all hail west texas

The Mess Inside

Top 5 Travel Destinations That Won’t Save Your Dying Love

1. Provo, Utah

Sure, a weekend in Utah won’t fix what’s wrong with you — anyone can see that, the woman at the front desk of the car service could see it in your eyes when you came in at 7am to pick up the keys before setting off on this ill-advised trip — but the rolling majesty of the American West is something everyone should see, even if they are locked in a two-person death-spiral of a relationship.

2. The Bahamas

Ask anyone who’s been there: the Bahamas is a great place to fight the creeping sense of dread that you now feel whenever you’re alone in each other’s presence. You can go dancing in one of the many local dancehalls, get a drink at a beach-side bar, or throw your money away on any number of temporal things that might trigger enough endorphins to momentarily distract you from the emptiness that you now feel where there once was warmth and affection.

3. New Orleans

Listen: you’re not gonna find what you’re looking for here. The thing you’re trying to find doesn’t exist anymore. You think you’re on a rescue mission, but you can’t rescue something that’s already dead. All you’re doing now is exhuming a corpse. You’re a grave-robber. Is that what you want? And don’t kid yourself, thinking that maybe if you dig up that corpse, maybe you can determine the cause of death so that maybe next time, maybe — no, no, no. The thing you’re looking for has been so utterly devastated that you wouldn’t recognize it if you found it, and if you did, you’d be so horrified that you’d wish yourself blind or dead. Trust me, you’re better off not knowing. If you ever find what you’re looking for, I pray God will have mercy on you.

And besides, did you know you can carry an open container of alcohol on the street in New Orleans? Woo! Grab yourself a hurricane and hit the TOWN!

4. Brooklyn

Just because you’re visiting NYC doesn’t mean you have to do it like a tourist! Hop on the subway and go on an adventure to one of the outer boroughs! In fact, get on a Brooklyn-bound 2 or 3 train and ride it out to Grand Army Plaza! When you get off, you’ll be greeted with the nauseating sight of the park bench you both sat on when your love was still young, when you were so full of love you felt your heart could barely hold it! It seems like a lifetime ago, but being here again will bring it all rushing back! And even though you know what will happen –you’ve known ever since your plane broke through the clouds and that hideous brown-and-gray skyline shot out of the ocean to taunt you — walk over to the bench and sit down! Put your arms around one another and grip tight to your heart to see if you can pull out even one bit of that love you used to feel, and as the years between now and then begin to collapse in on each other, feel the warm memories of days gone by tainted by the bitter, petty reality of your day-to-day life!

5. West Texas

Ah, there’s nothing quite like coming home after a long trip. I mean, it’s nice to get away once in a while, but you knew you had to come back here eventually, right? You knew it was always leading to this, that no matter what brief glimpses of happiness you may have caught out there, you were still circling around this moment, the moment when you step through the door and the stale air of your empty home fills your lungs and everything you had tried to escape settles in around you. You could never run from the truth, and as they step in behind you and close the door, you realize that you always knew you couldn’t run from it, and out of all the lies you’ve told, this is the one that makes you feel the most pathetic.

Source Decay

When critics want to take their approbation to the next level, they’ll refer to a songwriter’s work as “novelistic,” or compare an album of loosely related songs to a collection of short stories, but a song like “Source Decay” does things that no piece of prose could. Outside of the most avant-garde flash-fiction, a short story could never get away with the amount of detail that Darnielle withholds here: all we get is a description of the main character’s bi-weekly ritual on an afternoon where things go slightly worse than usual. We know someone is sending him mail to a post-office box two hours from his house, but we don’t know who is sending him these post-cards or what their history is; the narrator calls the sender his “old best friend,” but considering that the two of them are now engaged in an elaborate game of one-sided emotional torture, that’s still leaving a pretty big gap.

But the missing pieces of the story aren’t much of a distraction when the narrator drops a line like, “I park in my front yard/I fall out of the car like a hostage from a plane,” or admits that the “bitter smile” that crosses his face following an emotional revelation is “not a pretty thing to see;” and then there’s the almost-but-not-quite-title-drop, “I wish the west Texas highway was a Möbius strip/I could ride it out forever.” Maybe it would be possible for a piece of short fiction to tell us this little and still function as a satisfying story, but I don’t think it could capture the elusive, heart-breaking quality of the narrative in this song.

That narrative, opaque as it is, is also complicated by the song’s place as the penultimate track of All Hail West Texas, which the album cover refers to as “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys” – which basically means it’s a concept album in the same way as a lot of the early Mountain Goats albums, telling a series of loosely-related stories and character sketches which are only held together by a shared location. I’ve always thought it was more or less impossible to discern anything resembling a clear plotline from most of those albums, but the specificity of All Hail’s tagline makes such narrative cohesion seem almost attainable, enticing you to unravel its mysteries.

But that’s probably a waste of time and definitely not the point – if Darnielle wanted to tell us a straightforward story with a beginning, middle and ending, he would have written a book. In fact, he did! It’s called Wolf In White Van and it’s very good. But this isn’t that. This is All Hail West Texas, and like most Mountain Goats albums, the subtitle could just as easily be “Songs About People In A Tough Place Who Are Doing Their Best, Or At The Very Least Are Following The Dictates Of Their Heart In A Way That Makes Sense In The Moment.”

