the mountain goats

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.

Heel Turn 2

Beat The Champ is an album about survival, endurance and legacy, and all of those threads intersect at “Heel Turn 2”. The narrator has suffered for years in the name of an ideal that has outlived its usefulness, and in order to move forward he must change in a way that will seriously complicate how people remember him. This is not a choice he makes lightly; if it’s not a matter of life and death, it certainly seems that way to him. (“I don’t want to die in here.”) His life is at stake, but not in the sense that he’s facing a literal death. He’s looking down the barrel at the rest of his life and he’s seeing nothing but a fist flying into his face over and over again. It’s not hard to see why he might want to torch a few bridges.

What complicates things is the unfortunate fact that he’s a good guy — or at least he’s played the part of a good guy for so long and so well that it’s the only way people see him He’s an “upstanding, well-loved man about town,” and the thought that he would throw all of that away is too terrible and confusing to grasp. But out of all the people watching his transformation, pearls clutched and mouths agape, none of them knows how it feels to be down there in the ring, getting the shit kicked out of you just because you decided to be a “good guy.” If you’re taking that kind of beating day in and day out, the thing you’re fighting for eventually stops looking so important. You stop seeing ‘good’ or ‘bad’, you just see winning and losing. And nobody wants to spend the rest of their life on the losing side.

For the wrestler in this song, there’s only one choice he can make. In the dual-toned morality of his world, if you’re not fighting on the side of righteousness, you’re a bad guy, a heel. All you can do is burn it all down and walk in the other direction. Come unhinged. Get revenge.

For the rest of us, things are rarely that decisive. Barring a sudden, personality-altering medical event, you’re not going to switch sides just like that. But you can still make the turn. If you’re frustrated, or you’re in love, or you’re angry, or you’re trying to avoid pain, you can take a step away from yourself. A lot of the time, it’s going to blow up in your face. You’re going to push the limits of who you are, wind up looking like an ass, and slide back into your old ways. But sometimes, that step helps. It gets you closer to what you’re looking for or further away from what you want to avoid. So you take another step, and then another. Enough steps and you can make the turn.

The really, really tough part about making the turn out here in the real world is that there’s no way of knowing if you’ve done it for the right reason. Maybe you did it to survive, or maybe you were just looking for an excuse to let off some steam. Either way, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. After all, there’s no way of knowing if you were even a good guy to begin with.

Wild Sage

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.

Jaipur

Hell, yes.

“Jaipur” is a monster of song. It’s the only Mountain Goats song you could use as your entrance theme at Wrestlemania.1 It’s one of the all-time great album openers, a razor-sharp statement of purpose that grabs hold of you and shakes your mind clean. It is, indisputably and unavoidably, a banger.2

Lyrically, it’s a mish-mash of Judeo-Christian references, with the narrator drawing on a hazy a mixture of the stories of Joseph and Moses to explain his own background. He re-appropriates “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to describe a car like a “jewel-encrusted chariot” with a “chrome tailpipe shining bright as spun gold.” Not until the final verse does he recite the proper lyrics of the hymn, but by that point, “carry me home” holds a much more ominous meaning. The specific meaning of the religious references aren’t super-important; they mostly work as an invocation of power. The only god here is the God of Wrath. Woe unto anyone still within the city limits of Atlanta when this man arrives.

For once, the sound quality works in favor of the story being told. The low-fi recording flattens out JD’s strained shout and spreads it across the entire song, like a sinister character lurking around the corner in a horror film who takes seven bullets to the chest and gets back up.The buzzing of the tape recorder underneath the guitar is more effective than any swelling of strings could be in selling this character as an agent of holy unstoppable vengeance.4

1. “Werewolf Gimmick” is the obvious runner-up here, but it’s a little on-the-nose for professional wrestling, which we all know is medium where the real art happens in moments of ambiguity and nuance.

