eh-o
Eh-eh-o eh-o

Todd: Wait, wait, hold on, I wasn't paying attention. He's an alien now? What?

Closing tag song: Jimmy Buffett - "Volcano"

"Pompeii" is owned by Virgin Records Ltd.
This video is owned by me

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.