Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On The Sunset Tree

Writing about The Sunset Tree, I realised almost as soon as I said I would do it, is fairly difficult to do well. It's an album that people, including me, care very much about, and I worry that whatever way I see it will not be the same as how it is seen by anyone else. But I think that's what makes The Sunset Tree special; it is personal. That it is semi-autobiographical could have meant it would just be personal to its writer, John Darnielle, and to everybody else it would be like reading a diary; full of emotion, but belonging to someone else.

But instead, there are many Mountain Goats fans out there who feel that they have their own personal connection to the album, from those who see a reflection of their own lives in it to those who have lived through completely different experiences and yet can relate totally to what Darnielle writes.

The first song on The Sunset Tree, You or Your Memory, introduces one of the important aspects of the album - memory. The narrator sits in a motel room looking back on his life and everything that has happened to him. The song acts as a frame for the rest of the album; the rest of the songs are recollections of his childhood, leading up to where he is now. He bargains with God for him to “make it through tonight”, and this theme of survival is a thread which passes through the entire album; even the same phrase, "make it through," is echoed later in This Year.

In Broom People we move from the present into the past, seeing those memories from the point of view of Darnielle as a teenager. This change of perspective is subtle, but the listener can tell that this is a teenager talking, particularly in the lines “I write down good reasons to freeze to death/ In my spiral ring notebook.” There is a feeling of loneliness and isolation; his family aren't even mentioned in the song, and his friends and teachers (well-meaning as they are) are outsiders that cannot do anything to help him. The song shows us a boy trapped in a house full of every kind of insignificant object - “all sorts of junk in the unattached spare room”- and it seems as if he considers himself to be just another one of those things. The only meaning in his life is the love of the person to whom he's singing. Love setting us free is hardly an original concept in songs, but this song is memorable for the images he uses- “I am a wild creature”, “I am a babbling brook.

”This Year is a perfect example of how the songs on The Sunset Tree (more so than any other Mountain Goats album, in my opinion) can have great personal significance to people. It has all the things you would expect from a song about adolescence - rebellion, drinking, a girl- but what stands out about this song is that one line; “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.” It brilliantly captures the experience of being a young person, not wanting anything except to survive another twelve months in whatever personal hell you reside. It's a song about hope, but it is not blindly optimistic; that the song which starts out as a break for freedom ends up in “a cavalcade of anger and fear” is hardly a good omen for the future, and “if it kills me” reminds us that getting through this particular year is not going to be easy.

From the hope of This Year we move suddenly into the desperation of Dilaudid. The most interesting aspect of Mountain Goats songs tends to be the lyrics, and sometimes it can be easy to see them almost as poems rather than songs. With Dilaudid the music is undeniably significant; even if you were to take away all the words, it just sounds like someone losing their sanity. It is a suffocating feeling of panic. Personally I see this song as being slightly disconnected from the story of the album, not being related in any obvious way to Darnielle and his stepfather, but it still gives the impression of a vivid memory, and in the line “if we live to see the other side of this” it continues the theme of survival from You or Your Memory and This Year.

If Dilaudid is somewhat unrelated to John's life, the same could definitely not be said for Dance Music; it is one of the more noticeably autobiographical songs on the album, its first few lines locating it in a specific time and place, and having all the small details of a childhood memory (“I'm in the living room watching the Watergate hearings.”). The first verse is from the perspective of a scared child using music as a hiding-place while his parents fight. Just like “I am going to make it through this year”, the line “so this is what the volume knob's for” stays in the listener's mind because it is a thought to which many people can relate. The second verse is a different memory, of a young man in a bad situation and scared of dying alone, and once again finding solace in music as he did when he was a child.

Dinu Lipatti's Bones further explores the theme of trying to break free, to find, as in Dance Music, a place to hide. Even the quiet way in which it is sung suggests someone whispering, trying not to be heard by the person they're running from. It is similar to Broom People in that the person named only as “you” in the song is a symbol of love as a means of getting away from an unhappy life. However, the imagery of a house built with bones (especially the bones of someone who had died of cancer) suggests that the relationship that he was using as an escape was flawed. “It was money that you wanted” would also seem to imply the relationship was less than perfect, that perhaps he was being taken advantage of. Despite fairly frequent use of the word “we”, there is still an atmosphere of loneliness in the song; the listener gets the impression that it was the two of them against all the other people in their lives (“we kept our friends at bay all summer long”). Together, yet still isolated from the rest of the world.

Although much of The Sunset Tree focuses on John Darnielle's stepfather, Up the Wolves turns the spotlight on everyone else. For me the phrase that comes to mind in relation to this song is “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Up the Wolves is a song about those who did nothing, above all Darnielle's mother who he saw as being “absent”, leaving her children to be “raised by wolves”. There is some hope at the beginning of the song, as he just waits and tries to believe that the future will be brighter some day, but soon realises that there is no way of knowing if and when that's going to happen. Having decided that he has to do something, he looks to the adults around him for help, and comes to the conclusion that even if they knew “what was going on”, they would do nothing more than “shake their heads and wag their bony fingers.” In the last verse he is left with nobody to rely on but himself. It is the thought of a child losing all faith in the people who should be protecting him is what makes this song so poignant.

Lion's Teeth is somewhat different from the rest of the album because it is not exactly a memory, at least not in the same sense as some of the other songs. It has been described as a “revenge fantasy”, and it does seem in some ways less like a real incident than other songs on the album, especially as the image of the lion used throughout the song makes it seem very much like a dream or a story. However, that doesn't make it any less emotional; it is one of the few songs that I would use the word “heartbreaking” to describe without feeling that it was an exaggeration. As Darnielle describes tears rolling down the face of his younger self it sounds like he himself is nearly crying.

The intensity of emotion that underlies Lion's Teeth carries on into Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod. The picture of the child hiding in his room listening to music that we saw in Dance Music is to be seen in this song too, but this time he is older, again the teenage narrator of Broom People and This Year. The importance of music is emphasised here; it allows him to “vanish into the dark and rise above [his] station”. But this escape doesn't last long, and the choice of words like “blaze” and “scream” highlight the anger and hatred that was in the house. Part of what makes this album so touching is that Darnielle lets us see exactly what he felt, for example in the lines “hoping you don't break my stereo/ Because it's the one thing that I couldn't live without.”

The idea of hope versus hopelessness is a major part of The Sunset Tree and while there is a glimmer of hope to be seen in This Year and at the end of Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod, the two next songs, Magpie and Song For Dennis Brown, are very much on the side of hopelessness.

Magpie is an interesting song, reminiscent of either a curse or some kind of biblical warning about the devil. As I said about Dilaudid, this song does not seem directly connected to the rest of the album or its story, but it certainly fits in with the theme of hopelessness, with its clear message that when something terrible is going to happen, there is nothing at all that we can do to avoid or prevent it.

In Song For Dennis Brown, this inevitable terrible thing is more specific; it is a song about a man who has realised that his death is not a question of whether or not he will die of an overdose, but when it will happen. Thinking of things that continued to happen when the singer Dennis Brown died- children singing in choirs, people stealing food from bins behind restaurants- is a reminder that tragic deaths for the most part slip by unnoticed, as the world carries on as it did before. The song doesn't end until a minute after John Darnielle stops singing, and for that whole minute we are left to think about how sadly true that is.

Love Love Love is one of the songs that's most important to me on the album. It turned me into a Mountain Goats fan. It had all the things that I would come to admire about tMG: references that I didn't understand without the help of Google, John's imperfect-yet-perfect voice, and well-written lyrics. It looks at love as a force that can make people do terrible things- murder for love, suicide for love- but it's not saying love is bad, either. To see it as a song against love would be too simple, and the entire point of the song is that love is not a simple black-or-white thing. Before I heard Love Love Love I had only heard one Mountain Goats song- No Children- and while my first reaction to that song had been “that was pretty good, maybe I should listen to this band some more”, my reaction to Love Love Love was the feeling of being overwhelmed by how beautiful it was.

Pale Green Things ends the album as it started; the adult John thinking back over his life. He is dealing with his stepfather's death and, like Love Love Love, he observes the lack of simplicity when it comes to love. He notes that one of the things he recalled on hearing that his stepfather had died was a childhood memory of the two of them going to a racetrack together, and he looks at the difficulty of reconciling good memories like that with other, painful memories. The image of little plants managing to grow in the cracks in the ground represents love, growing in strange circumstances where nobody would expect it to survive.

Despite what I said about The Sunset Tree being difficult to write about, I'm glad I chose it. It has a special place in the hearts of lots of Mountain Goats fans, and for good reason; it explores the difficult topic of trying to deal with abuse and it does so in a way that is both sad and beautiful.

By Carolina Cordero. Ms. Cordero is a student in Cork, Ireland.

Monday, September 12, 2011

On We Shall All Be Healed.

SLOW WEST VULTURES - we are ready to die, so let's do a lot of drugs.

PALMCORDER YAJNA - i dreamt we were dying because we did a lot of drugs.

