Interpretations:Hopeless Bleak Despair

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I always thought this song was about how everyone has problems but problems are part of life, and no matter how much you hate them its what makes the world what it is today. The song kind of starts off as I hate this problem, but towards the end of the song he realizes that he has these problems till the day he dies and he finally understands to embarce the problems and its all part of life and it just all comes together. Problems can equal happiness such as love comes with the postive and negative and you can never filter out the bad things its always there and it helps make what society, enviorment, the whole world is today. Without conflict and bad everything would be to one tracked. I kind of spun off topic there. But you should get the idea.

This song discusses the "enlightenment" (TMBG never uses the term, thankfully) of the singer. As he says, given the present society, as soon as we leave our homes we get conditioned to feel fear of life. We protect ourselves with phantom bubbles of safety, but that removes us from the act of living and thus sucks the joy of life. It causes our depressions, wars, strife, and conflict. We call this the "me" or "self". Whatever term you give it, it boils down to the need to always feel pleasure. Because that doesn't exist, we live in despair.

One day, it left him. He didn't "do" anything, he just got lucky. He looked around and died and went to hell. His "self" left and he experienced real death. All the despair then got transformed into something magical. It "ascended to heaven" and became simply the prior accumulation of experiences, with no demand to continue. Now he sings from that perspective.

Unlike the story of Buddha, his story shows what really happens. No mystical trees, no battles with evil, just a man going about his way in despair and then a man without it. No magic formula, no special path, no work to get there. Eventually, I hope we can all go through the same thing so we can put an end to the despair of the human condition.

Live well friends.

-- EntropyFails

Alright, this more of an observation than an interpretation. I sing a lot when I hang out with my friends, and I sing a lot of They Might Be Giants. Once, the song stuck in my head was 'Hopeless Bleak Despair'. As I finished, my friend said, "Hey, that's like the Bumpity-Bump Song". I looked at him like he was insane, and he went on. "There's an old song, my dad would sing when I was a kid... about a man who finds something, that he can never be rid of." I laughed when I realized he was referring to 'The Thing' by Phil Harris. It struck me that, at least somewhat the songs are similar... A man finds something (The thing... or despair) and no matter what, he cannot be rid of it. Althought HBD does end with the death and removal of despair, it is still an interesting theme.

Regarding "The Thing" by Phil Harris, I grew up listening to the 45 of this song. I was also reminded of it by HBD. At the end the singer dies and meets St. Peter, who refuses to allow him into Heaven, saying "get out of here with that bumpity bump, and take it down below!"

Nosmo King

OK, I thought of a great interperetation of this song. I don't know if the song is based on it, but... it works anyway. This song is based on the life of Sidartha Guatama, the Buddha. He lived his life at home when he was young, but when he left, he saw all of the troubles and pains of the world. The hopeless bleak dispair. Then for years, he wandered the Earth trying to find the path to true happiness. He left his family, denounced his princehood (it drove away my family, it made me lose my job). Until he found enlightenment, when it suddenly disappeared.


Hi. I think it might be about some sort of addiction that someone has their whole life. Either that, or maybe a painful memory, possibly of something the singer did. But who knows with these guys?

I have been trying to wrap my head around this song for a while now. It's so unbelievably hopeless. I think it's about how you can let despair and hopelessness ruin your life. The narrator has to have the worst thing possible happen to him before his despair leaves him -- he literally has to go to hell. This suggests to me that he's been worrying and despairing his whole life. Answer to the song: enjoy life, don't despair, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This song reminds me of Keikegard the philosopher. He believed that everyone despairs. Despair is a sickness of the soul, but unlike the sick body, the soul cannot die. It wants to so as to be rid of the despair, but the soul can never die. He believed everything we do is just distraction from despair. Maybe it has to do with that. -RandomCowboy

I thought the narrator was making light of having a low level depression all his life and envisions it as an actual object that follows him around, and would get to go to heaven, that smug bastard, when he finally went to hell to get away from it. (I like the Buddha idea; hadn't thought of that.) In TMBG-land, all of your unpleasant emotions get crystalized into actual physical entities so they can act on the physical world - your bleak despair follows you around and gets you fired, your laziness and destructiveness do donuts on the neighbor's lawn, your inconvenient sexual urges become statues that cause fires, etc. It's an animate Giant world! - ~Christina Miller

I've always thought it was about leprosy... the guy gets the disease, he loses his family and his job and has an awful time of it, wanders the earth begging for meals, and then dies. Since hindus beleive that leprosy is a disease falling on those with bad karma, he does not go to heaven since he was not a good person. - greasyLocks

Is this obvious, or am I naive? Or both? This song makes me think of the story of Cain (after he killed Abel) in Genesis 4:12-16. We can assume that Cain still lived at home when this happened (he certainly lived with his brother), but on this day he found out what hopeless, bleak despair was, and had to leave his house, presumably for the first time ever. The despair and the mark stayed with him for his whole life. He was driven away from his family and could no longer farm (see Gen. 4:2 and Gen. 4:12). He was made to be a restless wanderer for years and years. And I'm guessing that anyone who saw him might want to kill him, but because they saw the mark (of despair), they might just tell him to "get out of here" instead. Only Cain's eventual death freed him from the mark, and one assumes that even then his next destination was hell. Why one would say that the despair ascended to heaven I don't really know (perhaps a reference to Abel as the source of his despair?), but dying and going to hell is definitely how Cain finally got rid of it. --Worm

