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Sometimes I Still Feel The Bruise

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.

Going To Bogotá

The songs in the “Going To…” series are all about more or less the same thing: the dubious belief that you can up and leave the place you’re currently in and settle in a new location where everything will be different and all of your past problems will be forgotten. Or, as JD has called it on multiple occasions, “pulling a geographical.”1 Essentially, moving to a new physical location without addressing any of the inner dysfunctions that are actually causing your unhappiness. You probably have one friend who has done it, most likely someone who has also had a really bad acid trip. The Alpha Couple does it in Tallahassee, to predictably self-destructive results. Rebecca Bunch did it in the series premiere of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Mondays at 8pm/7pm central on the CW, and now all of the American viewing public is better for it.2

Sometimes it’s clear what the people in these songs are running from (or what they think they’re running towards), but in the case of “Going To Bogotá,”3 things are a little more vague. There has been some shift in the air, maybe as mundane as a changing of the seasons, and it has stirred up a sudden revelation in the narrator (“I know what I want/And I know what we need.”) He and his companion have fled to the capitol of Columbia, where they appear to be sleeping in tent, and given the deteriorated state of the tent, one would guess they’ve been staying there for quite some time. It’s not clear how much time passes between the first and second verse, but it’s long enough that whatever faint hope in the future drove them to Bogotá has all but withered away.

The first verse is very focused on sensory details: the color and physical texture of the local fruits, the vibrant colors of the tropical climate and the colorful animals that live there. It all seems to be leading up to a glowing portrayal of Colombia, until the narrator hears a parrot singing, takes a moment to consider it, and comes to the decision that this bird is evil and that he must be stopped at any cost.4

After that, it’s no surprise that things go south5 in the second verse, but the end result of this ill-fated journey is especially pathetic, even for one of these songs. Many entries in the “Going To…” series involve a violent confrontation between two personalities, or at least a simmering dissatisfaction that threatens to boil over any second.6 But for the couple in “Bogotá,” the end comes slowly. The narrator doesn’t completely realize it’s coming until he watches a fateful sun rise in Columbia, but from the apathetic way he regards his companion in the second verse (“And if I knew how to form the words/I would ask what you’d come for”) makes it clear that he’s already lost interest in them.

It is one thing to leap into a grand gesture and have it fail spectacularly; it is another thing entirely for that gesture to pan out about as well as one could expect, only to leave you with the slow, draining realization that it was pointless from the start and fundamentally empty.

1. I know JDa did not invent this term, but I first heard it through him. I’ve also heard it referred to simply as a “pulling a geographic,” which doesn’t have quite the same pleasing shape, but is a full two-letters shorter. You’ve got to respect that razor-thin dedication to brevity.

After enduring “Solomon Revisited,” I feel pretty comfortable referring to Darnielle as ‘JD’ from here on out.

2. This is not a joke, you should watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

3. The randomizer strikes again. After yesterday, I spent some time ruminating about eliminating the ‘random’ aspect of this project, and whether or not that would lead to an increase or decrease in the quality of the writing. I’ll spare you the full extent of my mental back-and-forth; just know I have decided to continue along the path I first set for myself, but that I still reserve the right to turn off ‘shuffle’ if I start to actively dread writing these.

4. “His little song/Is a very pretty song/But it’s something I won’t stand for” is a classic example of a character in a Mountain Goats song wildly mis-directing his emotions. These run the scale from Absurd & Funny to Horrible & Sad. This one lands more on the former side, but it’s in sight of the latter.

5. Ha!

6. It is perhaps worth mentioning here that the “Going To…” songs aren’t connected in any real way except that they existed as a means for JD to make fun of people he knew who had poor conflict-resolution skills. It’s also worth mentioning that their supposed central thesis—going to a different place to fix your problems will never work—is not even always apparent. The couple in “Going To Port Washington” sounds like they’re doing pretty well, all things considered — and whatever’s happening in “Going To Queens,” it doesn’t sound like a guy running away from his problems.

 

 

Solomon Revisited

Clearly, this entire project has been a huge mistake.

I know I usually throw in a link to the day’s song at the end of my post, but today I’m going to put it right up here, so please: listen all the way through, and imagine the disappointment I felt when this came up on my iTunes this morning.

