Bad Priestess

Darnielle once referred to the narrator of this song as “totally insane,” but really, the way this guy talks about women is not far off from the way a lot of men deal with rejection. In fact, if you came across this song without any context, you could easily mistake this for the kind of lyrics you might hear on a pop station. Or maybe an oldies station – we’re a little better these days about keeping stuff like this off the airwaves, but every now and then one does slip through. Hey, remember “Blurred Lines?”

“Bad Priestess” is a song about a man blaming the object of his desire for the effect that his desire has on him. Nothing new or surprising about that — countless pieces of art have been devoted to this particular sort of blame-shifting. Men have been playing this game for a long time, and I don’t have to tell you that the consequences aren’t restricted to bad pop songs. This frame of mind has infected politics and society pretty much since those things existed, and it can cost women their safety, their freedom, even their lives. That might be what Darnielle is getting at by referring to the woman in the song as a “priestess” – the idea that this sort of thing has deep roots, running from our deeply confused treatment of female sexuality all the way back to societies where mysticism was still at the forefront of day-to-day life, and a woman could get set on fire because she knew how to read.

It’s possible that Darnielle was just bringing us into the mind of the narrator, who doesn’t literally believe this woman has magic powers, but for all the hold she has over him, he feels she might as well. And it doesn’t even seem like he knows her, or that they’ve even spoke – all it takes to sets him off is the sight of a woman in a pair of nice pants. She’s attractive, but he knows that she wouldn’t even give him the time of day – so why is she walking around like that, flaunting her beauty? To him, it seems like false advertising. She must know what she’s doing. And surely no good person would knowingly hurt an innocent man in such a way. She must be evil.

It starts there and spreads out until it’s infected his entire way of thinking: “she’s so deceitful and treacherous towards me, she must be like that to everyone.” Once you’ve determined that a woman’s sole intention is to tempt and punish men, it’s no jump to write off the rest of her personality. Even if she’s spending time with impoverished people, doing charity work, building houses or working at a food kitchen – that’s not real. It’s just another false front she’s putting up to draw more unsuspecting people into her web. Men are her main target, but she must want approval from other women, too, right? Why else would she be trying so hard?

This guy has some problems, for sure – mostly boiling down to the misconception that some women are devil-maidens with super-special eyelash tricks instead of, you know, human beings who like to wear nice jeans. But it’s hard to hold him responsible for the sins of an entire society, particularly when polite society does so much to sweep this kind of guy and his feelings under the rug. It’s the reason public figures can stand up with a straight face and say that we don’t need feminism anymore – that it’s outlived its usefulness. Those people have convinced themselves that this kind of guy doesn’t exist anymore, or that his pathology is unique and not indicative of a larger problem.

I don’t have to tell you that’s not true. You’re on the internet, after all.

Michael Myers Resplendent

Michael Myers is unstoppable. Despite many misguided attempts to graft other characteristics onto his persona, his relentlessness remains his defining character trait. He’s a mute in a white mask, a blank slate for us to project our fears onto – in the original script he’s simply referred to as “the shape.” This sinister implacability is the character’s main draw in the early Halloween films, though it quickly becomes a problem which reaches it’s nadir in The Curse Of Michael Myers, when Michael is revealed to be the central figure in an ancient cult’s semi-druidic belief system. As the main antagonist of a long-running franchise, he’s a bit insubstantial, but as boogieman, he’s mythic.

The narrator of “Michael Myers Resplendent” is not actually Michael Myers – at least, not exactly. He seems to be stuntman working on one of the Halloween movies, or a movie with similar themes and concepts. In this scene, the narrator is portraying the killer at the explosive, climactic moment of the film, and details in the lyrics (“waxed my chest and shaved off all my hair”) suggest that he will literally be set on fire for a short period of time.

In high-intensity situations such as this, the lines between actor and performer have a tendency to blur. The stuntman feels a deep connection with the character he’s portraying – even if his words don’t quite lay it out for us, there’s no mistaking that powerful surge of drums and strings leading into the chorus. That’s the moment of anticipation as he slips into his second skin and prepares his shining moment of glory.