Quite frankly, trying to narrow that down to “who, what and where” is a waste of time.¹

1. Okay, so, the way I see it, there’s Jeff and Cyrus from “Best Ever Death Metal Band,”, that one’s a given, then there’s William Standaforth Donahue, former star running back for an unnamed high school football team. Then there’s Jenny, from “Jenny,” which also gives us the definite location of at least one house and the origin of the bike – although I have heard some people theorize that William’s “Japanese bike” from track two is the same vehicle that Jenny and the narrator are riding here, but I have my doubts about that – Jenny’s Kawasaki is “fresh out of the showroom,” after all. There is always the chance that “Jenny” takes place before “Fall Of The High School Running Back,” but that complicates our understanding of the narrative in a way that precludes further discussion.

There’s at least one doomed pair of lovers knocking around the middle of the album (not quite as nasty as the Alpha Couple, but nearly as drunk), and given how much time they spend traveling from place to place, it seems possible that Jenny and her well-documented wanderlust might make up half of that duo. But that’s a lot of misery for one couple to take, so maybe Darnielle showed a little mercy and spread it out among four people.

Then there’s the poorly-informed guy feeding mashed-up bananas to a baby in “Pink & Blue” – Darnielle himself has pointed out that this is not the proper way to feed a nine-day-old infant – and if we count the baby as one of the seven, that brings us up to a full cast. Also, the narrator and the baby are presumably living inside, so that might get us our second house, unless this is the same “ranch-style house” from earlier, but boy, it makes me sad to think that Jenny and her dude might have had a baby before she up and vanished on him.

We can track Cyrus and William through to “Color In Your Cheeks,” possibly over to “Balance” and maybe, God help us, “Pink and Blue” – then Jenny and her beau roll around through “Fault Lines” and on to “The Mess Inside,” but I’d like to posit that it’s actually Jeff struggling with his defective heart on “Riches And Wonders,” since he seems like the kind of maladjusted teen that would grow up to be a functional but fundamentally maladjusted adult—speaking of which, I’d wager that it’s either Cyrus or William drifting around Texas in between jail stints on “Jeff Davis County Blues”, since they both got totally reamed by the system and more than likely ended up living that sort of unmoored existence. And after spending all that time on “Blues in Dallas” I don’t even want to think about which one of these pour seven souls ended up carrying around that smoldering bitterness.

Finally, “Source Decay”: from the use of the phrase “old best friend,” it’s easy at first glance to pin this one on Cyrus and Jeff, but the timeline doesn’t really add up – when in 1983 did those two metal-head teenagers spend any sort of time in Bangkok? So, maybe it’s Jenny whose hopping around the world with no discernible pattern at all, while her estranged lover sorts through the wreckage of their old life. I prefer this explanation, since it clears the stage for the much more optimistic “Absolute Lithops Effect,” which hopefully shows Cyrus (or William, or hell, even Jeff) taking the first steps towards the sort of life that will bring him peace and contentment.

Blues In Dallas

 

I am far from where we live,

And I have not learned how to forgive

But I will wait

I will wait

I will wait

The subject of waiting comes up a lot in John Darnielle’s catalogue. Often, the characters in these songs are waiting for a moment of transformation, whether it’s the narrator of “Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod” longing for the day he can escape his abusive step-father, or the profoundly damaged narrator of “White Cedar” and his zealous belief that he might someday be free of his own mental illness. Whether or not they ever receive the blessing they’re waiting for is usually beside the point – even though the kid in “Tetrapod” leaves his dysfunctional home and outlives his abuser, while the guy in “White Cedar” is almost certainly never going to get better, they’re both drawn with the same sympathy Darnielle affords all of his creations.

That same sympathy extends to characters who are waiting for something bad – the roomful of people anxiously awaiting a potential disaster in “In The Craters On The Moon” abide diligently to a strict code of behavior, even if it doesn’t seem to be doing them any good. The guilty man hiding from his neighbors in “If You See Light” might think of himself as a monster, but he gets in a few good shots at the nosey interlopers that dare to pass judgment on him. Even the person in “Black Pear Tree,” staring up at the sky waiting for a storm that never comes, still has some faith they will emerge unscathed from whatever ambiguous darkness has gathered over their heads.

Whether they’re stuck in a holding pattern of misery or white-knuckling the last bit of hope they have left, the characters in these songs are portrayed in a noble light. Waiting becomes an almost heroic act, not because the thing they’re waiting for is morally pure or righteous, but because the act itself requires a spectacular show of human strength and will.

… and then you have the narrator of “Blues In Dallas,” a guy holding a grudge so deep in his heart he expects it to endure past the seventh trumpet of the Apocalypse, a guy with some real violent thoughts in his head and an unhealthy fixation on the place where John F. Kennedy was shot. Sung by Darnielle in a sleepy, menacing drone over a buzzing keyboard and a unceasing, tinny drum-machine, this song has none of the painful longing that marks his other songs about waiting. This one is dingy, unglamorous, unromantic; a song about waiting for a day that will never come and wouldn’t make you happy even if it did.

But there’s that tiny lilt in Darnielle’s voice at the end of the last verse when he sings “I will wait.” And then there’s that little bit of ambiguity in the narrator’s final refrain of devotion – is there a chance that he’s pledging his soul not to revenge, but to the belief that he might still learn how to forgive the person who wronged him?

Or is he just… waiting?

 

(hey everyone! i’m going to be writing about a different mountain goats song every day this month. all the songs will be picked randomly by the ‘shuffle’ function on my itunes  player – unless i get like five tracks in a row from ‘Taboo VI’, in which case i might have to take matters into my own hands. i don’t really need a theme/gimmick to spend all my time thinking about The Mountain Goats, but the ‘official’ name of this series is ‘march sadness’ because it’s march and i’m a funny guy, ha-ha ha-ha)