Wow, it’s been a hot minute since I last posted! I’m sorry about the hiatus. It wasn’t planned. I kind of just fell out of my posting schedule over the summer and it led into fall with me back in school now.
But, now that I’m back, I have something I want to talk about. You remember how my last post on here was the review of Michael Mott’s In the Light: A Faustian Tale?
Well, I’ve had a couple of months with the album and there have even been some music videos released relating to it, so I feel it’s a good time to go a little more in-depth with some of this work.
And, because the song I’m about to talk about deals with very heavy subject matter, this is probably needed: The song I am about to discuss goes into a character’s mental breakdown following a traumatic experience. He also deals with suicidal ideation. While I will do my best to discuss these topics with as much sensitivity and care as possible from his perspective alone, I feel you deserve to be made aware that this post will deal with those heavy themes before proceeding.
While I’m at it, I should post these, just in case. If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or feelings, there is help out there for you. The following link will direct you to phone numbers, based on country, you can call to get help if you need it: https://www.opencounseling.com/suicide-hotlines.
Now that all that’s out of the way, I want to look at the song “Let Go of Me” purely from the trauma angle, as the lyrics make it clear that the main character is traumatized and what that will mean for him going forward.
That said, here we go.
Before we even get into the lyrics, I want to look at the setting. Dr. Johann Faustus has been left alone in front of a fire in a forest while his wife Ana goes to gather more wood, according to the digital booklet that comes with the album. This is right after the Prologue where all Johann’s work was burned by the Holy Inquisition because he committed blasphemy and apostasy.
This being left alone, unfortunately, allows him to mull over his experience with the Holy Inquisition. He hears the voices of long-deceased scholars telling him that he betrayed them, and how could he do such a thing?
With his wife out of earshot, he first can only say, “God in Heaven…” in response to the scholars’ voices, which play throughout the duration of the song. This response is interesting because when he is in front of the Inquisition, he tells them that he believes God does not exist. Therefore, this line in the song is to show that the experience really shook him to his core, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.
Finally, when the emotion begins to overwhelm him, he begins to sing: “What is this wall rising so tall?/Voices of burning scholars…” The wall going up accentuates how he is being left alone with these scholars who are shaming him because, in their view, he repented to the Inquisition when he should not have. He should have stood by them as scholars.
This is the beginning of his response to the trauma. By being left alone with the burned scholars, he is reminded how, after everything, he has nothing left. His books were burned by the Inquisition and he is incredibly lucky that he escaped being burned by these people himself for his sins.
While he is incredibly lucky to be alive, he cannot see it that way and only focuses on how the scholars’ voices in his head are reacting: “Crying my name/I was the same but shunned them.” He laments how he was once the same, but his cowardly display before the Inquisition makes him no longer like them, because they stood by the science and their own discoveries while he did not.
This is the next step in his ultimately unhealthy response to the trauma. He is going down the road of blaming himself for his situation and that is why the scholars are reacting the way they are in his head. He sees himself as having sinned against them, even though he repented of his original sins in front of the Inquisition. He has let down everyone important in his mind, and this feeling feeds the despair of the song.
Now, these next lines are where the song becomes even darker, as he contemplates joining these long-gone scholars: “Should I jump in?/Let it begin;/Sear me until I’m worthy/There they all lurk, flashing my work before me.” This speaks to just how traumatized he really is. He is in so much pain from seeing his books burned and he’s running over his responses to the Inquisition in his head and shaming himself through the eyes of his colleagues.
This is the final word on the scholars before his thoughts become even darker. The experience with the Inquisition does a lot to him and it creates the tension that the entire album will ultimately follow. The experience creates the Traveler character – it literally causes Johann’s head voices to manifest into an entire human being that only he can see. It all comes from this trauma and his response to it which, as I said, turned out to not be healthy.
“So calmly, gently/I’ll step inside and turn to dust, then let go of me.” He’ll let go of all the pain he’s holding, he’ll appease the voices in his head. This is where I was very concerned for Johann and was praying his wife would come back and catch him at this, because at this point, he needs a rational, real voice to calm his racing mind.
But he doesn’t get a real voice. Instead, he gets the Traveler, who only further torments him with his mind games and seductive deals. It’s not hard to see how this unhealthy response to the trauma would lead to the Traveler character becoming a very real, tangible being to Johann. The Traveler, unlike the Inquisition, puts up the front of being safe and secure.
And from here, it just gets even darker when Johann says this: “How do they burn?/I want to learn how I can reach their stature/Biting the air without a care or worry.” This is the most concerning couplet to me, because he is completely disregarding how painful burning would be. He is in so much emotional pain that the possible physical pain means nothing to him. This speaks to just how traumatized he really is.
Fire is a motif used a lot in this show. When there’s promotional material, it’s set against a wall of flame. The Facebook page for the musical shows embers flying in the air from the fire. Fire becomes a comfort to Johann and, even when he leaves the physical fire, he walks into the metaphorical fire by following and listening to the Traveler.
