“Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” to me, is a song about making difficult decisions. I probably think of it that way because this song got me through a very stressful 48-hour decision-making period this past May. I had just put my deposit in at Cornell, but had also just been accepted off of the Williams College waitlist, and had to decide whether to make a U-turn on my decision of where to spend the next four years of my life. I felt “a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light.”
Difficult decisions are “flooded in light” after you’ve thought about them for a while and fleshed out your different options, maybe made pro/con lists, all that good stuff. However, the way forward is still inherently “darkness,” since you still don’t know which choice to make. The many uses of opposites throughout the song (doubt/promise, darkness/light, black/white, day/night) also serve the purpose of reinforcing the feeling of being pulled in different directions. I’m not totally decided on what the “fine print” line means, but I think it’s about how other people try to make your decision for you, giving you their opinion “in the fine print” of their supportive words. The singer is “frightened by those who don’t see it” because that likely means they “who don’t see” the difficult decisions are being controlled by ideology, seeing everything as nails for their hammer and never questioning their convictions, which is quite a frightening thing.
However, for the hardest decisions, you can’t get the answer from anywhere outside of yourself. The Avett Brothers recognize this in the second verse, saying that “nothing is owed, deserved, or expected and your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected.” There’s no clear outside factor that can make your choice easy for you. However, that verse ends on the note of love, building up to the explosive, triumphant chorus.
“There was a dream and one day I could see it.” Everything becomes clear if you can see your dream. Ultimately, one of your options will best lead to you freeing and living out your dream, and the rest will fall away in light of that choice. “The last of those bad thoughts are finally out,” and your choice aligns with your innermost definition of and wishes for yourself. The impossible choices don’t stop coming, which is why the song ends like it starts, but by seeing your dream in how you’re living, maybe you can lead your Head Full of Doubt down a Road Full of Promise.