What am I supposed do with that, huh?

Like, I know that I said I wanted the randomizer to serve me up some early stuff so that I could develop a better appreciation for it, but I am an idiot and I sometimes say things that are completely wrong. I also said that I would stop doing random songs if I got several in a row off of Taboo VI: The Homecoming, and clearly my limit was actually much lower than that.

One. It was one song.

Can you imagine a version of this write-up that doesn’t sound ridiculous? I love the Mountain Goats, but if I really sit here and try to dredge up some great, universal truth out of “Solomon Revisited,” I’ll be doing a disservice to myself and to you. I’d also be doing a disservice to John Darnielle by over-analyzing what was clearly meant to be a dumb joke song, but I don’t really care about his feelings right now because I’m so mad at this song for making me write about it.

But, y’know, we’re already here, right? I might as well take a swing at it. So: what is “Solomon Revisited?”

Simply put, it is the story of a young man who has a radio. His radio is a source of endless fascination and amusement. If you come to see him, it doesn’t matter what sort of outside stimuli you offer, be photographs, conversation or the pleasures of the flesh; he will always return to his radio. Is it a newly purchased radio? Does it hold some sort of special significance, or is it celebrated simply for operating appropriately ? Does he prefer the AM or FM stations? Does he even turn it on, or is the functionality secondary to his aesthetic appreciation of the radio? We do not know, we simply do not.

Even this early in his career, Darnielle knew the power of withholding information. No answer he could have provided would be as satisfying as the mystery at the core of this song: who is this young man, and what is his deal with this radio?

Perhaps the answer lies in the song’s title. At first glance, it seems like an oblique, almost esoteric reference to the Biblical figure of Solomon. Solomon, a just and great but ultimately fallible king, was well-known for his wisdom and judgment. He is traditionally considered the author of several Biblical books, including Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. Could it be that

 

 

Okay, I’ll level with you: I was mostly free-styling that last bit, and only as I was writing it did it dawn on me that the title of this song might be an incredibly dumb joke about the “song” of Solomon, which is admittedly unlikely but the mere possibility of it has made me so mad that I don’t want to write anymore tonight.

All Up The Seething Coast

“All Up The Seething Coast” is the empty-hearted black-hole center of We Shall All Be Healed, which is really saying something for an album about meth addiction. Darnielle never shies away from the realities of drug abuse, but the other songs on the album imbue the suffering of these characters with some sort of greater meaning, if not for all of mankind then at least for the characters themselves. The tweakers in “Qutio” and “Mole” still have dreams of better times, even if those dreams are just an empty lie. The guy in “Against Pollution” finds something life-affirming in a fatal act of self-defense, even if the weight of it is slowly crushing him. The narrator in “Home Again Garden Grove” makes scoring a fix sound like a last-ditch run behind enemy lines, one last bit of romantic flourish before he gets locked away.

Well, the narrator in “All Up The Seething Coast” has reached the point where the pretty varnish has rubbed off and all that’s left is the bleak, physical reality of addiction. To match this state of mind, Darnielle strips his writing style down to the bare bones; there’s none of the poetic language or grandiose lyricism that he normally deploys to balance out more mundane details, just the sad, daily routine of a person who has disappeared so far into their own need that they’ve ceased to exist on anything but the surface level.

He starts his day eating candy bars and drinking coffee full of milk and sugar, because that’s what his new appetites dictate and he doesn’t particularly care what his diet does to his body. His dinners are arranged by someone else (a nurse?  the staff at a halfway house?), and he just goes along with it, probably because any meal-prep beyond putting $1.25 into a vending machine is either beyond the limits of his ability or outside the realm of his interest. And it doesn’t really matter, because whatever they serve for dinner, he’ll just cover it with sugar, anyway. He’s obsessive enough that spends his days clipping pictures out of magazine at random and sticking them on his wall, but his thoughts are so unfocused has to write things down on his hands and arms or he’ll forget to do them. In only a few lines, we get a clear picture of a human life cut off from any of the things that make life worth living.