LINDA BLAIR WAS BORN INNOCENT - ready to drown? let's float downtown. hop in my boat. it's the onein the moat. the one with the sails tied down, isn't she magnificent? the "linda blair was born innocent."

LETTER FROM BELGIUM -the days we chewed our tongue off were just normal days.

THE YOUNG THOUSANDS - here they come, thousands of headstones climbing up the hill.

YOUR BELGIAN THINGS - locking tigers in the east bedroom is not a good idea.

MOLE - a mole: "did you tell them it was me that shot you in the face?" you up there in intensive care: "is our stuff still in your desk?"

HOME AGAIN, GARDEN GROVE -a practical man of the world recalls his glory days by returning to from whence he came.

All UP THE SEETHING COAST - fact: everyone does what they want to do regardless of anything.

QUITO - a toast for ghosts, and hope springs eternal.

COTTON - this song is for me.

AGAINST POLLUTION - my dark past threatens to overtake me, but i prevail by shooting him in the face.

PIGS THAT RAN STRAIGHTAWAY INTO WATER, TRIUMPH OF - pigs don't deserve to have demons cast into them and drowned. regardless, in the end, we shall all be healed.

the end.

By mike5998. Mr. 5998 was simply mike and then evolved into mike3000 and will soon be mike10k until 2021. [ed. note -- if you don't know, i still can't explain.]

On "You're in Maya"

"Hey man, the fucking machine doesn't work."

** **

I am losing my shit. This fucking machine. My feet are sweating in my dirty white Chuck Jones high tops. This shirt is too small for me. I feel like tearing at my skin. My head aches, my whole face even. Fuck.

I pull hard at the pinball lever. I could pull forever. I could rip that fucking thing right the hell out of its socket. I could break its glass into a thousand pieces, into a million pieces. I could tear the clouds out of the sky. I blink twice and clear my throat.

** **

Most of all, I blame my mother. I don't want to, but there you go.

** **

"Excuse me, son?"

"I said the fucking machine doesn't work." I draw out the word "said" in a manner that is intentionally annoying, gnawing by design. Like, "I saaiiiiid the fuckingmachine doesn't work." I almost bite off my bottom lip as I make the "f" sound in "fucking." Fuckingmachine is one word. As the sentence leaves my lips, it grates even on me.

My face is all red and scrunched up. I must be a sight. Between my fourteenth and fifteenth years, a vein started to form on my forehead, from the bottom of my hair line down to the top of my nose, between my eyebrows. Now in my sixteenth year, it seems to be a permanent fixture. At least, it sure shows up every time I get upset. And lately, I seem to be upset all the time. Today is no different.

** **

Why didn't she help?

** **
"The fucking machine doesn't work," the guy repeats dully, through dead eyes.

That just kills me. No wonder this guy works in a fucking game room. He is dumber than a bag of nails. He is denser than Yosemite. He is thicker than a brick. I feel the urge surging through me: go for the throat; go for the throat; go for the throat.

"Yeah," I repeat between gritted teeth. "The fucking machine doesn't work. I put my mother-fucking quarter in, and no fucking ball came out." I declare this angrily, jabbing an accusing finger at the pinball machine.

The dumb guy points to the machine. I see for the first time the red letters on the machine by the coin slots:

"Fifty cents." "Ya need two quarters for this fucking machine. Other than that, the fucking machine works perfectly." He speaks so dully, the sarcasm drips from his lips, thick like honey.

"Shit," I think to myself. "Shit, shit, shit." Out loud, I say the only thing I can think to say.

"Well, why the fuck is it fifty cents, anyways. It's not that fucking cool."

The dumb guy just shrugs. "Machine works," he mutters and walks away. I flip the bird to his back, the kind of bird where your hand is balled into a fist other than the middle finger; not the all fingers half extended kind of bird.

** **

I pull a second quarter from my pocket and drop it in the slot. The machine wakes up. The machine comes alive. Centaur by Bally. It is all black and white. It is white skull. It looms over me like a curse, staring me down like a school yard bully. I’m not backing down. The thing that hits me next is the soundtrack, a steady boom boom boom and then high pitched zings of distorted noise, wings of a straining angel. The first ball drops and I am ready to go.

Bam, I am on the flippers and I am hitting them hard. Bam, bam, bam. Its deep robotic voice is mocking me, taunting me. “Fuck you, mother-fucker,” I swear in my head, so loudly that I worry the guy at the next machine might hear the curse. I do not linger long on the thought. I am all focus on the game. Centaur, you are mine.

** **

She just sat there. I needed her and she just sat there.

** **

Three balls are down and I am grunting like a madman. Bam, top left flipper smacks one ball; bam bottom right flipper slams another. The third ball is up on top, spiraling between the two bumper and the O post. “Destroy Centaur” the robotic beast dares me. “Yes, I fucking will,” I say out loud. I am not sure how loud it is, and I do not want to lose eye contact with any of my three balls, so I do not look up to see if the guy is watching me. Fuck it. Arrows are lighting. Green and white. Flipp-er hit. Flipper hit. Lights are blinking on and off. The soundtrack is blaring. I feel it pulsing through my muscles. I feel it in my hands. I feel it in my feet.

Hit the R. Hit the O. Hit the B. Hit the S. Fucking aye, I am rocking. The flush of four letters down distracts me, and I take my eye of the ball on the top level. It sneaks past my right flippers and it disappears. “Shit,” I mutter. Or maybe I yelp it. I am not sure. I do not look up. Fuck it. “Destroy Centaur.” Yeah, you are goddamn right I will. Or is it “you are goddamn right I will.” I don’t know. I do not give up. I am hitting the flippers hard. The machine is a part of me. We are dancing together, like some juvenile geek tango.

** **

The dirty dishes were being thrown, and soon they were on the floor, broken and in a hundred pieces all over me, pouring down on me like burning embers and shrapnel. She didn’t say a word. What was I supposed to do?

** **

I lose another ball. I am getting distracted. I have to focus. The lights are shining and glimmering in my eyes, like stars above Alaska. I smile despite myself. There is a chill going up and down my spine. Minutes pass. More balls get thrown into the mix. More balls get past my flippers. I feel like I am flying. I feel like I have wings. I thought I would never smile again. I no longer notice the ache under my left eye.

Minutes turn into an hour, and that hour turns into another, maybe two. I lose track of the time. I lose track of my thoughts. Two quarters then four quarters to six quarters, then eight. It is always the same, me against Centaur. “Destroy Centaur,” he booms. Yes, I mouth silently. I shall destroy you, Centaur. Here it is only me and Centaur. There is no Twenty-Fourth Street. Here, there is no home. My grin creeps up and my face starts to squint.

The sound. The lights. The noise of the game room.

I cannot say how much time has passed in the dark game room. It is like Reykjavik in the winter, just dark and dark and dark in here. It could be anytime at all. There is no clock on the wall and I have no watch. I do not really care. It could be two hours. It could be two lifetimes. I play and play and play, until there are no more quarters in my pocket. I play until I can no longer pay.

I pull the bottle from the lining of my coat. I drink the rest of what is inside. It burns my throat and nose. I force back a cough. I throw the empty bottle into a green garbage can next to a Q-Bert machine. A fat kid with a Chunks shirt walks by me. You know, Chunks from Goonies. The fat kid looks at me, but I barely notice him at all.

** **
I walk outside, out of the darkness of the game room. It is still daylight outside. The rolling hills go on forever. I stop and look up, and then I close my eyes. I feel the heat of the sunlight on my face. Somewhere far away, music plays.

I open my eyes, looking left and right. How far to Cumberland Farms?

By P. William Grimm. Mr. Grimm makes his home in San Francisco’s Mission District. His novel The Seventh was published in 2009, and his writings have been published in multiple on-line literary journals such as Annalemma Magazine and Eclectica.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

On The Sunset Tree

YOU OR YOUR MEMORY - either it's you, along with the st. joseph's baby aspirin and the bartles & jaymes, or it's the state of your memory that is causing me to feel the way i'm feeling.

BROOM PEOPLE - superfluous things cannot distract me from being a lawyer in your arms, or a natural freshwater stream smaller than a river in your hair.

THIS YEAR- "if" is a conjunction that can introduce a conditional clause.

DILAUDID - hydromorphone, taken both orally and rectally by bonnie and clyde, causes poultry to fall from the sky.

DANCE MUSIC - listening to dance music will prevent you from dying alone.

DINU LIPATTI'S BONES - bones infiltrated by hodgkin's lymphoma are not good for building.

UP THE WOLVES - we will celebrate the return of wolfmother's original lineup by taking shit over and destroying all motherfuckers.

LION'S TEETH - if you grab a sleeping lion's tooth, you probably want to get clawed to shit.

HAST THOU CONSIDERED THE TETRAPOD - perhaps it's crossed your mind that the tetrapod is now the dominant part of the terrestrial fauna, representing all known larger land animals.

MAGPIE - the magpie is believed to be one of the most intelligent of all animals.