I always thought the song was about someone who was clinically depressed for most of their life, losing their job and support from family due to the constant sorrow they're in. The person finally gave up on existing and commited suicide ("until I died and went to Hell") and in doing so removed his depression ("but my Despair had ascended to Heaven, that's how I finally got rid of it"). Therefore he is very upbeat about the situation, despite ending up in Hell. -Tybron

I totally agree with Tybron's interpretation, except Im still not sure why the 'despair' would ascend to hevean. It makes sense that the narator would go to hell, as suicide is a sin, but Im not really sure why the thing that was causing his depression would to go to hevean. One possibility is that it came from hevean in the first place, like some kind of spirit, perhaps working for some malevolent God. One, far-streched possibility --AnklePants 22:21, 30 May 2006 (CDT)

Personally, I think it's just a really really really really really sad song. Yet an awesome one.

I agree with the suicide interpretation. "In a puff of smoke/ In an unceremonious way/ One day, it disappeared." He shot himself. It's an amazingly powerful and depressing song.

It's pretty obvious that the song is most likely about suicide. As said before me, "In a puff of smoke/ In an unceremonious way/ One day, it disappeared" is the guy offing himself. However, like in most TMBG songs, it is done in such a way that it seems like he finally found happiness but instead is met by this:

For years and years I wandered the earth Until I died and went to hell But my despair had ascended to heaven That's how I finally got rid of it

I really think that They had no real intentions of making this song depressing or anything; it is just merely just a quirky ironic song. I will admit that laughed rather hard on a bus in the morning when I first heard the aforementioned lyrics because it is just so ironically hillarious! It is a true TMBG song! The suicide part is just a grisly detail of the ironic story itself.

I actually view this song as a sort of playful jab at Linnell's own lyrical style. It sounds like he was thinking about all the people who love the "funny but sad" genre he writes in often and he wanted to make a sort of Mother Of All Songs for that sort of thing. It makes me think he was both making fun of himself and the fans and critics that love him for this sort of song. But maybe that's just me. -Oreosarecrack

Life imitates art: in 1996, Weird Al Yankovic writes a parody of TMBG in which the narrator dies and goes to heaven, but is annoyed because he's stuck next to a noisy ice machine for eternity; in 2001, TMBG write a song in which the narrator dies and goes to hell, but is glad because his despair has gone to heaven. A minor point, but worth noting.

What is Hell without the hopeless bleak despair, anyway? Certainly not as bad as one might think at first.

Pretty simple. This song is the antithesis to songs about self-pity. A guy is unhappy about his lot in life. His problems are, supposedly, bigger than everyone else's. He soon realizes how much of a whiny girl he was being when he goes to 'hell' and all his 'big problems' disappear completely.

Of course, I might be unique among They Might Be Giants fans for despising self-pity in music. They Might Be Giants are, at least, ambiguous and so anything that is seemingly 'baaaw' in their music can usually be interpreted as either satirical or something else entirely. But if there's one thing I can't stand it's Morrisey and Morrison (Jim).


I'm totally unfamiliar with the story of Buddha, but that sounds fascinating. I'm not entirely on board with the suicide angle since he says he was "sick of my life, looking forward to death." Doesn't sound like he was going to do anything about it himself for whatever reason. When you're this low, it doesn't even occur to you to end it, you don't have the mental or emotional energy to do anything but keep breathing. By this interpretation, in the chorus, the despair ("that smug bastard," thanks Christina Miller) won't even do the singer the courtesy of saying good-bye, giving him any sense of closure, release, triumph, whatever; it just "unceremoniously" disappears.

The death verse is obviously and rightfully the one that gets the most discussion. I've never been this low, but I've been low enough to sympathize with the thought that anywhere (even hell) without the despair would be better than anywhere (even heaven) with it. --IemordnilapI

A person who formerly saw the world through rose-colored glasses but was aware of how people were depressed and did not believe that he was the same. He knew deep down that he was depressed, but just could not bring himself to admit it until he is on his deathbed. He comes to the realization of what a depressing, pathetic life he had. He was previously in denial of it, which is why he carried that weight for so long, but after realizing it, he finally shook the feeling off and died peacefully (despite descending to hell). 0dd1 04:30, 28 March 2009 (UTC)

I definitely agree with this: "Whatever term you give it, it boils down to the need to always feel pleasure. Because that doesn't exist, we live in despair." (thanks EntropyFails) I believe the narrator was far too focused on his own feelings, his own despair. Because he was so depressed all the time, he resented it for never leaving. Obvious, right?

