Took the fireworks and the vanity
The circuit board and the city streets
Shooting star, swaying palm tree
Laid it at the arbiter's feet

If I could change my mind, change the paradigm
Prepare myself for another life
Forgive myself for the many times
I was cruel to something helpless and weak

But here it comes, that heavy love
I'm never going to move it alone
Here it comes, that heavy love
Tag it on a tenement wall
Here it comes, that heavy love
Someone's got to share in the load
Here it comes, that heavy love
I'm never going to move it alone

I was dressed in white, touched by something pure
Death obsessed like a teenager
Sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar
I'm still angry with no reason to be

At the architect who imagined this
For the everyman, blessed Sisyphus
Slipping steadily into madness
Now that's the only place to be free

But here it comes, that heavy love
You're never going to move it alone
Here it comes, that heavy love
Tattooed on a criminal's arm
Here it comes, that heavy love
Someone got to share in the load
Here it comes, that heavy love
You're never going to move it alone

No, I don't want to play
It's a shell game, it's a shell game

Distorted sounds on oscilloscopes
Distorted facts, I could never cope
My private life is an inside joke
No one will explain it to me

We'll be everything that we ever needed
Everyone, on the count of three!
Everyone, on the count of three!
All together now!

Here it comes, that heavy love
We're never going to move it alone
Here it comes, that heavy love
Playing as the cylinder rolls
Here it comes, that heavy love
I only want to share in the load
Here it comes, that heavy love
I'm never going to move it alone

Lyrics submitted by thecomaboy

Shell Games Lyrics as written by Conor M Oberst

Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

Lyrics powered by LyricFind

Shell Games song meanings
Add Your Thoughts


sort form View by:
  • +12
    General CommentIf this is indeed about his relationship with his musical career, perhaps the lyrics in the first verse allude to his previous album covers?

    The fireworks- Letting Off the Happiness
    The vanity- the mirror cover of Fevers and Mirrors
    The circuit board- Digital Ash
    The city streets- The New York street depicted on I'm Wide Awake...
    shooting star, swaying palm tree- the cover of Cassadaga

    a stretch, maybe? just a thought.
    RealityInRepairon December 24, 2010   Link
  • +9
    General CommentHere's my take on this song after listening to it for the first time and reading all these comments:

    First stanza - Alludes to his previous albums (except A Collection of Songs and The Story is in the Soil) and how he placed them before an "arbiter" (an 'arbiter' is someone who judges completely, so to me, it seems like it's either A) the music industry, B) the people who are listening to his music (possibly not just the fans, but everyone), or C) some sort of omnipotent God-like figure) Given this is Conor, I'd bet on it being the music industry.

    Second stanza - A stanza all about "what ifs" - If he could change his mind, if he could prepare himself for another life, if he could forgive himself for the times he was cruel.

    I'll skip the chorus for a second, just because it (the chorus) becomes clearer to me after the third and fourth stanzas.

    Third stanza - Talks all about his music career as a 'kid without a cause'. He did drugs, strove to be pure, honest, and truthful, was somewhat obsessed with death, how he wrote about all of this in his music, with lots of energy (piss in vinegar translates to 'loads of energy') and then sold all of it to the music industry.

    Fourth stanza - He then transitions his past career into the now by saying that he's STILL angry (just as he was then in all of his other albums) at the 'architect' (the God-like figure, or the individual who theorized life to be one repetitious motion after another) who created the every-man (mankind), and, likewise, Sisyphus (the character of a story about a man who repeats the same motions again and again for eternity). He's mad at this guy for creating this torturous life, causing him to slip into madness, which then so happens to be the only place where anyone can truly be free (...from the madness of normal living, day-in and day-out, respectively).

    Conor then states that he doesn't want to play this "shell game" known as life, for it's seemingly just a con, a fraud.

    This fourth stanza leads me to believe that the chorus is referencing the story of Sisyphus; however, instead of Sisyphus - who represents mankind - having to push a boulder all his life, he's really pushing - get ready for it - a collective and universal love, over and over again. Mankind is constantly, collectively pushing a heavy load of love up a hill - and Conor is stating that HE can't do it alone - it requires everyone. "Here it comes, that heavy love, we're never going to move it alone, here it comes, that heavy love, I only want to share in the load".