SONG FOR DENNIS BROWN - the day that dennis brown's lung collapsed was just a normal day.

LOVE LOVE LOVE - i don't know what this song is about.

PALE GREEN THINGS - missing rhymes with reminiscing.

the end.

By mike5998. Mr. 5998 was simply mike and then evolved into mike3000 and will soon be mike10k until 2021. [ed. note -- if you don't know, i can't explain.]

Monday, September 5, 2011

On All Eternals Deck

Sometimes I wish I were new to the Mountain Goats.

I don’t necessarily wish to erase all of the impact the music has had on me or how it has influenced my own work, but there are times when I again want to be the 12-year-old listening to 30-second Amazon samples of The Coroner’s Gambit while reading the lyrics and connecting to them in ways I hadn’t connected to much before. Or even, in a completely different reality, I wish I were just an indie fan who had a vague idea of the Mountain Goats and then found their new record, picked it up, and looked at the rather ominous script on the cover, read the mysterious three-word titles of the songs, bought it, and had it change my perception of music.

Naturally, my discovery of All Eternals Deck didn’t happen that way. As Antoine Roquentin says, there are no perfect moments, but learning about a new Mountain Goats record is a damn good one. Seeing the tracklisting, the cover, finally being able to preorder it was all very exciting and a great experience in itself. Learning that it would be accompanied by a cassette tape (!!!) alone got me very excited. I listened for a month or so, collecting my thoughts about it, until one Saturday morning when I took my record player to my room and listened with the intention of writing some semi-coherent thing about it. The semi-coherent thing is part of what you’re about to read.

Before I compare it to any other Mountain Goats record, I’ll say this: All Eternals Deck is an absolutely classic record. While it isn't like much else in John's oeuvre in many ways, it reminds me often of We Shall All Be Healed, which is an unbelievably brilliant work of art, as filtered through a more mature perspective. It's the perspective of one who can both separate the shit that has happened in his life from himself (both the song and John's explanation of "Birth of Serpents" indicate this) and can channel it in oblique and beautiful ways. One motif I’ve picked up from the album is the idea of being restored, a spiritual renewal more profound than on any other Mountain Goats records. In Darnielle’s previous work dealing with a unified theme (I hesitate to say “song cycle”), there is a sense of impending doom throughout, and doom always comes. Look throughout Darnielle’s work and every album with a unified theme ends with very little hope. AED, however, could be said to end on a more positive note; the second side of the album, while clearly pensive, is also very hopeful. Many artists would be direct about this and end an album with this theme with a song like “Never Quite Free.” But this is John Darnielle, of course, and he ends things more obliquely with a song about getting sick in Los Angeles, “Liza Forever Minelli.” But within this song I see the narrator as finding some sort of salvation, knowing that he’ll never escape but finding contentment in his fate.

The individual songs had to settle into my brain as Mountain Goats songs rather than these new things that John just so happens to have made. They are now deep in my consciousness where only my favorite writers and my own songs are. But the individual songs are fantastic and are the ones I show people when I’m in an argument about who is the best living songwriter: Darnielle, of course. In several ways, the songs are different from other Mountain Goats songs because they are almost all anthems. These songs are the most uplifting of John's career and also the most pertinent for the world today. They are inspiring in a way almost like spirituals, which is something we should be grateful John did on this album and not The Life of the World to Come, because the latter would be written off by some as happy pseudo-Contemporary Christian crap. But when was the last time John wrote anything as inspiring as the chorus of "High Hawk Season," or even that of "For Charles Bronson," which I sing to myself when I'm in a bad situation, despite my being an extreme proponent of gun control? “Liza Forever Minnelli” sounds like something you would sing to yourself without being really conscious of it when you’re in a really dire situation, but as I stated above, there’s a sort of optimism within it. It's the same with "Damn These Vampires," which, if my interpretation is correct, is just as poignant a song about addiction as any song John has written."Never Quite Free” is probably the best example. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, it could be completely saccharine and hackneyed, but it transforms to the point that I believe it will be revered in the way we revere "Pale Green Things" and "California Song," but somehow uplifting as well. And if there were any justice in the universe "High Hawk Season" would be regarded as the "The Times They Are a-Changin'" of my generation. These are incredibly well written songs, and I could be emo or whatever and talk about their personal significance to me, but rather I'll just mention that the line "see that young man/who dwells inside his body like an uninvited guest" means more to me than I can say.

Okay, so I will be emo or whatever. First, there’s the line I posted above, which still resonates with me tremendously, but the entirety of “Birth of Serpents” reminds me of something sort of ineffable that I’ve experienced many times but have never been able to articulate. The feeling of going somewhere and remembering what it meant to you, what it meant to a different you. When I hear the line “Permanent bruises on our knees/never forget what it felt like to live in rooms like these,” I think of the almost-cliché image of those rooms in motels that you pass and can feel all of the energy being sucked from you by whatever addict or other miserable being lives in it. I’m 15. There haven’t been many different “me”s. I haven’t lived in rooms like those. But I remember passing by those rooms when I was young and knowing instinctively that something was wrong, and I remember seeing people I love end up in those rooms. In that squalor. With permanent bruises on their knees.

“High Hawk Season” is another song to which I connected immediately. I was, like most Mountain Goats fans, probably a bit taken aback when I first heard it; these strange chants as backing vocals to what otherwise appears to be a fairly standard Mountain Goats tune. As surprising, odd and ultimately effective as they are, the backing vocals are immaterial. It is the rawest version that has the strongest impact: the version on All Survivors Pack. It sounds hushed and tense and filled with this incredible urgency that, as fantastic as it is, is somewhat diluted in the version on the album. The song exemplifies the idea I mentioned earlier of almost being uplifting. This is the feeling of being out far too late downtown and feeling like some incendiary force ready to explode and create and destroy and be a force in the universe. I have not seen The Warriors, but this seems to be the same sort of idea; that feeling that this is occurring at night, the feeling of tension within silence.

Musically, AED reminds me of Heretic Pride, only on the latter many ideas were neither as fully-formed nor as successful as they are here. There are small touches in a number of songs that elevate them completely. I love the harmony vocals of "Damn These Vampires," the synth sounds on "For Charles Bronson," the keyboard on "Liza Forever Minnelli," the unbelievably awesome harmony on "High Hawk Season," and most of all the pedal steel on "Never Quite Free." I hope John pursues this more; more density of sound, more instruments. I also love the production, in part because of how much it must mean to John to work with Erik Rutan. I was very curious as to how Rutan’s production would work; I still find the choice of songs on which John chose to use Rutan a bit odd. I assumed that, when working with a metal producer, John would choose to work on the more intense songs on the album, but none of the songs Rutan produced are particularly intense. Regardless, the production is great, and John’s ability to arrange music shines here more than on previous albums. It makes sense that this album has gotten more attention than prior albums; it's not more poppy, but it's denser, in line with the direction indie has been going lately.

Finally, I just have to talk about All Survivors Pack in greater detail. I almost feel guilty talking about it since I know so many people who wanted it as much as I but didn't get it. But hearing John's creative process is incredible. I read an interview in which John explains some of the songs on AED as coming from the rush of images and words he gets after he watches a movie. ASP is listening to John as he is still bursting with what inspired him; it is a more direct experience of what he must have felt after feeling this inspiration, to have this rush of ideas and to record it in whatever form you have it. It’s the immediacy of some of Darnielle’s early work, a direct channeling of the spark to create with no time for the inspiration to dull or fade. My question is this: what demonic forces kept "Catherine Antrim's Kid" off the record? Not only is it an incredible fucking song, but it's about Billy the Kid and mentions special shoes, ergo it should be cherished by anyone who calls him or herself a Mountain Goats fan.

Despite the fact that, half a year on, one can take AED in context a bit better, it always feels a bit tentative going this deeply into an album that is an artist’s most recent release. I must say, I am very anxious to see how Darnielle will follow it up. Taken as a series of albums, the most recent three records in the Mountain Goats canon are especially satisfying, and there is a feeling not necessarily of finality but certainly of a transformation on AED. This transformation, this healing that seems to have taken place, can only bode well for the future.

By Jamison Murphy. Mr. Murphy is an indie-folk singer-songwriter from Savannah, Georgia. He has released three albums and is working on a fourth. You can hear his music here.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On Jack and Faye

Before I became a Mountain Goats fan, I did not know the term "noob." Really. It took me a while to figure it out, but sometime in early 2007, after having it repeatedly hurled at me as an epithet on a Mountain Goats computer forum, I finally had to look it up on urban dictionary.

I first heard the Mountain Goats back in 1999 or so, when, on a lark, I downloaded "Song for Dana Plato" illegally on Napster. Plato had just overdosed, and I was looking for an audio file of her interview with Howard Stern, and found this song, instead. But, sadly enough, I didn't really get into the band until I stumbled upon them again when the Sunset Tree was released. And that made me a noob. There was a galaxy of obscure and obtuse songs floating around me, dancing near me but too far away to hear. I could smell them, but I couldn't touch them. People on the forums bragged and worshipped them. They called out for them at shows and squealed when Mr. Darnielle complied.