In the press kit for Heretic Pride, Darnielle says that this song “is like Sax Rohmer #1 if the narrator had given up on ever actually getting home.” It’s a statement that I have to admit has captivated me to a great degree – it provides the album with a clear thematic bookend, and it’s difficult for me to hear either song and not consider it in light of the other. “Michael Myers Resplendent” is the worst promises of “Sax Rohmer” come to fruition – utter and complete disaster on all fronts. Hope and longing crushed by reality and calcified into pure despair.

The narrator of “Michael Myers” exists in almost zen-like state of failure; he has fully accepted it as a part of himself. He breathes his failure in and out like oxygen; he meditates on his own failings each morning and feels at one with the grander failings of the entire cosmos. He knows that success exists, but it’s a world away from the unglamorous life he leads as a low-level knock-around good in the entertainment industry. Sure, everybody loves a winner, but when you’re just a piece of scum circling the drain, that knowledge is pretty useless.

And yet, he’s still going. He’s getting up every day and lugging himself into that make-up chair, trudging onto the set and hitting his mark. And it’s not just for that one moment of bliss when the music swells and all eyes are on in. It’s because he doesn’t know how to stop. His heart is an engine powered by failure and disappointment. You can shoot him six times, you can set him on fire or drop him down a mine shaft, electrocute him and cut off his head. It doesn’t matter. He’ll just keep coming. Sure, everybody loves a winner. But who gives a fuck what they think?

Lion’s Teeth

Revenge Fantasy #98: I am driving down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, NC and I come to a stop at a four-way intersection. [REDACTED] steps out in front of my car to cross the street. I honk the horn. He stops, startled, and looks over. Our eyes meet through the windshield and he somehow recognizes me. His mouth begins to open. I slam my foot on the gas.

Revenge Fantasy #42: Thirty minutes after leaving, I walk back into the party. Finding you amongst the crowd, I interrupt whatever inane anecdote you’re telling and deliver the crushing verbal blow that I should have dealt out before. Those gathered around are dazzled by my withering retort and their opinion of me immediately and irrevocably shifts. You feel like a fool.

Revenge Fantasy #218: I am visiting my hometown and I run into [REDACTED] at the Fresh Market. She doesn’t recognize me at first, but I introduce myself and explain that I was her student when I was ten years old. Her face lights up. We hug and laugh and she asks what I’m doing now. I tell her where I’m living and what I’m working on. I ask if she is still teaching and she smiles, shakes her head and says, no, she retired just a few years ago. I smile politely and I say, good. I call her the vilest, most upsetting word I can think of and tell her how relieved I am, because the idea that she was responsible for the well-being of a group of children made me physically ill. She is shocked, silent. I walk away, still smiling.

Revenge Fantasy #350: You once again intrude upon my personal space in a public setting, but instead of yielding I stand my ground. You stare me down, shaken by this upset in what you perceive to be the natural order. You shout at me and we enter into an argument that quickly escalates to physical violence. I enact a series of expert blows that leave you alive but fully incapacitated. The people around us are shocked but no one exactly blames me. I somehow escape any legal retribution.

Revenge Fantasy #299: [REDACTED] is standing at the edge of a cliff, looking out over a deep ravine. I approach from behind and call out to him, expressing my love for his most recent critically-acclaimed production. He turns around but before he can see my face I reach out with both arms and push him as hard as I can. The world around me slows to a crawl. I know that any moment I can reach out to grab him before he falls, but I linger as long as I can on the sight of his face, the panic and fear in his eyes.

Revenge Fantasy #130: On a dark night, I meet the person who hurt you. I lead them into a quiet place, far away from the rest of the world. I do terrible things for what I tell myself is a good reason. I am there with you when you find out what has happened, and even though I never tell you that I was there, you somehow know. You turn to face me and the look in your eyes is unreadable.