    And mind you, this is a story written by Conor, about Conor, where he leaves us with the last line of the song, stating how he wants to live his life together with everyone, he wants to share it with everyone.

    I think this song goes from discussing how he viewed life as a cup half-empty, to how he now wants to live it as a cup half-full.

    And yes, I guess that sounds kinda corny, but the song is heavily masked in the poetry of the lyrics, and ultimately comes out sounding a lot better than simply singing about cups being empty and full and whatnot. It's well-written with its symbolism.

    And for what it's worth, the fifth stanza - Conor tells us he couldn't deal with 'distorted' facts (possibly exaggerated facts on subjects such as life and death?) He then draws into the theme of needing everyone to make up the whole, instead of just himself (his private life cannot be explained by anyone else).

    Six stanza - This seems to help justify my take on the chorus, and how it's about needing everyone together to push the heavy boulder of love up its hill (on the count of three! all together now!).

    docpookion December 28, 2010   Link
  • +4
    My InterpretationConor Oberst, the thirty-one year old lead singer of the band Bright Eyes, has always struggled with the concept of organized religion. He was raised Catholic in Omaha, Nebraska, attending the Catholic school (Carpenter). Religion was always a big part of Oberst’s life. He wrote Shell Games, a song from his most recent album, The People’s Key, released in early 2011 (, about his lifelong crisis of faith and his search for salvation in a world that he doesn’t believe holds either of these. The song is used to explain his struggles and eventually calls listeners to leave the hoax of religions and come together as one community, united solely in a love without commitment and burden.
    The first verse of the song says, “Took the fireworks and the vanity/The circuit board and the city streets/Shooting stars, swaying palm trees/Laid it at the arbiter’s feet”. These images are all symbolic of earlier album covers by the band. The cover of 1998’s Letting Off the Happiness featured a full page of firework designs. A mirror on a wall of intricate wallpaper was the focus of 2000’s Fevers & Mirrors, and “the vanity”, another word for mirror, is representative of that. The “circuit board” is from the cover of 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn which features a design made up of binary code. The cover of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, also released in 2005, is a patchwork design of townhouses in New York City which is what “the city streets” refers to. Lastly, “Shooting stars, swaying palm trees” is a reference to the image of pyramids, surrounded by palm trees, underneath a shooting star from the cover of Cassadaga, released in 2007 ( The last line mentions an “arbiter.” An arbiter is defined as “a person who has judgment and is considered authoritative” (Mirriam Webster). In Psalm 62:11, God is called “the Impartial Arbiter of Destiny (McFayden).” Oberst took all his albums, which amount to his life’s work, and presented them to God for judgment.
    The second verse begins with the lyrics, “If I could change my mind, change the paradigm.” A paradigm is a standard or an ideal (Mirriam Webster) and is used in this context to describe the ideals and set forms of religious traditions and beliefs. Oberst is saying that if he could change these set models of religious tradition that never seem right to him, or perhaps even change himself and the way he regards them, then he could finally comes to terms with his faith and be part of a religious community. The lyrics continue, “Prepare myself for another life/Forgive myself for the many times/I was cruel to something helpless and weak.” The other life that Oberst is preparing himself for is the afterlife. In the Catholic religion the way to prepare yourself for the afterlife, is to confess your sins, preform penance, and be forgiven. In fact, Last Rites, one of the seven sacraments, are given to dying people to let them have confession and be forgiven one last time (Wise Geek). Oberst is sayings he would try to be a good Catholic and try to get into heaven if he thought the process to do so that the Catholics preach is true, or if he even thought it was worth it. During an interview with the Montreal Mirror in 2005, Oberst said, “These ideas of God and afterlife and sin seem very abstract, but they're part of how I grew up, so inevitably they affect the way I think.” This quote shows how unsure he is about religion, and how he as changed religions many times and still doesn’t know exactly what he believes. The entire verse is contemplative. Oberst is trying to figure out if his lack of faith is due to some fault of his own.