Everytime I made a comment about "This Year" or "No Children," the stink of antipathy dripped through the screen and keyboard, up through my fingers and down my spine, or over my body at a show, like a stinky layer of concert sweat. There was a whole graveyard full of zombie tunes with names and words but no way for me to get to them. I was chastised if I even tried. "Song for Roger Maris." "Standard Bitter Love Song #1." "Shower."

Jack and Faye was my first entry into the world of Mountain Goats rarities. It wasn't particularly rare, as the band's official website actually includes a link to the digital-only four-track EP. But, it wasn't released by any record label and it certainly wasn't available on ITunes. So, to me, a noob, it was rare.

What's more, there was no apparent official artwork for the E.P. I had to find fan-made artwork instead, from a long-time fan that seemed to know more about the Mountain Goats than I knew about myself. And so it seemed rarer even still, taking two separate sources in order to get a full set. And even though the artwork wasn't sanctioned by the band, it was about as perfect a package as one could expect. A gem sought and found.

And it's okay to treat Jack and Faye with some levity. It is jaunty foursome of tunes, not getting quite as serious as other songs the band put out around the same time frame. This is no "Snow Crush Killing Song." This is a couple of musicians having fun, and playing hard and dirty.

The first song is "Raid on Entebbe." My mind finds no easy tie between the song and the Charles Bronson movie of the same name. I imagine it is about a family like mine, fighting in the living room, and in the front yard, a sister fighting with a mother and the narrator just trying to find peace. Maybe the movie is playing in the background as the fight spirals. Maybe it is a subtle analogy with the plot of the movie, where the government of Israel plans a daring mission to rescue hostages from a hijacked aircraft. Maybe the narrator is Israel, and he is saving his hostage sister from his terrorist mom. Or maybe it was just on the tube when Mr. Darnielle wrote the song. It doesnt much matter. The song is fast and loose and rhythmic, it passes by without seeming effort. The players are having a party -- the words complement the music as to how they sound as much as what they mean.

The next track is "Adair." The song starts off showing us one of the characters' scars, quite literally, running from her temple all the way down to her chin. Like a typical Darnielle creation, these people are wounded. But the wind is still in their hair and they are smiling. "I'm far away from where I used to be," and so the future is behind them. For now, there is no disappointment. "You are just where you said you would be." The song is all up and down me. Each time I hear it, I have to focus to avoid shivering.

The digital flip side starts with "An Inscription at Salonae," most notable perhaps for its unique cadence, not quite reggae, but certainly something other than folk. Mr. Darnielle and Ms. Ware sing in a harmony that manages to twist their voices into one, creating a tone that mirrors neither of those of the separate individuals. And the lyrics, a series of codes and unexplained phrases, still pop out line by line, creating quotes that ring in your head long after the song is over. "I loved you more than I loved my own life, I was falling to pieces." "Spring breaking out gradually." "Like a flower caught in the overgrowth, falling, falling to pieces."

Finally, there is "There Will Always Be An Ireland," which captures a moment of time separate from that sung about in the song. "Strange black birds." Every time I listen, I see them up above me. Every time I listen, I hear their wings flap hard against the wind, swooping to attack me. This song is a woman I knew, with gonzo bats tattooed up and down her rib cage. She visited me once for a weekend, and I somehow instantly felt like it was me and her against the world. But it only lasted a weekend. Birds swarmed over us like the minutes on a clock and she quickly dripped away. This song is the lonely drips of gonzo bat black that remain in her stead. "What we did, the things we said. Your hand resting on my head."

And as I listen to Jack and Faye over and over again on repeat, replaying particular verses and phrases and intonations over and over again, I find there is no levity left in me for these four real, genuine, passionate tracks. The sun is a highway flare. A Greek chorus of women dressed in purple, banging on tambourines and beating on cymbals. Hypnotic images of forgotten emotions, just boiling below the surface. It took time to notice, but this four-track is no rarity, no gem to be collected. It is as serious and as emotional a set of songs as any that Mr. Darnielle has written. He has described it as having grown melancholy over time, and it took me some time to understand this to be true. And it is true.

And so with Jack and Faye, my first tMG "rarity," not really a rarity at all, I learned my first tMG lesson. While vinyl may be fun to collect, and cassettes even more fun, music is no collectible. And music is no commodity.

By P. William Grimm. Mr. Grimm makes his home in San Francisco’s Mission District. His novel The Seventh was published in 2009, and his writings have been published in multiple on-line literary journals such as Annalemma Magazine and Eclectica.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Get Lonely

Get Lonely is probably the most unfairly maligned record in The Mountain Goats’ canon. I’ve argued this album’s merits endlessly, and I’m not done. It is one of my very favorite tMG records.

It is emotionally terrifying, but very quiet. The album is also the first where John Danielle learned how to fully use the studio as an instrument. There has been a lot of discussion about him recording studio albums, and whether this has been a good thing. There is no reason to rehash those old tired arguments. Suffice it to say, though I came in (barely) before the first studio record, I’ve never been overly beholden to the boombox recordings.

I expected to hate this record. I saw the band three times shortly before the album was released. The last time, an in-store at Amoeba Records in Hollywood was the first time I was able to connect with these songs. It was at Amoeba, standing in line to get my CD signed, that I first heard the studio versions. JD told me it was his favorite thing that he had done. I wondered if I would have the same opinion. On the drive home, I bonded with the album, and it slowly formed a special place in my heart. It’s still the tMG album I put on most often.

I’ll be honest. The state of my life at the time probably had a lot to do with the bond I formed with Get Lonely. I was renting a bed in a town house in Anaheim, Ca. around that time. I was drinking a lot of wine. Stuff either purchased or shoplifted from a dollar store up the street. I would get drunk, and put the album on repeat. The album can still transport me to bad places, but it’s also a bit cathartic.

I realize that my rambling introduction has said little about the album itself. Let’s look at the thing track by track. The mood of Get Lonely is pretty static throughout. The first song, "Wild Sage," uses an acoustic guitar as a backing track with a piano plucked against it.

The song is the story of a man leaving his house at daylight, and going to walk alongside a road. The lines are brutal, and especially detailed. He loses his footing, breaks his fall with his hand. Then: "and I laugh to myself and look up at the skies, and then I think I hear angels in my ears like marbles being thrown against a mirror.” Shortly thereafter he tells us “and some days I don't miss my family. And some days I do. And some days I think I'd feel better if I tried harder. Most days I know it's not true.” The song is the sound of a single person completely losing his shit, but in a manner that is so quiet he doesn’t even notice. It ends with the narrator lying down by the side, staring at the scrape on his hand, and continuing to sing to himself. It can be a very harrowing four minutes.

“New Monster Avenue” begins with drum flourishes, before another acoustic guitar kicks in. It’s seemingly the sound of a man scared out of his mind, anticipating the end of the world: “sometime before the sun comes up, the earth is going to crack.” By the end of the song he seems OK with his impending destiny, as he sips coffee at sunrise, and notes that his number is finally coming up. The song ends in a moment out of Frankenstein: “all the neighbors come on out to their front porches, waving torches."

“Half Dead” is a lovely moment, containing a bad ass bass line. If you’re sick enough, it can be turned into a sing-a-long: “ can’t get you out of my head. Lost without you. Half dead.” It’s the kind of song that should get under a person’s skin, but you’ll find yourself singing lines like “what are the years we gave each other ever going to be worth” without a hint of remorse.

The title track finds the narrator still going out at odd hours, trying to find comfort anywhere he can. He tries to hide in a crowd, or paint, or call a friend. Still, there’s another person he can’t let go of: “I will get lonely and gasp for air, and send your name up from my lips like a signal flare.” That person is a constant ghost throughout the album. She is everywhere, even though she’s only actually seen once or twice.

“Maybe Sprout Wings” has the narrator locked in his house. He spends most of the song trying to shake off a bad dream, and it’s probably the most haunted song on the record: “I thought of old friends, the ones who'd gone missing. Said all their names three times.” He mentions ghosts and spirits repeatedly. You get the picture of a man, maybe agoraphobic, but probably just fucked by the shock of loss, trapped in his house.

“Moon Over Goldsboro” continues the theme of odd movement, and odd hours: “I went down to the gas station for no particular reason.” It’s also one of the few moments you see a person other than the narrator. He lies down in the weeds, is happy for a moment, goes home. He is happy for another moment as he recalls moving into the house, than goes to bed. He wonders if he should continue blindly holding on to this woman, but he does so anyways. Of course, the song could be pure hallucination as he mutters to himself: “spend each night in the company of ghosts. Always wake up alone.” It’s the best song on the record, but also the hardest to get a grip on.

“Autumn came around like a drifter to an on-ramp” begins "In The Hidden Places." The narrator begins to “walk barefoot around town.” The song is mostly him riding a bus, going around town. He get’s a glimpse of his ex on the bus, then goes home to freak out: "pulled my sleeves down over my hands, over my hands. and I wished I was someone else. And I wished it was warmer. And when I got home, I thought about you.” The brutal sadness continues unabated.

