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.
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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?

Satanic Messiah

like an animal escaping from his cage

1. So, Donald Trump, right?

Listening to it now, it’s hard for me to think about this song in any other context than the 2016 presidential election. This is unfortunate for a few reasons, the most obvious being that linking the idea of a messiah to any political figure is a terrible idea that can only lead to bad things, regardless of whether your associations with this figure are positive or negative. Another reason: I would much rather spend my time mulling over the concept of a literal Antichrist stepping forth from out of Hell and bringing about the seven-seals-blood-of-the-lamb apocalypse than thinking about something as small and ugly as the American electoral process. And finally, there is the fact that JD himself once took to the boards to dispel the false (but somewhat reasonable, given the timeframe in which the song was released and the color of the posters in the song’s narrative) notion that the figure in the song was meant to be Barack Obama.

I’m not even entirely comfortable with writing about Donald Trump, since he’s probably the most written-about person on the internet right now. But it would be dishonest to pretend that his rise to prominence hasn’t caused me a good deal of fear and despair, and besides — some of that writing is really spectacular. This article by Kaleb Horton is probably the best I’ve read, since it acknowledges the sad truth that a huge swath of Americans have been waiting for someone like Trump for a long time, and there’s not anything we can do to dissuade them from supporting him.

This, more than anything, is why “Satanic Messiah” brings to mind the political ascendance of Donald Trump. It’s not just the narrator’s chilling description of the devoted hordes gathered at the rally or the feverish support of the congregation swarming around this new public figure: it’s the idea that a single man could step forth and speak for millions of unheard people, lifting their spirits with the promise that he will lead them into a new, perfect existence — and that this could be the most evil thing in the world.

hoping i’d run into you

2. For the longest time, I didn’t care about the titular character of this song; all I could focus on was the person that the narrator is looking for. The way he describes them, it doesn’t seem like a lover or an old friend or anyone he’s known for a long time. At least to me, it sounds like someone he’s got a crush on, someone who probably doesn’t even know the way he feels about them. Why else would he be wandering around this gathering, just wishing he would bump into the object of his affection, rather than getting in touch with them directly?

Yes, it’s possible that the situation in this narrative has already progressed to the point where the messiah’s followers are no longer in touch with people outside of their movement, but I prefer to believe that the narrator in this song just had the rotten luck of falling for someone just before they were taken under the sway of a nefarious leader. It makes it sad in a tinier, more human way, that the beginning of a sweet, normal relationship could be cut short by the end of the world as we know it.

he whom the prophet spoke of long ago has come

3. “Well, I think the song is about perspective. From the perspective of someone who’s been waiting for a long time for the antichrist’s arrival, with trepidation and glee, it’d be a joyous event, just as the second coming of Jesus would be for a Christian.” – comment by YouTube user Hakudohshi on the audio upload of “Satanic Messiah”

Jam Eater Blues

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.

Enoch 18:14

“Enoch 18:14” falls within the very slim category of Mountain Goats songs inspired by video games¹. The refrain is lifted directly from a semi-obscure PlayStation 2 game called ‘Odin Sphere’, but the context of this quote (and the plot of the game itself) is a convoluted mess that has nothing to do with the song itself. In fact, despite its status as an apocryphal song from The Life Of The World To Come, “Enoch” feels more of a piece with Transcendental Youth, the band’s masterful exploration of sickness and isolation.

I saw some old friends as I came to the city gate
They asked me where I’d been of late
I hadn’t been anywhere, but what was I going to say
Two hopeful people, looking at me that way

I’m thinking specifically of “In The Shadow Of The Western Hills“, another song that didn’t quite make the album it was written for. The protagonist in that song–like most of the characters on Transcendental Youth–is doing his best to cope with an uncooperative mind. We find him at the end of his rope, desperately trying to hold himself together while looking for a way to re-enter his old life. He’s recently been hospitalized, following some sort of episode so intense that when he calls a friend and tries to apologize for something he’s done or to at least just explain himself, he’s so thoroughly alienated her that she hangs up on him mid-sentence.

The narrator in “Enoch” isn’t explicitly dealing with mental illness, but he’s carrying around some sort of heavy load. In the world of the song, it manifests as a ‘curse’, but it’s not hard to draw a line from that to any range of personal traumas. Like the guy from “Western Hills”, he’s standing at the edges of the life he used to know, but where that character was pounding on doors and being refused entry, this character is greeted by a couple of smiling old friends who want nothing more than to welcome him back into their joyous company.

But he hesitates.