    The chorus repeats three times over the course of the song, each time with a slight variation that mirrors the singer’s growth. The first chorus goes, “But here it come, that heavy love/I’m never gonna move it alone/Here it come, that heavy love/Tag it on a tenement wall/Here it come that heavy love, someone gotta share in the load/Oh here it come, that heavy love/I’m never gonna move it alone.” The “heavy love” being referred to is the overwhelming need Oberst has to find meaning in life and find love and forgiveness. The love is heavy because it is a burden and consumes a person. Earlier in his life, he only attributed these things with religion and the salvation that it grants. He sings, “Someone’s gotta share in the load,” and he believes that God is the only person this could possibly be. It is not until later in life, and later in the song, that he realizes he can move, or remove, this heavy love from his back, in other ways. The line “Tag it on a tenement wall” is about how religious symbols like crosses or Bible passages are not just found in beautiful or highclass places; they can be found as graffiti on the walls of the slums. Everywhere he turns, he is surrounded by people inspired by religion. This entire chorus is in first person and is symbolic of Oberst blaming himself, and his sins, for being the reason why he could not ever fit in with a religious community. He felt alone and therefore was searching for someone to help him, because he is “never gonna move it alone.” When he says this during the first chorus it sounds hopeless and weak, as if he has already given up.
    The third verse begins by describing Oberst’s Catholic upbringing. “I was dressed in white, touched by something pure/Death obsessed like a teenager/Sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar.” In Catholicism, the color white represents purity. When receiving the seven sacraments, such as Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, and even Holy Orders, participants usually wear white gowns (Bible Tools). When he says he was touched by something pure, he is referring to Chrism, the pure oil used to anoint people receiving many of the seven sacraments (Morrisroe). Oberst then says he was “death obsessed like a teenager.” In an interview with The Huffington Post in 2011 Oberst said, “I’ve always been slightly preoccupied with death or those silly big questions people will tell you to not spend your time worrying about. I guess it’s more trying to kind of enlighten myself as much as I can and know, all these perspectives that are out there or these possible meanings of things, that has always been a fascination of mine.'” All these big steps of his induction into the religious community were taking place while he was a teenager, a time when he began to be preoccupied with ideas of death and mortality. The next line mentions “piss and vinegar” which is meant to symbolize bitterness and when Oberst says he sold his “tortured youth”, and he means he wasted his early life being bitter towards most people around him and angry at God for not giving him straight answers. His anger towards God becomes even more evident in the next few lines of the song. “I’m still angry with no reason to be/At the architect who imagines/For the everyman, blessed Sisyphus.” The architect he is talking about is God. In Institutes of the Christian Religion, written in 1536, by John Calvin, a famous protestant reformer, he calls God “The Divine Architect” and refers to God’s work as “Architecture of the Universe.” This is because God is thought to have designed and created the entire universe. Oberst is angry with God for imagining and then making a world where everyone is forced to live like Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology. Sisyphus was tortured by having to roll a giant boulder up a mountain, only to have to start over again because it rolls back down for all of eternity (Camus). Oberst equates Sisyphus’ frustration to the frustration he feels in trying to find a religion he truly believes in. Every time he discovers one, he finds something that feels fake or unholy to him. In an interview with the Paste Magazine in 2008, Oberst said, “I guess I’m just conflicted. I mean, I want to find something like that. Badly. But in all the forms where it’s been offered to me, they seem fraudulent, you know? … And not that I’m an expert on all these religions, but what I know about all the other major religions kind of all just fall a little flat in their–I guess, just in their kind of narrow-mindedness. I feel like there’s something much more basic than what all these people are worried about.” In the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the author, Albert Cadmus, talks about Absurdism, which is “man’s search for meaning in a meaningless world.” This belief seems to align perfectly with Conor Oberst’s beliefs, especially in this song. He searches tirelessly for meaning, or religion, but deep down he knows there is no correct religion. The last line of the verse, “Slipping steadily into madness, now that’s the only place to be free.” This obviously refers back to the madness which befell Sisyphus due to his eternal punishment, but more so, it is Oberst’s belief that the only way to be free of the worries of no salvation or religious comfort is if you let go, and go mad. The madness he refers to is most likely drug use. Oberst has said that he uses drugs as an escape from his worries and that when he is sober, he becomes terrified of the overwhelming truth of the evil in world.
    This is the second time the chorus appears, with a few differences from the first version. “But here it come, that heavy love/You’re never gonna move it alone/Here it come that heavy love/Tattooed on a criminal’s arm/Here it come, that heavy love/Someone gotta share in the load/Oh, Here it come, that heavy love/You’re never gonna move it alone.” The line that goes, “Tattooed on a criminal’s arm,” coincides with the line about graffiti in the previous chorus. The same religious imagery is often found as tattoos on many people, even criminals in jail and is therefore inescapable. In this chorus, Oberst has changed all the first person words to second person. He has still not found anything to believe in. Oberst said in an interview that he was “going through a period of intense atheism, but now I find myself going back and forth between feeling like there are things at work besides biology, and feeling like it's complete nonsense.” (Montreal Mirror) During his times of atheism, he would preach it to everyone through rhetoric and song. When he uses words like “you’re”, he is telling other people, as though it is a fact, that if he can’t move that heavy love, or find faith in religion, than it must not exist. This period of his life when he was putting down other religions and their beliefs is one of the times Oberst was “Cruel to something helpless and weak” that he wishes he could forgive himself for.
