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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.