Revenge Fantasy #605: I break into the large, comfortable home of [REDACTED] while he and his family are away. I search through his files and records until I find evidence of financial impropriety. I publicly reveal that he has illicitly used funds from church donations and book sales for personal gain. His reputation is destroyed and his flock abandons him. I also find recorded evidence of a homosexual affair, which stands in stark contrast to his vehemently anti-gay stance, but I don’t make it public: I simply leave it in a place where he’ll know that someone else has seen it, and that they know he is a liar.

Revenge Fantasy #1: I am successful far beyond anyone’s expectations. My artistic integrity is unquestioned and my financial status is enviable. Every public move I make is observed and analyzed for traces of my well-know brilliance. Every day I am showered with appreciation and praise. Everyone who has met me and not fallen immediately in love now understands how wrong they were.

Sax Rohmer #1

In the long-time war of attrition that was my quest to get Sarah into the Mountain Goats, “Sax Rohmer #1” was the crucial attack, a laser-guided missile that I volleyed straight into her heart when I snuck it onto a mix CD¹ commemorating  both her 25th birthday and my own move to Brooklyn after a year-long, self-imposed exile in Lewisville, North Carolina. I didn’t put it on there with the intention of making her cry, though I certainly accomplished that2 – I just thought it was the perfect fit for a mix that was entirely about the year we had spent apart. Also, I really wanted to get Sarah into the Mountain Goats.

This song calls out for (non-ironic) inclusion on a romantic mix-tape because it exudes a powerful optimism and hope the way a lot of Mountain Goats songs don’t. That’s not to say “Sax Rohmer” doesn’t contain it’s fair share of darkness  – “A rabbit gives up somewhere/And a dozen hawks descend/Every moment leads towards its own sad end.” But as Aubrey Graham once put it, working with the negatives can make for better pictures.3

The narrator’s struggle to win his one-man war and return home is thrilling because he sees defeat and disaster around every corner, and he’s unique as a Mountain Goats character because these specters of danger aren’t just the product of his fevered mind. There might not be a connection between those Chinese spies and the chalk marks on the windowsills, but that’s not a risk this guy can take – and those godforsaken wolves up in the hills and their ceaseless howling aren’t doing his nerves any good, either. We don’t know what the exact nature of the narrator’s mission is – the song’s namesake wrote pulpy spy novels, so that offers some context – but the stakes are high and if he does make it home, he’s going to take a beating on the way.

I’m not going to pretend that moving to NYC was a life-or-death, high-wire espionage act – in the decision between being close to Sarah and wasting away another year alone in my hometown, it was the obvious choice. But any life change of that magnitude requires a certain deal of determination and grit, whether it’s dealing with the intense planning required or simply pulling yourself free from the quicksand of your own inertia, and in times like that, the clarion call of purpose that is “Sax Rhomer #1” is essential.

  1. Previous attempts to get Sarah into the Mountain Goats include “Genesis 30:3” (more stuff about childbirth than I would have preferred, but it’s still a beautiful love song) and “Going To Georgia” (I actually included the Tiny Desk Concert version of the song, complete with Darnielle’s diatribe about why he doesn’t like the song any more, in a misguided attempt to express the exact kind of brash, youthful love that Darnielle decries while also distancing myself from the negative implications – it’s possible that my intentions may have gotten lost somewhere along the way)
  1. One of the few “Making A Girl Cry” stories I can recount with little shame.
  1. Please forgive me.

Game Shows Touch Our Lives

The married couple at the center of Tallahassee do love each other, they just don’t know how to love each other in way that is productive or good. There are some moments of tenderness in the Alpha couple song cycle and on this album particular, they’re just hidden between the long stretches of bleak, alcoholic misery. It rarely resembles the affection between a normal married couple; usually, it’s more like the affection that grows between two people who have been living and traveling together for a long period of time, or maybe two people who share an office at a really difficult job. The way you might feel about someone you fought alongside during an unjust and mismanaged war.