We stood in the sunlight, and they asked me where I’d been
Held the gate open, and told me to come on in
I saw the damp green grass, so nice on the other side
Couldn’t explain myself to them, but I tried

It’s not a ground-breaking proclamation to say that you can never really know another person. It isn’t exactly a comforting notion, but the simple fact is that you cannot crawl inside a person’s brain and feel the same sensations they feel. This is not always a bad thing — the raw, unfiltered contents of a person’s mind don’t typically represent who they  actually are as a person. But there are times when you need to cross that barrier, which is easier said than done.

The narrator in this song is suffering under the weight of something that he knows his friends have never experienced. It’s so deep within him and so closely bound to his sense of self that he couldn’t possibly communicate the reality of it, even to the people who love him. The acceptance they offer makes him think for a moment that maybe he could explain his curse to them, and maybe it would offer some relief, but in the end, he knows it’s no use.²

The ground was dry but giving, the sky was nearly black
Saw some old friends when I looked back
Remember my old home, haven’t forgotten yet
What happens on the day when I forget?

The narrator in “Enoch” ends the song with one last look back towards the safety and comfort he’s giving up. Before turning away, he briefly wonders what will become of him when he’s forgotten his old home and his old friends, when even the illusion of support is gone from his life. But a more frightening question goes unasked: does he really have to do this? Is he really so damaged that he has no choice but to walk into the darkness? Or is he not allowing himself to be a part of something good because of a curse that might be self-imposed?

You and your brother
You both escaped the curse
You can’t comprehend what it’s like

1. The more famous entry in this category, “Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle,” was one of the first Mountain Goats songs I ever heard; a strange entry point, since it’s the only song in their catalogue that could have conceivably been written by Jonathan Coulton.

2. Besides, if you’re already that caught up in your own pain, the desire to share it with someone can start to feel ugly and selfish. At first you think it would be healthy, maybe that it would even be the first step on the road to healing — but after a while, it starts to feel like a manifestation of the most toxic kind of narcissism. After all, what kind of person would really want to force the fullness of their disease onto someone else, someone they love, even? And you can see how that sort of thinking can quickly send you into an even deeper spiral of self-loathing — it’s all a mess.

Alpha Double Negative: Going To Catalina

I love the Alpha Couple, I love them like they were my alcoholic best friends, two people that I’ve only ever known as a couple, who like me enough to let me drink their booze and crash on their couch when I’m visiting. I always make a point to see them when I’m in town but the idea of sticking around for more than one night makes me nervous. If I was smarter, I might have decided to spend a whole month just writing about the Alpha Couple. It would be a more cohesive project and it would be a lot easier to track any personal development along the way, but hey, there’s no use thinking about what could have been, right? It’s not like I’m operating under a totally arbitrary set of parameters that I could change any time.

I’m not alone in my love for the Alpha Couple. Even people who don’t know them by their proper name love them. If you know about the Mountain Goats, you either know “This Year” or you know “No Children,” and even if you don’t love the Mountain Goats1, you probably love “No Children,” the best darkly humorous sing-along about a hateful alcoholic couple ever recorded. And while “No Children” is arguable the climax of their story2, Darnielle tracked their downward spiral over the course of nearly a dozen songs spread out over several releases before he settled down and devoted an entire album to them on Tallahassee.

“Alpha Double Negative: Going To Catalina” takes place when the doomed lovers are still living in California. Before they try to outrun all their troubles by moving across the country, they warm up by trying to outrun all their troubles on a vacation to Catalina Island. It’s funny that this is the one place that the ‘Alpha’ series and the ‘Going to…’ series overlap, considering that the Alpha Couple live their entire lives under the belief that they can move far enough away to escape who they are, but I guess this was the first time they really gave it the old college try3. Physically speaking, that is; they’ve presumably been trying to drink themselves free of themselves for years now.

Part of me just loves the Alpha Couple for the sheer fact of their existence: a couple of recurring characters with a (somewhat) clear plot-line running through a decade’s worth of output, without all the tedious duties of continuity that plague other forms of storytelling. For the most part, each song in the “Alpha” series examines a single moment or scene from the couple’s lives—usually through an accumulation of details about their drinking habit and whatever shoddy hotel their holed up in at that point—and in doing so paints a more complete picture of their relationship than traditional narrative could. I suppose those are the benefits of a background in poetry4.

They’re perfect vehicles for Darnielle’s brand of songwriting, which so often centers on emotionally extravagant characters living at the edges of society. These two are a couple of bottom-feeders who spend their days in a perpetually heightened state of intra- and inter-personal turbulence. “Double Negative” is a quieter moment in the Grand Guignol of their relationship, but it’s still recognizably the same two characters from “No Children.”

1. And, like, what’s your deal, anyway?

2. I once heard JD describe it as “the moment when all the romance finally goes out of the alcoholic marriage.”

3. Ha!

4. It’s times like this I wonder if I have devoted my life to the wrong discipline.

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.