2. Urban Dictionary refers to a “banger” as a song that “extremely tight or just unbelievably awesome.”

3. This was probably not the right time to deploy this particular reference.

4. I’m going to level with you here: I really like this song, and I have a lot more that I could say about it, but as I’m writing this Sarah and Kelsey are both sitting on the couch behind me, waiting for me to finish today’s entry so we can begin our evening of programming, and I am, you might guess, a little distracted. I’ve been hunched over my laptop for the past half-hour, trying desperately to focus my thoughts, while they have both been telling me to just type out 500 words and leave it at that, so that’s what I’m going to do. Right now, they’re talking about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which just got renewed for a second season. Didn’t I mention Crazy Ex-Girlfriend yesterday? I’m pretty sure I did. I could easily write 500 words about that right now. One issue with this project is that I deeply love most of these songs, and I feel a pressure to live up to them – an impossible feat, I know, since JD is one of the best songwriters of all time. Okay, now Sarah and Kelsey are listening to a song from this week’s episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I am beginning to suspect that they are trying to sabotage this project, which would be confusing, since the two of them are essentially responsible for me writing about music again. Well, them and Daniel Dockery. And Katie Trosan, too. Okay, Kelsey’s literally yelling at me now. “Just finish your fucking writing so we can watch The 100!” That’s a direct quote. I’ve just, I’ve got to go, I’m sorry.

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.

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.

Weekend In Western Illinois

I don’t tend to think of early Mountain Goats as “songs” so much as poetry shouted over guitar chords. This is because I am a small-minded man and a reductive thinker, but it’s also because I forget about songs like “Weekend In Western Illinois.” John Darnielle is best known as a lyricist, but he’s also a long-time musical theater nerd who once recorded a cover of “Tomorrow” as a bonus track on the Japanese edition of Transcendental Youth and did a charming version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” for the AV Club. Dude knows his way around a melody, is what I’m saying, and that really shows through in a low-key way on “Weekend In Western Illinois.”

It doesn’t hurt that this is one of the early-period Mountain Goats song recorded in an actual studio with other musicians. The addition of Peter Hughes on electric guitar and Bob Durkee on organ really opens up the sound of this record, giving it a sense of space and scale as the additional instruments weave in and out as the song builds toward the chorus and then towards the even bigger climax.

(By the way, isn’t it always nice to hear Peter show up on early Mountain Goats songs? I don’t really have anything intelligent to say about that, I just like picturing him in his nice suit, bopping around with his bass guitar.)

But it isn’t just the additional musicians or the subtle, vaguely country-music melody that makes this song stand out — Darnielle’s vocal performance here, which builds from a low murmur (with that wonderful little trill on “thirst in our thro-oo-ooats”) and builds to a full shout. Galesburg is just a unremarkable town near Illinois-Iowa border (birthplace of George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., inventor of the Ferris Wheel!), but the way Darnielle sings about it at the end of this song, it might as well be an mythical lost city where good and evil come to battle it out in the form of howling stray dogs.

But even before all that, before the unique musicality of this song shows through, there’s something that grabs hold of my attention and won’t let go. The first few lines of “Weekend In Western Illinois” describe a romantic relationship between two characters in well-crafted but pretty standard romantic language, until Darnielle blows it all open with the couplet, “We are for some reason all the time bleeding/We are friendless.”

I don’t want to strangle the beauty out of that lyric by putting too much attention on it, but whenever I try to think about this song, I keep circling back to it. We never find out exactly what’s up with this couple, though there is the suggestion that they’re selling all their belongings and that they might be living outside. But those two lines tell us all we need to know about the frame of mind they’ve fallen into. Plus, it’s just a wonderfully written line, with the slightly off-kilter snytax, and then there’s the way that Darnielle drops his voice and almost mumbles the word “bleeding” — fantastic.

For those keeping track at home, this is the second time in five days that I’ve had to re-evaluate my feelings about pre-Tallahassee Mountain Goats and I am already feeling the full weight of my past ignorance settling over my shoulders. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new, more enlightened chapter in my life, where I don’t willfully ignore one-half of my favorite band’s catalogue.

Home Again Garden Grove

1. Let’s just count our blessings here: this is a deep-cut from the middle of the tracklist on the band’s most slept on album, coming right after the emotional one-two punch of “Your Belgian Things” and “Mole,” and musically it sounds like a slightly cleaner version of the character sketches Darnielle would hammer out when he would write and record a song all in the same afternoon. And yet every one of this song’s four verses are razor-sharp and beautiful. There’s the first two verses, with their description of meth-score-as-suicide-mission, ending with the couplet, “Hands in your pockets and soot on your face/The warm love of God seeping through you.” And there’s the entire last verse, “now we are practical men of the world/we tether our dreams to the turf,” I mean I could go on but really, you should just listen to the song, or just pull up the lyrics and read them yourself. There’s no damn reason why a song that sounds this tossed-off should be this perfectly composed.