"Song for Lonely Giants" is a short song. It’s a brief tale of a man singing songs to himself: “practicing my solitary scales 'til they rose like balloons”. It’s not one of the heavier songs on the record, but it still leaves an impression.

Following that is “Woke Up New,” probably the only thing resembling a pop moment on the album. Still, it contains it’s share of brutal moments: “and I began to talk to myself almost immediately, not being used to being the only person there.” That is followed by "the first time I made coffee for just myself,I made too much of it, but I drank it all, just 'cause you hate it when I let things go to waste.”

The chorus is simple: “And I what do I do without you?” It’s simple, and sad, but also possesses a little hope, rarely seen on this record. The song ends with the line: “and I got ready for the future to arrive.” The narrator is still numb and hopeless, done in by his situation, but he’s at least trying to move forward.

"If You See Light" is kind of a continuation of “New Monster Avenue.” The narrator is still waiting for the villagers, hiding. He’s “waiting for the front door to splinter” but instantly condemns his neighbors; “no one knows how to keep secrets ‘round here, they tell everyone everything as soon as they know. “ It’s a brief moment of pure terror, and ends as such.

The worst thing here is “Cobra Tattoo”. It fits the mood a bit, but seems oddly out of place in a way I’ve never been able to place. It seems the narrator is directly talking to a person in front of him, which is odd. It doesn’t quite have the hallucinatory effect a lot of the best songs that Get Lonely offers. It’s also odd to have god mentioned on this album.

“In Corolla” is basically a fuck off to the world: “the day I turned my back on you people I felt an itching in my thumbs.” It’s a goodbye, and also the second bit of hope on the record. Even though he leaves a trail of destruction behind him, every where he goes, he’s going to be OK. It’s probably the only way to end a record like this: “the sun was sinking on the Atlantic the last time I turned my back on you.” You get the sense that the narrator is drowning himself but it could also be a bit of a baptismal. So it goes.

Get Lonely is difficult record. It’s extremely heavy on pain and sorrow, and at least half of it it pure hallucination. If you get too close, it can hurt you. Despite my personal adventures, and the emotions it brings up, it could be my favorite tMG record. I think people have a hard time surrendering themselves to a musical recording and letting it wreck havoc on their emotions, but that’s what Get Lonely does best. If you can survive it, it will teach you something about yourself, and you’ll be a better human being for it.

By Jeffrey Whitelaw. Mr. Whitelaw lives, works, and attends school in Seattle, Wa. His previous music writing can be found at and He is currently thinking of six ways to prove to you that you're wrong, but can be contacted at

On Tallahassee

Because I’ve been listening to it very often lately and have more and more discovered its brilliance, because by now I also like those songs that in my opinion were a bit lame at first, because by now I also learned to acknowledge the subversion in the smoother songs, because the narrative arc is intriguing and makes the somewhat stale idea of a concept album attractive again, because the lyrics of this album stand for themselves as a cycle of poems about two lost souls, and simply because “Tallahassee” was the first album I bought by The Mountain Goats, here is my hymn to “Tallahassee”, one of the best records of the then duo – casually extended by other musicians (and now complemented by drummer John Wurster) – consisting of songwriter, singer and guitarist John Darnielle and bassist Peter Hughes.

I first encountered The Mountain Goats on some compilation with “No Children”, their Übersong of the album, a one part hysterical, one part cheerful song about the most devastating aspects of a relationship, wrapped up in a folk song that sounds like Dylan on caffeine, with witty, bitchy, extremely poetic lyrics, lo-fi enough to make my punk rock heart beat faster, but still recorded well enough to emphasize all the nuances of Darnielle's nasal voice, of the brilliant bass playing of Peter Hughes and of the beautiful piano (different from 1996’s “Sweden," where the noisy home recording every now and then makes it, to me, hard to enjoy the record in one piece. No apologies.) I was stunned by the music as well as by the lyrics, which told this sad story in such a lively, optimistic way I just had to laugh about its brazenness – a quality, I later discovered, that is typical of John Darnielle’s lyrics as well as his recitation: even the worst things are told with a spark of hope, much respect for the protagonists and with a strong and sometimes even fierce will of survival.

And the rest of the album is in no way inferior to its "hit." It includes fast, always slightly hysterical songs like “No Children”, as discussed above, and “First Few Desperate Hours”, “Southwood Plantation Road” or the final song “Alpha Rat’s Nest," which each take turns between very beautiful, calm, melancholic pieces like the heartbreaking “Game Shows Touch Our Lives”, “Idylls Of The King” or the “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” the latter of which offers a politically informed, ironic metaphor for love gone bad. From time to time, though, all this beautiful, slightly melancholic evening sun mood sometimes becomes pitch black. “The House That Dripped Blood”, “See America Right” and “Oceanographer’s Choice” each open an abyss that appears to be even more frightening and cruel amidst all these – fake – idylls for the Everyman, who somehow is aware of this all the time, and who suddenly stands alone with all his guilt and fearfully and wearily asks: “What will I do when I don’t have you, when I finally get what I deserve?”

A legitimate question, for only a few songs earlier, the singer seems to wish bad things upon his partner: “I am drowning, there is no sign of land. You are coming down with me. Hand in unlovable hand. I hope you die. I hope we both die.” While this is a cruel, sadistic wish, even the lover’s oath is dreadful, full of alcohol abuse, fear and apocalyptic imagery: “My love is like a dark cloud full of rain that’s always right there up above you,” the singer threatens his partner while being afraid himself: "[W]e try to keep our spirits high, but they flag and they wane [...] through these first few desperate hours“.

Of course the guy who speaks is not John Darnielle himself. “Tallahassee” is the last album before his forthright autobiographical phase and therefore also marks a break in The Mountain Goats’ continuum. It is the Alpha Couple about which Darnielle sings, a probably married couple with massive alcohol problems who pop up time and again throughout the existence of The Mountain Goats, depicting all the bad sides of relationships under the influence of alcohol and drugs and a somehow bad, addictive love. While on the other records prior to this one, this unhappy couple have their songs hidden among other topics, “Tallahassee” is the first album that deals only with the two – and putting them to rest for good, for after “Tallahassee”, these doomed guys don't appear anymore.

The story told here – a couple moving into an old, empty house somewhere in rural America to fight the demons of alcohol and drug abuse without professional help, with only themselves to rely upon – could be the plot for a novel, a play or a movie similar to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, the great, intense, intimate play about a couple who deeply hate and love each other at the same time. Darnielle’s story has the same intensity, the same aspects of love and hate, the same moments of cruelty, peace, despair and passion: “People say friends don’t destroy one another. What do they know about friends?”

The fact that Darnielle chose to unravel this elaborate story in a record, whose course he tells in short, spotlighted, more or less abstract poems focusing on details rather than on the whole, rather than a novel, renders the album even more compelling, adding another, deeper dimension to these beautiful, warm, surprisingly positive songs. And maybe – but maybe not – there is salvation in the end for the Alpha Couple. This is comforting, because what happens to this couple can happen to all of us. The story Darnielle tells us, those poetic lines, those depressing situations, those details as well as the whole drama may be sung about two special people, but – the expression “Alpha Couple”, a name the two got somewhere along their way, already tells it – all of this of course is about all of us.

It is a monstrous idyll somewhere in sunny America about which Darnielle sings, a love that has long become a death trap, and there’s no way to ease one’s own guilt and responsibility for this. The whole thing is carried by an acoustic and a bass guitar (except for those pitch black songs in which driving drums and a painfully distorted electric guitar respectively a bitchy distorted bass are allowed to break free at last), and from time to time a piano, a little percussion, an organ and other small instruments join in. The melodies are simple, beautiful, catchy, the chord progressions are plain, and if those songs and those lyrics were not of such an intensity, performed with that much happy despair, with a tongue-in-cheek weariness, playful hatred and somehow funny madness, one could think they were too plain, perhaps even boring. As written, though, they remain breathtaking even after the 100th listen, in a good as well as in a bad – because of the shock – sense.

“Tallahassee” marks the crossroads between the early, lo-fi boombox recordings and the studio productions, still lo-fi, but yet produced, and it’s coherent that Darnielle puts the Alpha Couple to rest here and moves on. But still the album can easily be integrated in the body of work of The Mountain Goats, lyrically as well as musically. It follows metaphors and musical motifs that can be found time and again, but, nonetheless, this album feels more urgent then all their other records I own (except for its successor “We All Shall Be Healed” from 2004). It breaks your heart more than everything else seeing a good-humoured Darnielle (or better his persona, probably the male part of the Alphas) running down the road to ruin while exactly knowing what he is doing when he just takes his counterpart with him. Nowhere else so far in the Mountain Goats repertoire have fear, despair, hatred and guilt been wrapped up as sunny, heart-warming, poetic and at the same time down-to-earth as on “Tallahassee.” Nowhere else can one feel as comforted and at home in the face of all the forsakenness and loneliness one meets here.

