Dave Matthews Band’s latest single, “Madman’s Eyes,” opens with a mizmar playing a deeply rhythmic, hypnotic, Middle Eastern mini scale. Massed strings join, gliding from note to note, exploring micro tones along the way. Many will associate the unison orchestral style with Bollywood. The soundscape conjures visions of minarets, fragrant spices and what many Western ears will interpret as Near Eastern exoticism. That this is paired with the title, “Madman’s Eyes,” which initially made me worry that Matthews plans on dehumanizing people we don’t understand.
Matthews breaks this spell when he starts singing, his lyrics describing “Little Billy” playing with a gun, shooting bottles and pretending to be the hero coming home from war.
The lyrics transport us from whatever exotic locale we imagined to backyards such as we find in many U.S. neighborhoods. The image is concrete and familiar: a child is playing soldier.
Having set this scene, he interrogates it, asking, “Is this real? Is this make believe?” Matthews knows that many of us view playing soldier as harmless fun. But is it? Matthews points to something more sinister.
In the second verse, Matthews acknowledges that things are confusing. As he builds to the chorus Matthews refuses to let us abdicate responsibility, but then he ties us up with more questions including, “Must we do things that we should never forgive?”
In the build to the last chorus, he acknowledges that nobody wants to experience the madness of violence, but then “How do we face hatred with the love inside us?”
The chorus answers these questions with images of mother love and child sacrifice. We wonder, which child, whose child, is being sacrificed? Little Billy? Children who perish due to his (our) dreams of war?
The sacrifice of the innocent for the sins of the guilty is a theme familiar to Christians. H. Richard Niebuhr explored this theme related to war, claiming that even soldiers who perpetrate violence count among the victims. He concluded that whenever we see the innocent suffering for the sins of the guilty it reflects God’s judgment that something is wrong.
The lyrics in the chorus are sung in a strained falsetto, escalating the emotion. It is overdubbed, suggesting that multiple lives are on the line. The chorus is mixed so that the singer’s voice is nearly drowned out by the instruments. This accentuates the music’s unrelenting drive, a mad chaos threatening to swamp the human. We can’t escape.
After the first two choruses, Matthews inserts an unusually long, four-measure turnaround (in pop music a segment of two measures is really long). Music theorists will recognize that he’s taking us on the II, V, I, progression. This chord progression feels unstable and dissonant. It creates tension and fills us with foreboding. Matthews wants us to think — maybe even worry.
The chorus and song conclude with Matthews declaring that the ambiguity is inescapable, “It’s not black and white/ ‘Less you’re looking through a madman’s eyes.”
This is Matthews’ final statement: We can’t know. He refuses to settle the question for us. At the same time, he pushes us to recognize how certainty contributes to the madness.
Violence is just as complicated for Christians. That’s why Christianity developed monastic and pacifist movements, which are not part of every great religious tradition. While the Reformed branch of the Christian tradition has generally accepted the tragic necessity of violence to maintain a relatively peaceful and just order, it has sought to limit who may use violence, who may suffer violence, the circumstances in which violence is justified, and the purposes violence may serve. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes the validity of a pacifist witness if only to keep the just warriors honest. The questions they raise can prevent war from deteriorating into a mad crusade.
Every Christian should appreciate Matthews’ concern that the madness we project on others is our own.