John Darnielle strikes me as the kind of artist who wants his work to stand on its own, with little-to-no explanation from the creator. From the way he describes him self as a guy who “made a thing” and compares his songs to pieces of furniture, it seems pretty clear that he’d like every listener to interpret each song for themselves and take what they need from that. Unfortunately, some of us aren’t smart enough to be trusted with that sort of responsibility, which is why I’m grateful that he occasionally lays it all out for us, Death of the Author be damned.1
Case in point: for a long time, I accepted the general wisdom that Get Lonely was a “breakup album,” and because of that, I never spent much time with it. That’s a piece of furniture I don’t really need in my day-to-day life. But I always liked “Wild Sage,” and I wasn’t sure what about it resonated with me2 until I saw Darnielle perform it live, and he said something akin to this:
“I’ve been puzzled by the few things that people have had to say about this next song, so I’m just going to violate my own policy and tell you explicitly what it’s about. And I am telling the truth. Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, he lies when he describes his songs.’ That’s not true either. It may seem like a lie now, but give it a couple of years. But this is true, that the fellow who narrates this song, uh, is losing his grip on things as they are. He’s going insane, as they would put it. And so that’s why he feels like he does. He hasn’t lost anybody or anything like that. Uh, he suffers from a sort of solitude that most of us, uh, thank God, can only really imagine, uh, so, I wrote this for a lot of people that I used to work with, and whom I think of from time to time.” – 8/22/2006 – Amoeba Music, San Francisco, CA
In ten years, I have not gone through a break-up, but I have for sure felt this disconnect, the hazy state of being that Darnielle captures so beautifully in this song. I have had days–many of us have–where I could skin my hands falling to the ground and then spend the better part of an hour staring at the scrapes and laughing intermittently. “When someone asks if I’m okay/I don’t know what to say.” That just about sums it up, right?
The guy in this song is pretty much a worst-case scenario; like Darnielle says, the psychic pain he’s feeling here is at the very edge of human endurance.3 I didn’t catch this at first, but the person that picks him up has to drop him off less than a block later, presumably because our hero is too far gone to share a space that small for any length of time. But even is his situation is far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, I can still recognize enough of my self to get what I need from this song. Honestly, I was doing that before I heard Danielle’s explanation. It’s just nice to know I’m not crazy.
1. I’m also grateful for sites like The Annotated Mountain Goats and The Mountain Goats Wiki for transcribing and archiving so much illuminating pre-song banter from live shows — where Darnielle offers explanations that, again, I would assume he prefer never left the specific room he spoke them in, but, well, you know.
2. Aside from the fact that Sarah went to college at Chapel Hill, so I’m very familiar with the North Carolina highway where the majority of “Wild Sage” takes place. This was a real novelty, having a local landmark mentioned in a piece of pop culture, at least before I moved to New York.
3. Also, he shows up again at the end of the album, and his situation has very much not improved, so if I ever write about that song, you will know that this blog has finally become the cry for help that, on some level, it has always been.