Thus, on Tallahassee, from the abyss comes a smile in the form of wonderful and - despite all the hopelessness of the Alpha Couple - still hopeful love songs.

By Sascha Buehler. Mr. Buehler is currently working in marketing, as a freelance lecturer and author in Southern Germany. He is also the singer and guitarist of SingSallySing ( ) and Cyco Sanchez Supergroup (

On Hot Garden Stomp

When asked about the Alpha Couple, the fictional couple who has spent the better part of the past twenty years slowly grinding each other into the ground in one of the band's on-going song cycles, John Darnielle often responds that he feels as if he’s abusing the characters by forcing them to go on this way. That feeling of abuse represents, in part, an aggression of the songwriter who chooses not to write about the Western ideal of “courtly love,” but instead elects to force his characters into a modern perversion of that ideal. The Alpha Couple do love each other, but they will always continue to destroy each other.

There are no Alpha songs on Hot Garden Stomp, The Mountain Goats’ third full-length album, but the aggression of the songwriter is no less present. At this time, The Mountain Goats consisted of Darnielle, the songwriter and main force behind the project, along with the Bright Mountain Choir: Rachel, Sarah, Amy, and Rosanne (or, in the liner notes, “Rosaaanne”). The album is the last of the initial three albums released on cassette by Dennis Callaci’s Shrimper Records, all of which remain out of print. Yet of the three, Taboo VI: The Homecoming, The Hound Chronicles, and Hot Garden Stomp, it is Hot Garden Stomp that is the strongest as an album, and likely the most worthy of reissue.

As the songs on The Hound Chronicles showed a significant growth from the songs on Taboo VI, Hot Garden Stomp demonstrates further advances in Darnielle’s songwriting and many of the tropes found on Hot Garden Stomp will become standard among other early Mountain Goats releases. There are the more obvious connections, like two early “Going To” songs, Japan and Norwalk. There are also opaque references to Roman and Greek classics found in songs like “Love Hymn to Aphrodite,” and “Thanks for the Dress.”

Of the group, “Thanks for the Dress” is the most explained, and examining its origins may give some insight into Darnielle’s early process and inspirations. The liner notes provide a Latin quotation, another standard feature among the early releases, attributed to the Roman poet Ennius. In a deviation from his normal practice, however, Darnielle offers a translation of the quote, and writes: “see also side II, song #7,” i.e. “Thanks for the Dress.” The quote from Ennius is not attributed to a work, but it can be found in Ennius’ translation from Greek into Latin of Euripides’ Medea, which is what “Thanks for the Dress” is about. Darnielle doesn’t bother explaining this, though. For him, it’s much more important to get the song down and move on.

The urgency and temporality that characterizes Darnielle’s work in this period is clearly exemplified in the brief introduction he gives to “Love Hymn to Aphrodite,” in which he states: “Today is the 17th of April, Love Hymn to Aphrodite.” The time and attitude in which the work was produced has a direct effect on the work. And so, in contrast to the later The Life of the World to Come, for example, Hot Garden Stomp feels like a very youthful album. This youthfulness is part of the aggression of the songs, as well. In the liner notes, there is a quote from Romeo & Juliet written in all capitals, and gone over so as to appear bolded. “…Peace!” Darnielle copies, “I hate the word / As I hate Hell, all Montagues, and thee!” (I.i.70-71). There is no room for peace in the songs on Hot Garden Stomp.

Part of that aggression is manifested in the rough assembly of the work. The familiar wheel-grind of the tape deck is clearly audible as a monument to cheap production. At this time, Darnielle was still playing his first guitar—a cheap, three-quarter sized Hawaiian model—and a simple sounding Casio keyboard. Darnielle audibly goes out of tune on some songs, but boldly presses on anyway. The packaging itself is unpolished as well; the tape is packaged in a photocopied sheet of handwritten liner notes, hastily colored with crayon. It’s not a remarkably off-putting front, especially with regards to the musical scene from which it emerged, but it certainly doesn’t go out of its way to be welcoming. Furthermore, the price of the album certainly wouldn’t encourage the current trend of music commodity fetishism; when Hot Garden Stomp was released, the album sold for $3.00, postage paid.

The aggression is in the songwriting as well. When discussing the title track in a bit of live banter, Darnielle said that the “description of the room [was] fairly accurate” but that in order to spice up the song, he made the protagonist of the song “totally psychotic.” That same kind of sociopathic psychosis can be found on the opening track, “Pure Milk.” In that song, the narrator declares: you and me are gonna get drunk tonight. / We're gonna steal some tractors and head on into town, / find the main strip and start mowing them down.” It’s not conventional, but it’s certainly a compelling idea for an evening outing.

That kind of character building is one of the real strengths of Darnielle’s writing—he carefully selects details in order to give a clear idea of a character, without revealing too much. And in this song, one potentially crucial line that Darnielle sings reflects this intention: “don’t ignore the obvious.” All of the details Darnielle chooses to include are significant, possibly essential. In that light, “don’t ignore the obvious” is as much a hint as it is a warning. In the same way, Hot Garden Stomp is as much a good album as it is a clear signpost for what early Mountain Goats fans could expect in the years to come.

By Carl Schlachte. Mr. Schlachte is a graduate student and a poet living in New York City.

On We Shall All Be Healed

A time traveller, or a memory athlete, or an omniscient narrator with brain damage can move from scene to scene without shock; but he doesn't get it right, he learns his lessons but doesn't retain them. He knows what's going to happen, but he lets it happen anyway. He's seen it all, but it surprises and hurts him still. It's more beautiful that way, and more devastating.

He moves among others like him. They laugh with shared elation at common discoveries, and study familiar trivialities for what more they may reveal. They tear through shades-of-grey civilian settings, upsetting the extras. We accelerate to white-hot incandescence and leave a trail of ash and bone for baffled coroners and weeping survivors. No looking back.

I move among others different from me, stand-up guys who read the papers and have never seen the breadth and length and depth and height. I sit vigil at gravesides, in hospitals and cells. We were discharged. We live where we used to rip. It's dark here, not like before, just bleak and rough. I catch your eye, you saw it too, you've walked down that alley too. We’re alone with the time traveller. We are left, but we haven't left them behind; he’s gone, but he keeps calling us back.

A corner turns, and something blinks, and the roar of a surging wave of shearing force passes through us. Nothing has been lost — we're all still alive, and God, what a life! With this stuff, we can outrun angels; we can go faster still, I can take you faster. Push ahead, push ahead through the fire that lingers in our muscles, through the ache that sears every nerve, through the muddy hung-over hazy hunger for more, faster. Is that how it was, or am I just making it up to fill a blank left in my recollections? If I went back, I might know, but it’s not there any more. I can’t get any more. I can't return.

This place is a pit. How can anyone live here, ankle-deep in pizza boxes, cans, bottles, scrips, each one a fingerprint, each a phone number, each a snapshot of someone we loved or hated. It’s where we belong. It’s where they all will always belong, even the ones like him who paid the full price to belong somewhere else. They can smile and puke here, and most of the time someone will hold their hand. He has been here before; he’ll be back. With Olympian grace he pulls apart the swinging doors and displays a horizon we never crossed. He draws us toward it, delicately gesturing toward each safety pin, acknowledging every rumpled empty bedsheet on every sagging couch. I say that’s a rueful half-smile; you tell me it’s grief struggling to claim every muscle in his face. It’s nine-thirty, but the sun’s not up yet. We’re not sure it’s going to rise.

He remembers you all. He would do it again.

By A.K.M. Adam. A.K.M. Adam is a Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Glasgow's Department of Theology and Religious Studies. His blog is available here. His writing and editing credits include What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? (1995), Making Sense of New Testament Theology (1995), A Grammar of New Testament Greek (1999), A Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible: A Reader (2000); and "What These Cryptic Symbols Mean: Quotation, Allusion and John Darnielle's Biblical Interpretation," Biblical Interpretation, A Journal of Contemporary Approaches, ed. H. Pyper, v. 19, no. 2, pp. 109-128 (2011).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

On We Shall All Be Healed

We Shall All Be Healed is an album full of hallucinations, ghosts, and doomed people. While it marks the place where songwriter John Darnielle first started writing nakedly autobiographical songs, the songs here exist in a land where it is impossible to distinguish myth from reality.

On the opener, “Slow West Vultures” the narrator is instantly unapologetic: “We are what we are, get in the goddamn car” and then: “we are sleek and beautiful, we are cursed.” This is followed by the sound of something breaking. That instant is an “oh, fuck”. It’s not unlike smoking meth. You wonder what you’re getting yourself into, and then you realize you don’t care. You’re in it for the ride, whatever may come. The characters are obsessed. Not just with the drug they chase, but subconsciously (or consciously, who knows) they lust for destruction.