And he doesn’t let this idea go. He notices the embers from the fire flying into the air and recounts it like this: “Look at them fly/Joining the sky/Ready to touch its beauty/Knowing their place in its embrace forever.” Again, disregarding the idea of the pain of burning is showing just how deep he is in his own head. No one comes in to stop this song before it’s over, so Johann gets to be completely alone with the fire, thinking of it as the friend that will save him when – in reality – it is not his friend and is extremely dangerous.
When you’re in a dark place, being alone with your thoughts is about the worst thing you can do because you don’t have anyone to talk to and get a second perspective from. As Johann retreats further into his own head, he shuts out his wife in particular, not understanding that his actions are harmful, because the voice of the Traveler tells him what he wants to hear. The walls are closing in on him, and he doesn’t realize it because those walls are telling him what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear.
Now, I want to discuss the next two lines together, because they come together to be the same thought: “So somehow, someway,/The light could hold me as I learn to let go of me.” The light could hold him, not kill him. The light is a comfort now, whereas earlier with the Inquisition, it was dangerous.
Now that Johann has complete control over his own fate, he will do what the Holy Inquisition didn’t. The idea of the fire holding him – not burning him – goes back to the embers flying in the air in freedom. That’s exactly what Johann is after: freedom, and it’s why the fire becomes a comfort that will save him, even if it means in reality he has to die.
Finally, Johann looks away from the fire and regards his missing wife for the first time: “My faithful, loving wife,/What if you don’t return?/How could I continue on?/I should have burned!/Now, I will burn!” This is interesting because, from that first question, it seems like he is looking for that one person to come in on his thoughts and save him. The problem is, he doesn’t believe she will come back, which is why he ultimately says he will now burn.
One thing that they will hit you over the head with in modern-day therapy is the importance of personal support systems. This support system could be family, friends, teachers, coworkers, et cetera. It’s someone to go to if you’re in a bad place and need support. One major alarm bell that goes off with me when it comes to Johann is that he completely retreats from his support system in this song, and he doesn’t really understand the gravity of this until the end of the story. It’s why the Traveler is able to take control when Johann ultimately decides not to step into the fire.
In the next verse, it is interesting that the fire, once a friend, is now seen as an evil plaything as Johann starts to mess with it: “Look at this flame, how we’re the same./Now I will dance with demons./Here face to face, I will embrace the darkness.” If the fire is an evil thing, then Johann is calling himself evil for what he has done and believes he is one with it.
He knows that his mind has gone to the darkest place it could and, in desperation to be free of the pain, he fully embraces that darkness as a friend. Again, this is why it is so easy for the Traveler to later control him. He may not have stepped into the flames in the literal sense, but he definitely did it in the metaphorical sense by following the Traveler. All of this adds up to him being easy to be manipulated, because he is at a low, vulnerable point that he feels he cannot get out of. This is why he originally tries to step into the fire until seeing the Traveler stops him.
We see the real freedom Johann is after toward the end of the song: “Soon in a flash, turn into ash,/Rising into the heavens./Learning to fly, saying goodbye forever.” He is looking for his soul to be able to fly away from all this and really be free from the trauma the Inquisition has caused him.
Now, this is interesting, because it is basically confirming that Johann believes his soul will get to somewhere better, somewhere where he doesn’t have to deal with the Inquisition. This accentuates how the Inquisition really affects the people it touches. This whole thing started because of something they did to punish Johann, and we see the repercussions of that in a sort of PTSD-like response that guides the main protagonist throughout the entire story as he looks to fight them despite his fear.
Finally, Johann and the flame almost become one in the last bit of the song: “Then calmly, gently/My soul will finally be at peace./Yes, somehow, someway,/This burning flame reveals my fate/To let go of me.” Here, Johann is fully accepting what he is about to do if it means being free from all his fear and anguish. Like I said earlier, the only thing that stops him is the Traveler revealing himself.
This song is not easy to listen to. It’s easy to feel for Johann because of what he’s been through and how he reacts to situations throughout the story, but we’re dealing with some really heavy themes here overall. “Let Go of Me” is the first song after “Prologue” because it sets up Johann’s emotional struggle, as well as revealing what he is dealing with both inside himself and out. It sets up the tragic outline of the character before we meet anyone else, and we only see “Let Go of Me” fully resolved at the end of the story with the song “Her Embrace” where we finally see him at true peace.
I hope I was able to offer an interesting perspective on this song. While I still have you, I have to plug this album for a bit for musical theatre fans. The entire album is incredible, and it’s available on streaming platforms, iTunes, Amazon, or wherever you get music.
Simply search: “In the Light: A Faustian Tale” or “In the Light Michael Mott.” Quick note that if you search for it on YouTube, the songs may be out of order, and this is an album you really need to listen to in order to get a full sense of the story.
Also, here’s the link to the music video that inspired me to make this post, starring Jeremy Jordan as Dr. Johann Faustus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FqcB9NeO1Q.