I believe he went to hell because he spent all of his live resenting this natural part of life. There is no good without evil, no evil without good, etc. You can't have all pleasure without some despair, right? I suppose now that he's rid of his despair, he can be happy that it's gone even though he's in hell. I think that the despair ascended to heaven because it's a normal part of anyone's life, not a sin in itself. The narrator was "sinning" himself for not being grateful for the life he had, instead only focusing on his misfortunes.

I for one am not religious in the slightest, but I still really connect with this song. Unfortunately. Perhaps it'll help me snap out of it!

--Zen 07:20, 28 December 2009 (UTC)

I though it was about a guy who never had anything go right with his life. But he learned not to think about it and he got used to it. Then, one day, his life changed. Nothing went wrong anymore. Everything was OK. However, he found he wasn't happy. He missed that old feeling of hopeless, bleak despair. He had grown to not mind it, even like it. And one day, it disappeared, leaving him feeling more hopeless and empty than ever. -- DidgeGuy (आ ज) 22:39, 23 My 2010

I think the song deliberately flips the script on heaven/hell as a subversive move, which opens the door to an anti-theistic interpretation. Hopeless bleak despair is a result of religious faith and church teachings that all people are inherently sinful and evil. The despair is the inescapable guilt propagated by religion. The narrator escapes this by dying, either literally or figuratively by abandoning faith. The despair goes to heaven, where it belongs, and the narrator is condemned to hell (again either literally by dying or figuratively by giving up the faith that had tormented him), and is much happier for the relief. In this way it parallels Billy Joel's Only the Good Die Young. "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints."

It's clearly about someone who's plagued by hopeless bleak despair, but finds release in death. But it's also more than that - I don't think John Linnell is suggesting suicide as a viable way to escape depression. Actually, this song seems more like it's about a guy who is unable to internalise his problems and accept responsibility for them, so instead acts like his despair is something that just happened to him to absolve himself from blame. The way he talks about the despair driving away his family and making him lose his job sound like he's not willing to accept that HE drove away his family and got himself fired. It wasn't him, it was his despair. He says he was "condemned" to a life of despair, but doesn't say who condemned him. He talks about his depression like it's a living thing deliberately ruining his life. And because he's willing to blame anything but himself for he's problems, he's unable to solve them and they stay with him until his death, because he's not able to make the changes that could bring him a happier life.

I like to think that the "hopeless bleak despair" is depression, but mostly I believe that they just wanted to write a song about a guy so thrilled his "hopeless bleak despair" went away that he forgets to mention that he died and went to hell until the end of the song. --DoubleDenial (talk) 22:37, 21 April 2019 (EDT)

Wait, it's not about suicide?[edit]

The hopeless bleak despair is depression, it stayed with him for his "whole life," drove away his family, made him lose his job.

Then one day it disappeared "in a puff of smoke, in an unceremonious way" -- like a gunshot?

He wandered the earth "sick of my life, looking forward to death."

Then he "died and went to hell" like a person would for committing suicide, in Catholic teachings.


That was some really good bleak despair he had.--Pittsburghmuggle (talk) 14:20, 9 December 2020 (EST)

A toxic relationship ends and then....[edit]

...suddenly he is free. This other person had driven away his family and cost him his job. He had been walking on eggshells around this person, looking forward to death, but suddenly all of the toxicity, fear, and pain vanishes when she does. It's almost a traumatic experience, but in a positive way. What does he do now that his life isn't hopeless anymore? It's almost impossible to handle.

Hopeless Bleak Despair[edit]

I always saw this as a hopeful song. The narrator walks around for their entire life filled with dread. Dread over everything and over nothing. One day, he turns around and sees that there isn't a dark cloud following him around. "A coward dies a thousand deaths before their time, a hero tastes of death but once". He's making himself miserable by obsessing over his problems.


In no way do I think this is what was intended (this isn't even my real interpretation), but I think it serves as a funny, alternate way of looking at the song. This theory is that the Hopeless Bleak Despair the narrator feels is a metaphor for atheism. So the story goes that the first time the narrator ever left his house, he became an atheist. Now, what exactly that means can be debated. One could interpret this as him experiencing opposing views the first time and finding them more persuasive. Wait, I just had a breakthrough! Or, the narrator was raised Amish, and wouldn't be allowed to leave until being baptized. I like this because it places the narrator as much older the first time he leaves his house. Either way, he's an atheist, and it seems to be troubling and terrifying him, which does happen to atheist converts once in a while, but if you live in TMBG Land, any excuse for something bad to happen to you is sufficient. In addition, it seems that as people are discovering that he's an atheist, they're turning on him. I think the Amish interpretation makes the most sense for this part as well, but it can apply to any super religious community the narrator was raised in. Overtime, life starts to lose its appeal to the narrator. Whether he kills himself or sticks it out can be decided for yourself. Either way, he ends up in hell. He's disoriented at first, but as he looks around, he realizes what's going on. "Oh", he says, "There is a God after all". And in that moment, his Hopeless Bleak Despair disappears. I think it's an interesting and clever interp. The only thing is that there's no consistent way to explain the despair ascending to heaven. But otherwise, it's something to think about next time you listen to the song. ButtonMarkedErase (talk) 10:58, 20 September 2023 (EDT)