When this song came up on the randomizer this morning, I thought, “This is a cover, right? I probably shouldn’t do this one,” so I hit ‘next,’ only to find that the second song was also a cover, and when I hit ‘next’ a third time, I got “This Year,” and I was in no way emotionally prepared to write about “This Year.” So, here we are.
The obvious first step was to listen to the original version of “I Still Feel The Bruise”, as performed by Trembling Blue Stars, a British group that I have never heard of because I’ve been listening to the same five bands since I was in college. I expected that the original version would vary greatly from the cover; after all, Babylon Springs, the EP on which the Mountain Goats version of “Bruise” appears, was released between The Sunset Tree and Get Lonely, when Darnielle and co. were still working to develop the sound of the full-band Mountain Goats.¹ To put it plainly, I thought that Darnielle had taken an alt-rock tune and run it through some sort of Generic Mountain Goats Filter.
In fact, the two versions are very similar, from the low-key arrangement to the melancholic tone. The Mountain Goats version makes two notable changes: it replaces the drum machine of the original track with a live drummer and removes the synthesizer to make more room for the organ that runs under the whole song. While these changes do nudge the song away from british synth-pop and towards the realm of country-western², neither does anything to damage the quiet yearning of the original, which remains intact even though Darnielle’s voice has a piercing, direct quality that doesn’t quite match up with the dreamy murmur of Robert Wratten, singer on the original track and chief creative force of Trembling Blue Stars.³
Wratten’s lyrical style isn’t much like Darnielle’s—he’s a bit closer to the traditional heart-on-sleeve singer/songwriter type—but it’s not hard to see what drew Darnielle to this song. It’s a delicate piece of writing that clearly expresses an emotion that could sound spiteful and angry (perhaps even: bitter?) in another person’s hands. It’s a simple idea: the singer is in love with someone who doesn’t love him and probably never loved him, and he wishes he could see them again. It’s the sort of thing that sounds simple and clichéd on paper but in real life can contain a multitude of emotions so tangled that they remain indecipherable even to the person who is feeling them.
So, it’s impressive that Wratten was able to not only capture those feelings clearly, but to communicate them in a manner that is non-aggressive and highly reasonable but still deeply sad. The singer in this song is a wounded man, reaching out tentatively for comfort that he knows he’ll never get, but he’s so very polite about it, and that just makes it more painful. He might not reach the depths of self-loathing as the characters in “How To Embrace A Swamp Creature” or “New Monster Avenue,” but he’s still alienated, broken and painfully aware of his own flaws. In other words, he’s right at home on a Mountain Goats record.
1. A full two years before Jon Wurster joined the group! Were we ever so young?
2. By the way, the second cover that came up on the randomizer was the version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” from Taboo VI, and nothing I could write would be as entertaining as the story of how that song was recorded.
3. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Wratten is british, which explains some of the lines (“How I would hate to be a bother/The way we left it was you’d ring”) that sound a bit odd coming out of Darnielle’s mouth.