Music

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.

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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.

No, I Can’t

I originally wrote this one off as another goofy lo-fi song, not nearly as irritating as “Solomon Revisited” but still lacking the emotional impact of everything post-Coroner’s Gambit. But then I said to myself, I said, “Jason, you are fully two-thirds of the way through this month-long project, shouldn’t you have learned by now to give the early stuff a fair shake?”1 And I don’t usually talk to myself2, but I said, “You know, you’ve got a point, let’s give this one another shot.”

Two things jumped out at me right away. For one, this song is damn near a genuine ear-worm, particularly when you compare it to some of the other early stuff. The melody of the chorus is simple, but it contrasts nicely with the repetitive, barely-sung verses, and it dips into a dark groove that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on an alternative rock station.

Second, as much as I prefer the emotionally-destructive Mountain Goats songs to the “joke songs”, this one is actually pretty funny  — for the first two verses, anyway, when the narrator is matter-of-factly thanking his friend for bringing him gifts, which range from “candy” and “some flowers” to a very practical and useful filing cabinet, to the enormous responsibility of caring for a puppy – a responsibility that, quite frankly, I’m not sure the recipient is ready to handle.

The first time through this song, I overlooked the darker undercurrent of the seemingly-goofy verses, but it’s pretty obvious that this guy is not in a good way. The fact that the narrator can’t get these things on his own, that needs someone to come by and make deliveries, does not paint a pretty picture. In the third verse, his benefactor even brings him a coat, which he apparently did not own, despite the fact that the house he’s held up is freezing cold.

Yes, the narrator of “No, I Cant” belongs to the proud lineage of Mountain Goats characters who have barred themselves off from the outside world, whether physically or mentally3. Presumably, the ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’-esque declaration in the title is in response to the question of “Can you come outside for a bit,” or “Could you make a moment to see some of your old friends,” or “Is there any way you could organize your thoughts into a coherent form long enough to figure out just why you still haven’t left your house?”

… and there’s more! This song was actually re-recorded in a “high-fi” version for the Songs For Peter Hughes EP, with longtime JD collaborator Rachel Ware on bass and backing vocals. The later version alters some of the lyrics – adding a reference to the same brand of Panasonic boom box that Darnielle recorded most of his songs on – but most importantly, kicks up the energy of the song with a fuller sound and some classic Ware harmonies on the chorus, turning it into a full-on — I’ll say it — jam.

Alright, voice in my head. You win this time.

  1. Okay, I didn’t like literally say this to myself, but if my better nature was going to give me advice in that moment, it would have been something like this.
  2. This is not, strictly speaking, true.
  3. Or both. It’s usually both.

Damn These Vampires

There was some wild shit going down in New England at the turn of the 20th century. Tuberculosis was spreading rapidly and nobody knew what to do about it. A painful, bloody airborne disease, it could strike suddenly and wipe out entire families one by one, leaving the survivors to watch the bodies of their loved ones waste away in front of them. Many of the people affected by the disease were poor an uneducated and in their fear many of them turned to folk medicine. In the search for a scapegoat, they settled on a particular bit of lore that involved the dead rising up and feeding on the living. They wouldn’t have used this word, and it’s not likely we would recognize it in the form they described, but let’s call it what it was: vampires.

It’s easy to look down on these people; hell, it’s the first reaction that I had upon hearing this story. But consider that these people were staring down an epidemic with no obvious cause and little hope of treatment, and in the face of that great, unknowable darkness, they grasped for some narrative that would make sense of their lives. We all do that, in ways both small and large, and it’s not always a bad thing. However, this particular narrative led them down a pretty gruesome road.

In 1892, George Brown lost his daughter, Mercy Lena, to tuberculosis, almost ten years after the disease took his wife and his eldest daughter. George was surely heartbroken, but he had little time to mourn; his son, Edwin, had succumbed to the illness, too, and he was fading fast. That’s when other citizens of Exeter, Rhode Island, came to George and told him a story. They told him that one of the three women he had buried had survived past death, and that they were feeding on the blood of his son. They told him the only way to save his son was to find the body of this undead creature, burn her heart, and feed it to his son.

It’s hard to say if George was driven to it by the social pressure from his neighbors or if, in a haze of grief and panic, he truly believed their explanation. But in the end, George bought in. He permitted the neighbors to exhume the corpses of his wife and two daughters. The men who dug up Mercy’s mother and sister found only a few scant remains — they had been dead for a decade, after all. But Mercy Brown, who had been dead barely two months, and who had been laid to rest in an above-ground crypt during the harshest months of winter, was still intact. When the Brown’s family doctor removed Mercy’s organs, he even found clotted and decomposed blood still resting in her heart. Despite the doctor’s warnings that the very disease that had killed Mercy was still present in her lungs, the townspeople burned Mercy’s heart and liver, mixed the ashes with water and administered the tonic to Edwin. He died two months later.

It’s an ugly story: people acting out of blind fear, succumbing to mob mentality, and clinging to the fantastic in a way that almost borders on hysterical blindness. Removed from the bleak reality these people faced, it seems absurd. But people were dying. The disease was real. And the people in this underdeveloped Rhode Island farming community had neither the resources nor the means to understand what was happening to them. Wouldn’t you believe in vampires if somebody could show you what they had done? If they could yank down the collar of their shirt and show you the bite marks? If you were that desperate for something to blame, wouldn’t it feel like almost a blessing?