    The bridge of the song is Oberst singing “No I don’t wanna play/It’s a shell game.” A shell game is a type of thimblerig game where a small ball is hidden underneath three small cups and the cups are then shuffled. The player must pick the cup they think that the ball is under. The game is actually a fraud because the person doing the swindling will have taken out the ball or hidden it so that the player will always lose (Cup & Ball Trick). Oberst is saying that he no longer wants to play the shell game of choosing a religion. He believes God is tricking and cheating him because religion itself is a hoax and there is no hidden truth or salvation beneath any of the “cups” or different worldly religions.
    The fourth verse begins with “Distorted sounds on oscilloscopes/distorted facts, I could never cope.” An oscilloscope is a machine that measures and displays sounds waves. It is a device that Oberst, being a musician and musical technician has become very familiar with. The machines specifically show the distortion of sound waves (Mirriam Webster). Because sound waves are used to transfer messages, if these waves are distorted, the message will become unclear. The lyrics are about how Oberst has received many messages through so many mediums in his life about religion and spirituality, but they were all distorted and therefore left him alone, and unable to cope with his life’s purpose. The next stanza is, “My private life is an inside joke/No one will explain it to me.” These words continue with the themes of Oberst feeling like everyone else is in on a big secret, but God is ignoring his pleas to understand it. He feels left out and alone. The last line of the verse is a moment of epiphany for the singer. He sings “We’ll be everything that we ever need” This is the first time Oberst uses the word “we” and it is meant to show that he finally realized he is not alone in his troubles because many other people question their faith. He wants everyone to know that, unlike what they have been told, they do not need God and religion, but only the love of one another for life to be worth living.
    The next part of the song, when Oberst chants, “Everyone on the count of three/All together now,” is an impassioned cry for anyone who has ever felt at a loss or confused in their faith to be released from its shackles. Now the lyrics of the chorus have become, “Here it come, that heavy love/We’re never gonna move it alone/Here it come, that heavy love/Playing as the cylinder rolls/Here it come, that heavy love/I only want to share in the load/Oh, here it come, that heavy love/I’m never gonna move it alone.” This is also the first time Oberst uses the term “we” in the chorus. He believes if they all stand together, they can finally move the “heavy love” that has been weighing them down for so long, and none of them will ever feel alone in the universe again.
    Conor Oberst uses poetry and heavy symbolism in the song Shell Games to describe his lifelong quest to find meaning in life through religion; from his childhood at a Catholic School being taught distorted messages, to his dark, death obsessed teenage years where he felt a complete disconnect and preached atheism, to the present. He has tried to be accepting towards, and even a part of many different religious societies, but they have all had flaws and felt false to him. In the song Four Winds off of 2007’s Cassadaga Oberst sings “The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, The Quran is mute/If you burned them all together, you’d get close to the truth.” He thinks that all religions are focusing on their differences, instead of their overall message of love of your fellow human being. He once said, “I find it really shocking that two groups that are, from an outsider’s perspective, almost identical–you know, Shiites and Sunnis, or Catholics and Protestants–can actually kill each other over these minor details. And dogma and all that stuff, to me it’s anti- whatever I would consider god-like. Which is, I think, a connectedness and an all-encompassing sort of love for things. I suppose that’s a lot of what Buddhism is, but I haven’t found anything that really hits the mark for me (Jackson).” By the end of the song, he has finally come to the realization that organized religion is a sham and holds no real truth or salvation. He believes that all people should release themselves from the burden of “heavy love” that makes happiness and peace so hard to obtain. He begs the lost and faithless people of the world to unite together and form their own community based on one pure ideal: all they really need in life is the unconditional, light love of one another.
    placetolevelouton November 15, 2011   Link
  • +2
    General CommentI see it as a piece of work reflecting a sort of Emersonian transcendentalism, with clear homage being paid to Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence."