2. We Shall All Be Healed is Darnielle’s first foray into autobiographical songwriting, coming one year before The Sunset Tree. It’s a fictionalized series of snapshots based on his time spent as a self-described “speed freak” living in Portland, and while I am just as unqualified to write about methamphetamine as I was to write about domestic abuse, I don’t get the same feeling of intimate betrayal that I sometimes do from The Sunset Tree.  I don’t know exactly why that is, though I suspect that I find the mindframe of a self-destructive addict more relatable than that of an abuse survivor, but I can’t really explain that either, it’s probably a subject that requires a good deal of soul-searching and self-analysis to fully uncover and you probably don’t want to hear me talk about myself that much.

3. “So, anyway our dealer is going through one of his periodic I’m-not-going-to-sell-to-you moments, which I’m just assuming means he got enough money and doesn’t need anybody hanging around his house, right now, right, so Max drives into Orange County into the housing projects where he knows who can get it, but we don’t know what to do once we get there. It’s not a thing we know. And I say we — I wasn’t with him this day — thank God, because he went and scored, and he was very excited, it worked, so he pulled over on the side of the 57 freeway in Orange County to fix and nod off, instead of, I guess his idea was fix and then get back on the freeway? But he didn’t do that ’cause he nodded out, and that’s when the California Highway Patrol came up behind him, and asked him how he was feeling with the needle of heroin on the seat, and he went to jail, and so, well, then years later I think, ‘Oh man, remember that one time Max went to Garden Grove?'” — John Darnielle, Bowery Ballroom, New York City, March 29, 2011 (source: The Annotated Mountain Goats)

4. I once heard We Shall All Be Healed described as “drug-user horror movie.” I don’t know where I heard that–or, read that, if I’m being verbally precise. I have a lot of things like this bouncing around in my head, single phrases about works of art that I read somewhere during a long day of wasted hours in front of my computer, probably an Amazon.com review or a comment on Songmeanings.net. I think I read somewhere that the Ramones were essentially just “The Beach Boys with the distortion turned up,” but I have no idea who said that, if it’s meant to be a compliment or an insult, or if it’s even a remotely intelligent thought to have about the Ramones.

Whoever made this comparison — if that person exists outside of my head — was probably influenced by the appearance of Exorcist star Linda Blair’s name on the tracklist, and also by the fact that methamphetamine abuse is fucking scary and Darnielle writes about it in a very clear, real way, not “real” in that he obsesses over the gory details, but emotionally real, so that when he sings about “shoving our heads straight into the guts of the stove,” you know damn sure he’s been there and felt the heat on his face.

If this album is anything like a horror movie, it’s because death and doom lurk around every corner, and we only know for sure that one person will survive.

5. A couple of years ago Darnielle released a demo of a song that he wrote around the same time as the songs on We Shall All Be Healed. I had always thought of it as being lighter in tone than most of the stuff on this album, but listening to it now for the first time in a while, it paints a picture just as bleak, if not actually a little bit scarier. Most of the people on We Shall All Be Healed are either in a deep state of denial about their lives, or they’ve passed through denial to acceptance, which is frightening in its own way, but “You & Me & A High Balcony” details the moments before the awful truth of the situation finally settles over two people who have been running from it for God knows how long. I wouldn’t want to be in that hotel room the next morning.

6. “Jellyfish riding the surf.” We Shall All Be Healed is about as sympathetic a portrait of meth addiction as you’re going to find, but it doesn’t let anyone off the hook, either. The characters here all know that they’re destroying themselves in pursuit of a temporary high; they’re addicts, it’s what they do. And while we’re not subjected to a finger-wagging moral about how Drugs Are Bad For You, we also aren’t given any context for WHY these people want to escape so bad they’ll risk death on a daily basis. We don’t have any reason to sympathize with them — except for the fact that they’re human beings, dangerous to anyone they touch, yes, but also caught up in a series of events they couldn’t possibly have foreseen and couldn’t have planned for even if they did.,

7. Oh man, remember that one time Max went to Garden Grove?

 

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.