“For God’s sake/ I need to be real/ I need touch/ I need… people?” An eerie whisper launches the first track on Riverside’s “Second Life Syndrome”. This track, “After”, sets the scene for what will be quite a mind trip through blackness, misery, and despair.
You see, at the end of “Out of Myself”, our protagonist left the woman whom he admits is the love of his life. He, however, is wrestling with himself. He wrestles in the deepest parts of his mind against feelings of introversion, doubt, and worth. In essence, he sees no value in himself, so he removes himself from all contact with humanity. He feels he has no worth, and yet he does not want to lose himself. It’s a sick sort of selfish self-denial that many of us have experienced. After all, though, he thinks that he will be “OK”.
But he isn’t ok. He is tired of the darkness seated in his confused, befuddled mind. He’s tired of the lack of comfort. Does he really need something else? Could he possibly need…people? Could he possibly need…love? As he struggles with this epiphany, the other side of his mind—the other side that truly takes him out of himself—continually warns him not to lose himself in all of this. What he doesn’t seem to understand, however, is that he is nothing without others.
2. Volte Face
The time has come. The day has finally arrived. It’s time to start over again, my friends. In the second track of “Second Life Syndrome”, our protagonist has had enough. He’s crawled into the deepest reaches of his mind to avoid the woman that he knows he loves. He hides himself in the shadows to avoid human interaction. But, now it’s time. It’s time to set off on his own to start a new life—a second life.
“Would you step aside/ Make way for me/ Can’t you see I’m dead set on doing this/ Enough of dreamless nights/ Enough of sleepless nights”. Yes, he’s had enough. He wants to be “true” to himself. His inner struggle has finally resulted in pure defiance of his current life and situation. And no one can change his mind. It’s time for him to disappear and be the person he is.
“You can put me in the lion’s cage/ You can take my soul/ Give a second name/ But I don’t intend to stop my fight/ And I’m not afraid/ NOT AFRAID”. He shows courage for the first time. He refuses to let his life waste away. He refuses to lose himself in relationships and situations that require him to change everything about himself. He’s had enough. It’s time for another life; another chance at being. He’s not afraid. Fearlessly, he steps out the door. Arrogantly and cruelly, his ego hedonistic fixation on self drives him to leave everything and everyone. He doesn’t realize how difficult this will be.
He’s not so bad on the inside, though, despite how it might appear.
3. Conceiving You
“Do you want to know/ Why I keep avoiding your eyes/ And why I’m running away?” The third track on Riverside’s “Second Life Syndrome” is simultaneously one of the most beautiful and also one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. The beauty of the melody is just slightly less delicate than the feelings that our protagonist is pouring out before the woman he is about to leave.
Yes, he’s leaving. He’s made up his mind. Is that okay? He feels trapped by someone that will not accept him for whom he is. He feels that she wants him to be someone else. He feels that way about everyone, though. Does she really want to know why he is running? Does she care? Indeed, being with her has brought him outside of himself. He’s played the game. He’s perfected the charade. But he’s had enough. He wants to be himself. Yet, the struggle inside him won’t let it be that simple.
“…maybe there’s someone who will understand/ That I’m not able to share my world?” He’s searching. He feels alone; and, indeed, maybe that’s how it should be, he thinks. But maybe, just maybe, there is someone out there that will love him for whom he is truly. For the real him. His mind has been so busy changing himself for her and trying to understand, or conceive, her that he is simply exhausted.
His mind is a mess. We begin to understand that he might actually have valid reason for wanting to escape; but, at the same time, he seems to know that it’s rather selfish. Should he continue to pretend? Should he continue this one-sided relationship? He can’t look at her anymore.
4. Second Life Syndrome
The grand title track on this masterpiece of an album begins quietly. Much like this song, the feelings inside our protagonist are slowly welling up and up until he’s ready to burst.”We’re waiting for/ The decrees of providence/ I don’t want to waste/ Any more of my life”.
Day after day. Night after night. We pine. We cry. We wish but never do. We imagine, but never assert ourselves. The writer here is tired of the daily grind of miscommunication, pretending, and lies. He’s tired of it. He wants something real in his life. This love? This love is real, but does she really love him for him? Or does she love what she wants him to become? He doesn’t know, and so he creates a space in his mind for him to hide. He creates a persona for him to act. He hides with his head in the sand, but this behavior cannot stand forever.
“But when that all shattered I felt I’d broken my fall/ Couldn’t pretend that I felt strong about us anymore/ Without that help I finally started to live my own life/ And I know I don’t need you now”. It’s a vicious ritual. In and out. Back and forth. His will to be free is troubled and unsure of itself. He can’t decide. What should he do? Should he stay?
He knows what he wants. He knows what will be good for him. He decides to erase his past, including his lover. In all of this, he’s really fighting himself. He’s fighting the ghostly images in his mind. He makes up his mind, but the vicious ritual starts all over again. Will he ever escape this prison? What is his true prison? His cell is none other than his own mind. Second Life Syndrome is the disease that he has, but it is also the one thing he cannot perform.