But if you wipe away the accumulated dirt and soot and press your face right up against the glass, there are moments of what looks like real, genuine love. It’s hard to imagine two people who didn’t love each other sharing a moment of quiet, gin-fueled hope like the one on “Game Shows Touch Our Lives.” “Game Shows” takes place on some enchanted evening where one half of the couple is lounging on their sole piece of furniture watching old game shows while the other half is rooting around in the basement, really truly hoping to keep the day’s bender running smoothly without having to walk down to the liquor store, where all the sales clerks know them by name and it’s impossible to just perform a simple transaction without getting bogged down in small talk that has a subtle but distinct edge of judgment to it. It’s like, yes, I was in here on Tuesday, what’s it to you? I’m sorry, I thought this was a place where I could spend my money freely.

And so this particular tableau has played itself out many times before, and the evening usually dissolves into empty silence or intentional, pointed silence; but there’s something in the air tonight, and both parties reach a certain level of drunkenness, a perfect equilibrium between inebriated affection and real, true romance, where they can momentarily convince themselves that the way they live is okay. “People say friends don’t destroy one another/What do they know about friends” — that’s something only two incredibly self-deluded people could say to one another, but it sticks with us because of the clear, burning belief at the center of it. It may sound absurd, but for this couple in this moment, it’s the secret to a long life of love and happiness and they’re the first people to discover it. In that moment they could write an entire 200-page book about the way they live and market it to newly-engaged couples.

Of course, they are wrong. They’ll wake up in their typical dry-mouthed, heavy-headed state tomorrow morning – or possibly at 4:30am tonight, whenever the liquor drains out of their bloodstream – and the whole nasty day-to-day business of their doomed marriage will start up again. But they’ll cling to the moment of beauty they both experienced the night before and in the long stretches between that moment and the next moment, it’ll be all they need to keep holding on. Well, that and gin, lots and lots of gin.

Ezekiel 7 And The Permanent Efficacy Of Grace

The title of this song alone proposes a theological paradox that is difficult to even grasp. Efficacious grace is a concept most closely associated with Calvinism, the long-time reigning contender for most aggressively unlikeable strain of mainstream Christian thought. To put it in grossly oversimplified terms, Calvinists believe that salvation is only attainable by those whom God has already chosen to save. Because of original sin¹, every human being is born into a state of total depravity that renders them unable to love and serve God – except, that is, for the people that God elects to save out of his own mercy. These people are so wholly redeemed that they can never truly fall out of God’s favor, no matter what they do.

If it sounds like a decidedly pessimistic view of salvation, then I should reiterate that I’m working from a  limited understanding of these ideas – I’m certainly no Calvinist scholar.2 But it certainly raises all sorts of obvious questions, even for a layman like myself: is there room for free will within this conception of the divine? And how does the knowledge of predestination affect those of us living on earth?

These are the sort of questions that Darnielle is grappling with in “Ezekiel 7 And The Permanent Efficacy Of Grace,” which, to be blunt, is about someone being tortured to death. The song follows the torturer as he leaves the scene of the crime (dropping the chilling lie, “someone will need to mop this floor for me”), walks to his car in a daze (“like a cathedral in a dream of the future”), gets as high as he possibly can and still operate a motor vehicle, and drives out into the desert, trying to outrun the awful act he’s committed, uncertain of where he’s headed.

Out of all the songs on The Life Of The World To Come, “Ezekiel” has the most interesting and loaded relationship to its title. In light of Darnielle’s reference to efficacious grace, we must consider whether such a concept applies to a man like the narrator of this song, who has done unspeakable things to his fellow man for purely selfish reasons. Of course, if we believe that this man is one of God’s elected, then the answer is a simple yes – regardless of what he does, he will eventually be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.

But then, there’s the other half of that title: Ezekiel 7, a long chapter where God promises to pour out his wrath on the people of Israel and deliver disaster after disaster upon them. “I will not look on you with pity or spare you, I will punish you for your ways and for your detestable practices.” The contrast between the Calvinist deity and the God of Ezekiel is extreme, for somewhat obvious reasons — Ezekiel is a book in the Hebrew Scriptures where as Calvinism is tied directly to the concepts of the New Testament — but I have to believe that Darnielle had more in mind than illuminating the clear differences between the gods of two interconnected but still unique faiths.