We have gotten ahead of ourselves. WSABH is largely the story of people consuming methamphetamines in Southern California. The album was instantly attractive to me, because I spent most of 2001 doing exactly that. There is a bootleg recorded in a 2003 in which JD tells us that “it’s about all my old friends up in Portland, may most of them rest in peace.” That probably tells us more than we need to know. JD switched the location to SoCal, and he probably fudged a few of the details. This is fine. The nature of meth is that shit tends to get really weird really fucking quickly.

So, the album. Let’s get back to that. The second track, “Palmcorder Yajna”, has turned into a bit of a hit. It’s played live quite a bit, and has turned into some kind of horrible sing-a-long. I myself have been guilty more than twice of shouting along to line like “and I dreamt of a house haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out.” The headstones climb up the goddamn hill. It’s a kind of catharsis to be able to shout these words at the world. I have more dead friends than I have time to remember. “Palmcorder Yajna” tells us it’s OK to be OK with this, it’s OK to move along. It’s an important few minutes.

“Linda Blair Was Born Innocent” begins with a simple plucked bass string, before an acoustic guitar kicks in, followed by the lyrics “gentle hum of the old machine”. This is the sound of bodies in motion, headed downtown to buy drugs, and maybe find love. Love is always a key motivator in these songs. Unfortunately it is the second key motivator, only to that which engulfs everything. The song is subtle, and belies a million things, but it comes along so sweetly, and so swiftly that it can easily be missed. This song is a key in a way, however. Motivations are made known here. It’s possibly one of the most important tracks on the record.

Track 4, “Letter From Belgium” seems to be little more than tweakers being tweakers. It’s filled with lines of useless junk that could easily be other junk. Stage makeup, electrical equipment... send us everything just as long as we don’t have to see the sun. The song feels like a bad memory. I remember spending an entire night smoking shit, before going out to shop Garden Grove mall at 6am. These things happen, don’t tell me they don’t.

“The Young Thousands” is next, and I have no idea what that phrase means. This song is scary if you get into the lyrics: “The things that you've got coming will do things that you're afraid to. There is someone waiting out there with a mouthful of surprises.” The song is a continuation of the previous one. Methheads on the march, methheads being methheads. It’s also the first time JD mentions ghosts, and the first time you get an idea of just how haunted these people are.

“Your Belgian Things” has the narrator telling a woman that her possessions are OK. This is pure methhead logic, and it’s brilliant. The song is basically reassurance. JD doesn’t say this, but it’s what he conveys: “your stuff will be Ok, so you’ll be OK.” The he reminds us that: “a tiger’s never going to change his stripes”. He misses this person, he wants them as they are, and he doesn’t care what condition.

The next track, “Mole” has the narrator visiting a friend in handcuffs, and full of tubes in the hospital. Of course, all he wants is information, or why would he have come out? We have no idea what kind of information, however. This is a portrait song, a brief glimpse of what one might be up to when they’re all fucked up on drugs. The hope is there, still “out there in the desert we’ll have no worries” and “I came to see you up in intensive care.” This song haunts like few others on the album. It could be a continuation of the previous song, but it seems more likely that the narrator is speaking of a different person.

Next up is the balls out rocker “Home, Again, Garden Grove.” It’s also the first song that feels like full blown meth psychosis: “plotting triumphant returns to the city, keeping Tec-9's tucked under the floorboards.” Shortly thereafter is a key line: “now we are practical men of the world. We tether our dreams to the turf.” These are characters that have ceased carrying about their hopes and ambitions. Now they only have one goal. That is to do meth, and steal shit.

“All Up the Seething Coast” is probably the simplest song on the album, but it freaks me out the most. It starts as a simple list of daily living, but the spoken word gets scary. A few lines: And nothing you can say or do will stop me. And a thousand dead friends can't stop me” followed by “I go back to places I remember. See what's been going on without me.” Those lines ruin me, for reasons I’ll get to later.

“Quito” has the narrator back to his inflated self-worth. It’s the dream of a king returning: “when I get off the bus down there my children they all are going to greet me at the station.” He’s not unapologetic either. “When I got off the wheel I’m going to stop and make amends to all I’ve wounded.” The things is, he feels as if he has a magic wand, which will right all wrongs, and convince people to submit to his will. It’s meth psychosis, again.

I always think of the song as “Have To Explode, “but “Cotton” is the montage moment. You can see every person mentioned in this album walking around like they’re in the in the SIMS. “This song is for the people who tell their families that they're sorry for things they can't and won't feel sorry for.” If you’ve been there you know exactly what is being said.

I watched tMG play this song in Portland this June and it was especially brutal. I looked up as JD sang the lines “I wanna sing one for the cars that are right now headed silent down the highway” and I could feel the pulse of traffic. He continued: “And it's dark and there is nobody driving.” I remember what it is like to know that nobody is driving. This is the penultimate track on the record, an honesty that can’t be reversed.

The second to last track is “Against Pollution,” and it is pure hallucination: “When I worked down at the liquor store, guy with a shotgun came raging through the place. Muscled his way behind the counter. I shot him in the face.” The second and third verses are more plaintive. It has the feel of an epilogue, the narrator seems to be either looking back on the past or anticipating the future. It gives the feeling that some people do survive this, no matter how much they don’t deserve it.

The last song “Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of” is basically “Going to Jail.” The narrator is defiant, but relatively resigned to his fate. His ego is there to the end, however: “I come from Chino so all your threats are empty.” So the album ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper, leaving us to either hit play again, or contemplate what we just heard.

The title of the album itself is a prayer. It’s also bullshit. Practically no one who goes through the mire is OK. We survive, yes, but we’re forever haunted. WSABH exists to urge us on to our lives as regular people, while acknowledging our pain. The problem is there are wounds that will never heal. As I write this I’m a month and a half shy of 30. I realize I’m lucky. It gives me hope that the friends I haven’t heard from are OK. Sarah I miss you, Robin you too.

By Jeffrey Whitelaw. Mr. Whitelaw lives, works, and attends school in Seattle, Wa. His previous music writing can be found here and here.He is currently thinking of six ways to prove to you that you're wrong, but can be contacted at

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On The Life of the World to Come

(or Lessons I learned from this Biblically based album)

The lyrics “made for the chapel with some spray paint…” do not seem like something that you would hear in spiritual music. This is because the Mountain Goats’ album The Life of the World to Come isn’t like other religious music that focuses simply on praising Jesus. Rather than spreading pro-Christianity messages, the album focuses on the reason why people become spiritual and their spirituality helps them throughout the hardships of life. Each song on the album is titled after a Bible verse, save for one song being two verses and the final song being a whole Biblical chapter. John Darnielle, the frontman of the Mountain Goats, described this album on their official website as “twelve hard lessons the Bible taught me.” Most of the songs are very vague in nature, leaving the listener to decide what these lessons inscribed in the songs are.

These twelve songs convey lessons that anyone could learn from reading the Bible, regardless of their religious beliefs. These are my own personal interpretations of the songs.

The first song on the album is titled “1 Samuel 15:23” and describes how the narrator goes against Christianity and creates his own religion. The Bible verse reads: “For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king." This verse helps show that the narrator of the track is rebelling against practices and inventing his own arrogant religion.

“1 Samuel 15:23” starts with the line “I became a crystal-healer and my ministry was to the sick.” Crystal healing is a alternative medicine that has no scientific backing. Going back to the Bible verse, the crystals could be interpreted as idols of sorts. The song seems to ironically juxtapose the narrator’s methods to those of Christianity. The uselessness of prayer is just as arguable as crystal healing. The song goes on to say “I sewed clothes for them/cloaks and capes,” proving that his practices are structured similar to a covenant of a religion would be, rather than just hospital healing.

The lesson I took out of this song is a cautionary one: people will and have always developed and followed spiritual practices out of desperation. The lines “my house will be for all people who have nowhere to go” and “all sad faces at my window/I would welcome them inside” sum this up explicitly. People want to believe there is some greater power that can heal them of any ailment. The chorus is: “Go down to the netherworld/plant grapes” which is a metaphor to create something new in something barren. The grapes being a religion and the netherworld being the world in which we live in.

The second song is “Psalms 40:2” and ties in perfectly with the lesson of “1 Samuel 15:23.” However, rather than developing religion out of desperation, this song deals with joining one. It tells the story of a group of law-breaking travelers seeking a connection with God. The Bible verse “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand” is modified and used as the chorus to the song. In an interview with Pitchfork, Darnielle describes the song by saying “One way you can get really close to God is to sin as hard as you can,” he goes on to say that “[y]ou're not supposed to, but you can test God by doing a lot of terrible things.”

These rebels in “Psalms 40:2” are definitely testing God. They “made for the chapel with some spray paint” and “left that place in ruin,” yet they were “drunk on the Spirit” during the desecration of the church. The narrator asks out to God by saying “Lord, send me a mechanic if I’m not beyond repair.” After these acts, the narrator exclaims that “He has raised from the pit and He will set me high.” The “He” being God. Through these acts they are feeling closer to God through their sinning and their fear of damnation for their transgressions.