If the words themselves weren’t enough to get the point across, Darnielle doesn’t even sing the verses, choosing instead to recite them in the same detached, uncaring way that the narrator approaches his life, only breaking into a weak, half-sung melody when he reaches the chorus, where he drops the money-line:

And nothing you can say or do will stop me

And a thousand dead friends can’t stop me

And Jesus, what can you even say to that?

I don’t want to ascribe too much motive to this character, since We Shall All Be Healed is a largely autobiographical album, and this song in particular strikes me as self-lacerating enough to be based on Darnielle’s own personal experience as opposed to that of his friends. But what’s most remarkable here is the narrator’s’s awareness of his own insatiable addiction. He might not have actually decided, might not have actually sat himself down, weighed the options and made the decision that getting high was the most important thing in his life, that the only thing that could make him stop getting high is his own death – but he knows it’s true.

He reiterates in the second chorus, “The best you’ve got is powerless against me/And all your little schemes will break when they come crashing up against me,” and he tosses off, almost as an aside, “Anybody asks, you tell ‘em what you want to tell ‘em.” This is a man who cannot be reached by anyone, no matter what language of love, healing or just plain survival they speak.

“It’s a bad place I’m in” — yeah, no kidding.

Tahitian Ambrosia Maker

So, it turns out that the Mountain Goats made music before 2002. Huh! Who would’ve guessed? I mean, I had a feeling that something was going on whenever Peter and Jon would walk offstage halfway through a concert and John would step forward with his guitar, and the gathered masses would begin shouting out what seemed like a random collection of words. “Orange Ball of Hate?” “Going to Queens?” “Family Happiness?” Madness! Surely, these were the ravings of a crowd driven to hysterics by the presence of their prophet. There could be no meaning in such words!

Look, so, the embarrassing truth is that I’m just not that into the lo-fi stuff. My encyclopedic knowledge of the Mountain Goats stretches only as far back as All Hail West Texas ; everything before that is just a daunting, tangled mess in my mind, blanketed in a thick coat of tape-recording sounds. The old EPs, the cassette-only releases, even the proper albums – it’s lot to keep straight, and oh, by the way, most of it sounds like it was recorded onto a cheap boom box, which it was.

And for what it’s worth, I don’t think the songwriting is always that good. Is that alright to say? I know there are people that love this stuff – in fact, I’ve heard that some people prefer it, which is baffling to me. I’m no stranger to nostalgia, and I can only imagine how strong your bond to a musician would feel if you discovered their work when they were releasing mail-order cassette tapes through no-name California indie labels. But do you really want to throw Hot Garden Stomp up against anything from Beat The Champ? Huh? Is that you what you want to do, imaginary person?

I’m stalling. But only because I have no idea what to say about “Tahitian Ambrosia Maker” off of the Sweden album. Several sources tell me that Sweden is a “song cycle,” but like a lot of Darnielle’s early output, it sounds to me like a bunch of songs about an unhappy couple that are basically just first drafts for Tallahassee – and yes, I know that a lot of those songs are literally about the couple from Tallahassee, I’m just making a point.

Maybe I just don’t get it. Could that be what it is? I know Darnielle wrote a lot of songs back then that were basically just a delivery system for a punch line – or as humans call them, “jokes.” This song appears to be about two people lying around in a tropical climate–possibly hung-over, though that might just be me viewing them through the prism of the Alpha Couple—when one of them produces a half-loaf of bread and the other experiences a moment of intense spiritual re-awakening. Boy, when I write it out like that, it actually sounds pretty funny. I mean, it’s no “Golden Boy,” but it’s alright.

Part of the problem here is that I learned to love the Mountain Goats through the post-Tallahassee albums, so the lyrical style of the early stuff, coupled the sonic sameness of the lo-fi recording process–it’s just not a language that I understand. While there is a lazy part of me that hopes I’ll get nothing but studio tracks on the randomizer from hereon out, I do want more opportunities to think and write about the boom box era. If so many people love it—and if it was written by the same guy who wrote “The Ballad of Bull Ramos”—it’s got to be at least pretty great.

Also: I just had an awful vision of myself looking back on this entry thirty days from now and being so embarrassed that I delete it, so embarrassed that I delete this whole website, salt the earth and put up a Google.com re-direct where my front page used to be.