It seems that, by referencing Ezekiel 7, Darnielle invites us to consider the other side of efficacious grace; namely, if you are not one of the saints that God has chosen to preserve, and there’s no hope of salvation – what’s the point of trying? Judging from the heavy drug use and the brief, pained recollections of what he’s done, the narrator of this song seems at least somewhat troubled by his conscience – but if we suppose that he’s done this before, then he’s not troubled enough to consider changing. And if he truly was born into total depravity with no hope for anything beyond this life except the cold embrace of the death or worse – who can blame him?3


  1. Original sin, by the way, is one of those fun bits of widely-accepted Christian doctrine that is not explicitly outlined in the Bible. Like many such bits, most of the justification for it comes from the writings of Paul, and like many things that Paul advocated for, it has probably done more harm than good.
  2. Oh, man, can you imagine? Eugh. I mean, just… eugh, you know?
  3. If I haven’t made it clear, I find Calvinism highly objectionable for a lot of reasons I won’t go into here, some of which delve into broader concerns about religion in general but most of which concern my belief that a deity who would off-handedly consign a large percentage of the population to eternal damnation doesn’t sound all that holy to me.

Only Existing Footage

Not technically a song by the Mountain Goats, “Only Existing Footage” is a standout track from Undercard, John Darnielle’s second album-length collaboration with Franklin Bruno of Nothing Painted Blue. Their first album, Martial Arts Weekend, was released just before Tallahassee, and basically served as a novel but lightweight answer to a question that would soon be irrelevant: what would the Mountain Goats sound like if they recorded songs the way a real band does?

This is not meant to downplay Franklin Bruno’s musical contributions to The Extra Lens, which are much easier to appreciate on Undercard, if only because the novelty has faded off. By the time Undercard was released in 2010, the Mountain Goats had coalesced into the rock-solid three-piece we know and love today, but they had yet to branch out into the (comparatively) lush musical compositions of Transcendental Youth and Beat The Champ. It seems possible that working with the multi-instrumentalist Bruno may have inspired Darnielle to expand the musical horizons of his own band.

But as with any Darnielle-adjacent project, the lyrics are what stick with you – and as with any review of any Darnielle-adjacent project, it is my duty to repeat that sentiment to you, more or less verbatim. Anyway, the dude can write a damn good song, I don’t think that’s in question.

“Only Existing Footage” dispassionately documents a few days in the life of a film-industry professional as the movie he’s working on begins to circle the drain. It starts with a few minor electrical glitches that throw the shoot off-schedule, leading to hastily-shot footage, most of which disappears on the flight back home. The details of life on-and-off set are fully realize, but it’s really a song about the way that any massive undertaking can fall apart piece-by-piece.

As his film dies a death of a thousand tiny injuries, our narrator (the director? the producer?) drinks away his troubles and ruminates about the oncoming storm. From the way he coolly surveys the mounting production troubles, it seems like he’s accustomed to living in the suspended moment immediately before disaster hits, when the rocks crumbling underfoot before the avalanche and it becomes clear that disaster can only be forestalled for so long.

Filming anything is an act of defiance against the ravages of time, so when the narrator feels oblivion nipping at his heels, he’s not just being dramatic about a disastrous film shoot. Even if he only took this gig for the money, he believes in what he’s doing and he feels this failure in the core of his being; he’s the kind of person who puts too much of himself into his work not to suffer when it doesn’t live up to his expectations. He’s the kind of person who probably doesn’t have any hobbies.

It’s unclear just how big of a project this is – the film has backers and is notable enough to warrant some press attention, but the endless list of tiny failures seem to come from straight from a B-movie set, the kind where you can’t afford to higher a decent script supervisor or purchase insurance for your footage. But in the end, the exact size of the shit-heap that’s about to come crashing down on the narrator’s head isn’t important; he’s going to get buried either way.