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Meaning

Beirut's Zach Condon admits to "a nostalgia for something that never happened to me—things I've seen in old movies" (Melissa Maerz, "Beirut: Albuquerque Kid Records the Greatest Gypsy Album of 1847," SPIN, September 2006). "Elephant Gun" captures Condon's strange nostalgia precisely. The song soars and spins its way through images of a war-torn European city before concluding in an echoing, memory-like musical scene marked by an off-kilter rhythm. The lyrics suggest war, refugee camps, aging, and loss, but they are neither clear enough to be metaphorical nor specific enough to be historical. "Elephant Gun" is like a dream sequence or a memory. But Condon, who was 20 at the time he composed the song, is an indie-rock-inspired trumpet player from Albuquerque whose only home was at his parents' house until well after his first record deal.

"Think about how your memory fails you if you travel," Condon says of his songwriting. "Imagine family vacations as a kid. Your mind just plays tricks on you. It only imagines what it wants to and that, actually, is what I'm working off of…that's what makes a great story." That blurry sense of memory is exactly what "Elephant Gun" communicates best.

What mixed-up memory is Condon trying to communicate, though? If we accept the obvious—that his work is not autobiographical—the possibilities are pretty endless. The most obvious response is that Condon is recreating an army camp in the infamous trenches of WWI, a fiasco Shmoop's historians describe as "four years of slaughter and horror." His images of feeling trapped, elephant guns, and a noise that "rips through the silence of our camp at night" evoke someone's great-grandfather's memories of life under occupation or at war. During World War I, just for example, the German army occupied Belgium in order to fight across Belgium's borders against the Allied Forces of France, Great Britain, and later the U.S.

Speaking of German occupation, Condon could also be making reference to an episode in the trenches or camps of a different war, one that remains even more infamous for most Americans today: yes, we're talking about World War II. The cause of defeating German fascism was generally agreeable to the American psyche (even anti-war wackos like Woody Guthrie supported it), and in turn, the horrors of German fascism continue to hang over our heads, recorded extensively in history books and museums. The line "take the big king down" resonates with the anti-Hitler sentiments we are all at least vaguely familiar with.

But according to Condon, he is more interested in writing "about escapism than the grim reality of things." It's hard to understand "Elephant Gun" as an escapist narrative per se—after all, who would want to escape to a war-torn European city with giant game-hunting guns going off over their heads? But the song could certainly be a metaphor for, um, something (don't quote us on that). If we were to understand "Elephant Gun" as a metaphor, what would the images in the song represent? What might be behind enigmatic lines like "I'd bury my dreams underground" or "it rips through the silence, all that is left is all that I hide"?

Without more of a story or background, it's hard to imagine transposing "Elephant Gun" into a precise metaphor or allegory. We think it's probably more accurate to understand the song the way we might listen to the soundtrack for a silent film we've never seen. The film could be from any era, and tell any story; it could be produced in black and white, sepia, or the latest in Blu Ray color. It could be a slideshow of stills or a fast-moving drama. What film do you imagine? What story does it tell? Try to answer the question before viewing the music video; Beirut's heavy sound, emotional performance and deep sense of historical ambience create a visual, visceral reaction. "Elephant Gun" may tell a story, multiple stories, or a tiny fragment of a story; we agree with the music critics that the music resembles a postcard. What the mysterious postcard from the past means precisely may be as much of a mystery to Zach Condon as it is to us.
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