5. Artificial Smile
“Hi my friend/ Shake my hand/ Tell your lie/ With your artificial smile”. Our protagonist is full of fear, regret, and bitterness towards his life. He is scared of reality, and has done everything to hide within himself. He cannot stand his own act that he performs. He hates himself for it.
And that’s where “Artificial Smile” comes in now. He hates himself so much that it seems that he begins to notice the frauds all around him. Everywhere he goes, people smile and nod, smile and nod. Yet, it’s not real. It’s not sincere. These people don’t care for him or anyone else. All they care for is comparing themselves to others. Everything is a competition. Everything is a game they must win.
I’m sure you know people like this. It’s aggravating, right? And for someone that is lost within himself, for someone that is fighting his own sincerity; observing this behavior could be crushing. Why can’t we just love and live in peace? Why must everything be so pretentious? His own life is swirling in a fog, but he can clearly see the the insincerity and shallowness all around him.
6. I Turned You Down
Not only is our protagonist filled with bitterness and hate towards those he deems fake and artificial, but he’s also drenched in regret. “I Turned You Down” is an apology, I believe to his love that he left. “I turned you down so hastily/ And it’s tearing me apart/ In my heart of hearts I’m screaming/ In my heart of hearts I cry”.
His life is a mess. He hides from reality, preferring to create his own shadowy existence. In doing so, though, he must battle his hatred and regret, and he certainly regrets breaking her heart. He regrets turning down her warmth for the coldness of his own heart. Can he make this right? Or will the vicious cycle of hate, regret, and second life syndrome continue?
7. Reality Dream III
As we get closer to the end of “Second Life Syndrome”, we come upon an instrumental track called “Reality Dream III”. This track, like most instrumental songs, has meaning and purpose for being where it is in the track listing.
You see, I believe this track represents two things. First of all, it shows our protagonist escaping once again into the shadow world of his own making. After experiencing the hate and regret of the last two tracks, he cannot help but go to his happy place. Except, it’s no longer a happy place. It depresses him further, and he becomes trapped within himself.
Secondly, though, I think it represents him as he begins to wrestle with himself. He’s beginning to fight back against the shadow, as we will see in the next track. So, you see, this track is a transitional song that has plenty of meaning.
8. Dance with the Shadow
“Before you come and tell me who I am/ Before you try to make me someone else/ Step out of your line, out of line”. And now we come to one of my all-time favorite songs, “Dance with the Shadow”. The lyrics here are very, very strong; and I think they represent the final straw, the finale to his life with his love.
Yes, he loves her. However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that he is unsure of why she loves him. Does she love him for him? As he stands up for himself to her, he realizes that everyone else simply want to change him. They aren’t satisfied with him. They aren’t ready to let him be himself. They “stand in line” to try and make him someone else.
“I can almost see the light/ Feel its warmth/ And touch the moment I was waiting for so long/ I carried all before me/ Now the die is cast/ With open arms I’m standing out against my past”. As he approaches the threshold of a new life, he can feel the warmth. He can see the light at the end of the tunnel. He’s longed for a life where he can live in peace with himself. He’s longed to be real. He’s longed to break the charade. Now, it’s almost here. He can taste it. He’s ready.
He’s ready to forgive himself for his past, his mistakes, and his sins; and he’s ready to leave that life behind in his wake. It’s an amazing experience to hear the final words of this track, as the rush of emotions and sense of freedom are undeniably palpable. He’s free to forgive himself. He’s finally free to live an uncompromising life!
The final track on Riverside’s “Second Life Syndrome” is a threshold song. It is the doorway to a new part of the story. It is a transition from fear and desperation to new feelings of control and confidence.
Before. It’s a new beginning. It’s a new start to his life. He’s wasted his life, he feels. He’s changed himself to fit others’ desires, and now he’s ready to be freed from this cage. “I’ve become addicted to being strong/ Started out my second life/ And the remnants of your tears and smiles/ Shift deleted from my mind”. He’s done being used and manipulated by others’ emotions. It’s time that he becomes himself once again.
This album is an emotional wreck. Yes, it showcases a man that has been lost for a long time, and the themes of desperation, fear, and longing are very relatable to us. But it also shows us the delight and the hopeful glee of having that epiphany that we all seek. Life is crowded and there are domineering people everywhere. It can be tempting to lose ourselves in others’ needs and desires. However, we all have a right and a duty to remain true. Sure, if we see something lacking in ourselves, we have a responsibility to grow. However, changing ourselves at the whims of others will do nothing but cause inner turmoil and spiritual chaos.
Too many of us ignore the spiritual side of our reality. We may ignore it, but we will certainly run and hide there when life is closing in all around us. To remain healthy both physically and mentally, we need to learn to Whom we are truly accountable and by Whom we have real value and worth. We don’t need to care so much about what others want us to be. All we have to do is worry about what our Creator desires for us. If we cut ourselves off from this and center our lives on creations (whether people or things), we will find nothing but darkness, discontentment, fear, and longing for greater things. Once we orient ourselves truly, I believe we will find happiness and a true sense of excitement for a new life and new ideas: Second Life Syndrome, if you will.