    I think the "heavy love" is a reference to group consciousness - the love for world can't be borne alone, that changes must be made in everyone, everyone has to carry their piece of the world. It's about transcending our isolation, transcending our bodies, moving beyond what we see when we look out our own windows.

    I would imagine that "Shell Game" is a reference to the short sci-fi story by Phillip Dick…

    Conor has said that the new album is a science fiction album.
    eclipse799on December 26, 2010   Link
  • +2
    General CommentAny Bright Eyes fan will know that Conor is pulling in his handful of hang-ups/images/go-to obsessions.

    SUCH AS:

    "Distorted sounds on oscilloscope".

    An oscilloscope is a machine that creates images of sound waves. 'Course Conor cites machinery used depicting/representing a function that is alien to it, such as in "Danny Callohan" "whose heart beats electrical".

    -Cocaine references
    "I was dressed in white, touched by something pure"

    -Elliott Smith references
    "Slipping steadily into madness, now that's the only place to be free" and an echo of "distorted" twice in another verse.
    "A distorted reality is now a necessity to be free" which is the name and chorus of an ESmith song.


    That aside, I'm not sure what heavy love is referring to.

    Could it be...

    1. A relationship that requires two people to be equally committed? That seems to ignore the rest of the lyrics perhaps. But may make the most sense when the chorus stands alone.
    2. The necessity of Conor to have his bandmates help him put his emotions/experiences to music.
    3. Conor's relationship with his fans, who rely on his music to connect to their own lives.

    But what's the namesake, "Shell Games" for which he says "it's a shell game"

    It being...

    1. The music industry/Bright Eyes itself as a project?
    2. Love itself, involving oneself in a relationship?
    3. The fulility of trying to connect your life to music or art, which could, perhaps never be enough to get you through.
    uglymugon December 26, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis is pretty good, but it has yet to grow on me. I'm looking forward to the album.
    Maelglonon December 23, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI think the album cover thing has to be true. I wouldn't have noticed it myself, but that's too uncanny to be a coincidence. So to me, that, along with a lot of other things in this song, suggest that it is about his music career.

    According to Wikipedia, the shell game is a game that is supposed to appear as a gambling game but it actually a fraud. Maybe he feels like he's being frauded? This would go along with the verse about when he was a teenager, where he talks about having lost his innocence to the music industry.

    I don't know what the "heavy love" part is about, but I don't think it's about his fans. I certainly could be wrong, but that seems a little corny for something written by Conor Oberst.
    reubencoon December 24, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General CommentIMHO this is about the love of god that comes with religious life and how he's torn between wanting that love and not wanting the "heavy love" or religious life because at times it can be a burden. he touches on judgement, forgiveness, purity, madness, the idea that you can live without god, etc
    XianSnakeon December 25, 2010   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationThis track, in my opinion, is about being on the verge of giving up and having unconditional love save you and help you through it.
    Temazcalon December 26, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General CommentIn the lines

    "For the everyman, blessed Sisyphus
    Slipping steadily into madness"

    Conor name-drops 'The Myth of Sisyphus', an essay by Albert Camus. According to Wikipedia, in the essay, Camus introduces his philosophy of the absurd: man's futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal truths or values.

    I think, based on the observations Conor has revealed in his lyrics throughout the years and albums, this pretty much sums up Conor's outlook on politics, religion, and meaning in general.

    It's just funny he's at the point in his life where he can condense his entire search to that single image of a guy pushing a rock up a hill forever.
    poopdarton January 08, 2011   Link

Add your thoughts

Log in now to tell us what you think this song means.

Don’t have an account? Create an account with SongMeanings to post comments, submit lyrics, and more. It’s super easy, we promise!

Back to top