A testament to the power of a Mountain Goats live show: a song like this, which might play as a mildly amusing joke on paper becomes an almost spiritual celebration of life. The first time I ever heard this was at the Philadelphia show in April of last year, and I don’t know that I would have given this song much thought if I’d first encountered it on a record, but the energy that Darnielle puts into his live shows is something akin to a preacher at a big-tent revival, so it’s wholly appropriate that people clapped and cheered at the end of every verse of “Jam Eater Blues” like it was a call to worship.¹
I hesitate to call it the most life-affirming song that the Mountain Goats have ever recorded, though the temptation is there. But most of the music in the Mountain Goats catalogue is life-affirming, just not in the way our culture typically defines it. We usually apply the “life-affirming” label to a piece of art that celebrates the beauty of life or illustrates a redemptive arc of some sort, and much of Darnielle’s writing is lacking in the easily-quantifiable elements that would make for a good Best Picture Nominee or a selection for Oprah’s Book Club. No, the Mountain Goats are life-affirming in the most technical sense. Even their bleakest music often reminds us that yes, life can go on, not in the way you expected or wanted or even in a way you particularly like, but you can continue living if you are willing to adapt to your situation.
“Jam Eater Blues” is a little simpler than that. There are only the barest hints of darkness in the narrator’s life (“Life is too short to wait around/For you to come home tonight”), but his unabashed enthusiasm outshines them. It helps that we’re meeting this character at a point where he’s already made the decision to turn his life around, a decision at least in part inspired by a particularly delicious jar of jam.
In the context of Darnielle’s other work, it’s not hard to hear “Jam Eater Blues” as a joyous celebration of life’s smallest pleasures and the way those pleasures take on added significance when just living a mundane, average life is an accomplishment in itself. The phrase “life if too short” is so overused that it usually doesn’t even register as an actual thought to me², but when you’ve gone through the sort of pain that Darnielle’s characters endure and come out the other side, it’s not surprising that you might develop a deep, abiding love of fruit preserves. More proof that the Mountain Goats are the greatest band of all time: even their goofy songs about food have the power to change your life.
Oh, except the one about the peanuts. That one’s definitely just a joke.
1. Plus, he changed the lyrics in the final verse to include a reference to Newbridge, the fictional New Jersey town co-created by Mountain Goats drummer Jon Wurster, and it was very endearing — particularly because Wurster was not even on stage at the time.
2. I’m far from the first person to notice this, but the ‘1001 Before You Die’ series is a great example of needlessly elevating a curated list with the threat of mortality.