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.