When critics want to take their approbation to the next level, they’ll refer to a songwriter’s work as “novelistic,” or compare an album of loosely related songs to a collection of short stories, but a song like “Source Decay” does things that no piece of prose could. Outside of the most avant-garde flash-fiction, a short story could never get away with the amount of detail that Darnielle withholds here: all we get is a description of the main character’s bi-weekly ritual on an afternoon where things go slightly worse than usual. We know someone is sending him mail to a post-office box two hours from his house, but we don’t know who is sending him these post-cards or what their history is; the narrator calls the sender his “old best friend,” but considering that the two of them are now engaged in an elaborate game of one-sided emotional torture, that’s still leaving a pretty big gap.
But the missing pieces of the story aren’t much of a distraction when the narrator drops a line like, “I park in my front yard/I fall out of the car like a hostage from a plane,” or admits that the “bitter smile” that crosses his face following an emotional revelation is “not a pretty thing to see;” and then there’s the almost-but-not-quite-title-drop, “I wish the west Texas highway was a Möbius strip/I could ride it out forever.” Maybe it would be possible for a piece of short fiction to tell us this little and still function as a satisfying story, but I don’t think it could capture the elusive, heart-breaking quality of the narrative in this song.
That narrative, opaque as it is, is also complicated by the song’s place as the penultimate track of All Hail West Texas, which the album cover refers to as “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys” – which basically means it’s a concept album in the same way as a lot of the early Mountain Goats albums, telling a series of loosely-related stories and character sketches which are only held together by a shared location. I’ve always thought it was more or less impossible to discern anything resembling a clear plotline from most of those albums, but the specificity of All Hail’s tagline makes such narrative cohesion seem almost attainable, enticing you to unravel its mysteries.
But that’s probably a waste of time and definitely not the point – if Darnielle wanted to tell us a straightforward story with a beginning, middle and ending, he would have written a book. In fact, he did! It’s called Wolf In White Van and it’s very good. But this isn’t that. This is All Hail West Texas, and like most Mountain Goats albums, the subtitle could just as easily be “Songs About People In A Tough Place Who Are Doing Their Best, Or At The Very Least Are Following The Dictates Of Their Heart In A Way That Makes Sense In The Moment.”
Quite frankly, trying to narrow that down to “who, what and where” is a waste of time.¹
1. Okay, so, the way I see it, there’s Jeff and Cyrus from “Best Ever Death Metal Band,”, that one’s a given, then there’s William Standaforth Donahue, former star running back for an unnamed high school football team. Then there’s Jenny, from “Jenny,” which also gives us the definite location of at least one house and the origin of the bike – although I have heard some people theorize that William’s “Japanese bike” from track two is the same vehicle that Jenny and the narrator are riding here, but I have my doubts about that – Jenny’s Kawasaki is “fresh out of the showroom,” after all. There is always the chance that “Jenny” takes place before “Fall Of The High School Running Back,” but that complicates our understanding of the narrative in a way that precludes further discussion.
There’s at least one doomed pair of lovers knocking around the middle of the album (not quite as nasty as the Alpha Couple, but nearly as drunk), and given how much time they spend traveling from place to place, it seems possible that Jenny and her well-documented wanderlust might make up half of that duo. But that’s a lot of misery for one couple to take, so maybe Darnielle showed a little mercy and spread it out among four people.
Then there’s the poorly-informed guy feeding mashed-up bananas to a baby in “Pink & Blue” – Darnielle himself has pointed out that this is not the proper way to feed a nine-day-old infant – and if we count the baby as one of the seven, that brings us up to a full cast. Also, the narrator and the baby are presumably living inside, so that might get us our second house, unless this is the same “ranch-style house” from earlier, but boy, it makes me sad to think that Jenny and her dude might have had a baby before she up and vanished on him.
We can track Cyrus and William through to “Color In Your Cheeks,” possibly over to “Balance” and maybe, God help us, “Pink and Blue” – then Jenny and her beau roll around through “Fault Lines” and on to “The Mess Inside,” but I’d like to posit that it’s actually Jeff struggling with his defective heart on “Riches And Wonders,” since he seems like the kind of maladjusted teen that would grow up to be a functional but fundamentally maladjusted adult—speaking of which, I’d wager that it’s either Cyrus or William drifting around Texas in between jail stints on “Jeff Davis County Blues”, since they both got totally reamed by the system and more than likely ended up living that sort of unmoored existence. And after spending all that time on “Blues in Dallas” I don’t even want to think about which one of these pour seven souls ended up carrying around that smoldering bitterness.
Finally, “Source Decay”: from the use of the phrase “old best friend,” it’s easy at first glance to pin this one on Cyrus and Jeff, but the timeline doesn’t really add up – when in 1983 did those two metal-head teenagers spend any sort of time in Bangkok? So, maybe it’s Jenny whose hopping around the world with no discernible pattern at all, while her estranged lover sorts through the wreckage of their old life. I prefer this explanation, since it clears the stage for the much more optimistic “Absolute Lithops Effect,” which hopefully shows Cyrus (or William, or hell, even Jeff) taking the first steps towards the sort of life that will bring him peace and contentment.