The lesson is the fact that everyone in their lowest moment will turn to a God, even if they do not have faith. This sheds light onto why a lot of people choose to believe in a religion: fear. It is the fear that nothing can save you from the inevitability of death and that there is no significant meaning to life. Darnielle explains to Pitchfork that the song is expressing “that your ideas of God will come to rest upon you in your moment of profoundest degradation.” He also poses the question: “When do you cry out to the God you don't believe in?” This question supports the lesson perfectly, rhetorically showing why non-believers would cry out to God.

The seventh song, “Romans 10:9," also deals with the relationship between faith and hardship. The narrator of the song is at the end of his rope and keeping stable through religion. The Bible verse reads: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The chorus of the song does exactly this, saying: “If you will believe in you heart/and confess with your lips/surely you will be saved one day.”

The narrator in the song “Romans 10:9” is going through a deep hardship, in contrast to the upbeat nature of the song. The narrator says lines such as: “don’t feel like going on/but come on make a joyful sound” and “don’t see what the point is in event trying to fight/look for the bigger picture when I close my eyes real tight.” Through all of the hard times he still proudly states that “a kind and loving God won’t let my small ship run aground.” The lesson is as simple as that. You can use faith as a way to hang on at the toughest times in your life. Darnielle tells Pitchfork that “you have these moments where you look for something to reach for. I think that’s when people are very vulnerable to joining up with religion, when they’re looking for some sort of promise.”

The eleventh song is titled “Isaiah 45:23,” and goes hand-in-hand with “Romans 10:9.” The song deals with having intense faith no matter how terrible life currently is. The Bible verse: “By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear” is the motto of the song’s narrator. The end of the verse is sung in the lines: “Let every knee be bent/and every tongue confess.”

The narrator in the song is in the hospital, about do die. The chorus “and I won’t get better but someday I'll be free/‘cause I am not this body that imprisons me” states that although the person is dying, they are looking forward to death as a passage to a peaceful afterlife. The person praying thanks God for the wonderful life they had by saying “let me praise You for the good times/let me hold Your banner high.”

The lesson behind the song is very similar to the lesson of “Romans 10:9:” Not only can faith can get you through the most terrible times, it comes to you when you need it most. The narrator speaks to God, “should my suffering double/let me never love You less,” and “If my prayer goes unanswered that’s alright.” The person is calmly waiting to leave the world for a better place they are sure exists.

The fifth song, “Hebrews 11:40,” gives a more optimistic view of why people have faith than the previously mentioned songs. It tells a story of a man down on his luck in a terrible world, but is confident that he will someday reach eternal happiness. The Bible verse: “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect,” stands as the prime belief of the narrator. The chorus: “If not by faith then by the sword/I’m going to be restored” takes the Biblical verse into consideration. By dying, the sword being a metaphor for him being killed, he will join God in Heaven, becoming restored and made perfect, since having faith while being alive won’t completely restore him.

From the single Biblical verse alone the lyrics do not make complete sense, but when it is taken into context it becomes clear. The verses prior to “Hebrews 11:40” tell about people who believed in non-Christian religions and practices and how they were killed and tortured for it, never getting what their religion promised them. The Mountain Goats’ song explains this in the lines: “Masks hanging on the tomb walls/Where the coven grieves/Witches hiding in the brambles/Ground level down where the dry leaves/blow and burn slowly/No ground is ever gonna hold me.” These lines describe covens suffering and witches slowly burning but never getting the retribution they were promised.

The ultimate lesson hidden within “Hebrews 11:40” is that people choose to have faith because they believe that they will get eternal happiness from it after death. The line of the chorus: “if not by faith, then by the sword…” is a reference to verses earlier in chapter 11 of Hebrews where they start with “By faith…” regarding many different people and events. The second part of the line references the verse “Hebrews 11:40,” that He has something planned for us after we die. The chorus can translate to: “Not by faith alone, but by death I will be complete in the kingdom of Heaven.”

The twelfth and final song on the album is titled “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” and shows another way people can find faith in God. This song tells a story of a man who has committed murder and is driving to Mexico. In an interview with Paste Magazine, Darnielle explains that the song is about “someone who tortures someone to death.” The lyrics of the song are much more vague than this, only giving the listener the lines “someone will need to mop this floor for me” and “I had his arms tied up behind him/We were together all day.”

The chapter Ezekiel 7 of The Bible explains that God brought an apocalypse onto Israel for their sins, sparing no one. This chapter is juxtaposed in the title with the term “permanent efficacy of grace.” Grace is God’s gift of love to people who do not deserve it. God is definitely showing grace to the narrator of this song; after killing the anonymous man, the narrator finds their car “like a cathedral in a dream of the future.” The chorus: “Drive 'til the rain stops/Keep driving” shows God’s grace in its truest form. Although the narrator has committed this horrible sin, God lets him escape without punishment.

The lesson behind this song is that some people will take getting off innocent, or God’s grace, depending on what you believe, for granted while some will actually become spiritually connected to God from it. This is the permanent efficacy of grace the title mentions. In Ezekiel 7 the people of Israel learned that they were wrong and died for their transgressions, but without God’s wrath they would have continued to sin. While in the song the narrator, blessed with grace, becomes “High as the clouds now/Flying” and possibly changes his ways.

The fourth song on the album, “Philippians 3:20-21,” deals with how we live and what people believe happens after we die by focusing on a man who committed suicide. Rather than dealing with why people have faith, such as the six songs previously mentioned, it shows why people may lose their belief in God.

The verses of the Bible describe what Christians believe happens after death:

“But our citizenship is in Heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

The man’s constant struggle with depression, leading to the suicide, is shown with the lines “Hope daily for healing/Try not to go insane/Dance in a circle with bells on/Try to make it rain.” The death in this song is shown in the chorus with the lines “nice people say he had gone home to God now/safe in his arms, safe in his arms.”

Darnielle talks about the message behind the song with PopMatters, stating:

“the Catholic church doesn’t generally having [sic] a problem teaching that suicides go to Hell, and their case seems to be on solid doctrinal ground, too—but do you really want to worship a God who’d make somebody without enough internal strength to resist the urge to self-annihilate?”

This question poses a good argument about religion. This Christian belief that people who commit suicide go to Hell is touched on in the chorus of the song as well. After the positive beginning of the chorus, “nice people say he had gone home to God now/safe in his arms, safe in his arms” the lyrics go on to say, “but the voices of the angels that he heard on his last days with us/Smoke alarms” which brings up the fact that he did not go “home to God” like the people are saying he did. Since he committed suicide, the angels supposedly told him he was rejected from Heaven. The “smoke alarms” line is a metaphor of the angels indicating that he is cursed to the fires of hell.

The lesson to the song is that there will constantly be things to make a religious person question God. “It's kind of an angry-at-God sort of song” Darnielle tells Pitchfork. He also mentions that “in the case of people who are so damaged they wind up taking their own lives, well, you’d think an all-powerful God could have prevented that.” This thought leads back to the questioning of why people who commit suicide would go to Hell. It argues that ultimately God is the one who decides if the man will end up killing himself when creating him.

“1 John 4:16” is the eighth track on the album and also deals with the testing of faith. It is an account of a man facing hardship from being a Christian. The Bible verse reads: “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” The song begins with the line “In the holding tank I built for myself/it’s feeding time.” The holding tank is a metaphor for the belief in religion. It is a holding tank from problems the person is facing because of it. It is also a place where he can obtain food, which is a metaphor for the positive things people find in religion such as comfort, piece of mind, etc.

The song later describes his comfort in God with the chorus: “And someone leads The Beast in on its chain/But I know you're thinking of me ‘cause it's just about to rain/So I wont be afraid of anything ever again.” The Beast is a figure in the Book of Revelations related to Satan. The aforementioned holding tank led the narrator to this fate of facing The Beast, a feat that Christian’s had to endure in Revelations. Yet during this, the person feels that God is watching over the event, so there is no need for fear.

The lesson behind “1 John 4:16” is that your beliefs will constantly be tested, and in the mist a true believer will surpass the trials. This is expressed further with the lines: “And if the clouds are gathering, it’s just to point the way/to an afternoon I spent with You/when it rained all day.” The “You” being the God he believes in and the clouds being shaped from Him, leading the person to a path of what they believe is righteousness. This metaphor is extended from the chorus and the line “The endless string of summer storms that led me to today.” The string of summer storms being the way his God and his belief in God has mapped out his life.

The ninth track is “Matthew 25:21.” Similar to “1 John 4:16,” it focuses on the concept of facing trials. It is a first-hand account of a person watching a loved one die of cancer. When compared to the concept of the song, the Bible verse chosen to title this song gives it an “angry at God” feel, as if dealing with death is an assignment to surpass. The verse reads: “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” This teaches the reader that if you surpass a burden, you will get even heavier burdens to deal with, the burden in the song being the death of a loved one.

The song starts off describing the situation: “They hooked you up/to a fentanyl drip/to mitigate the pain a little bit.” It goes on to explain the emotional effect that watching someone pass away has on a person with the lines “Tried to brace myself/but you can’t brace yourself/when the time comes/you just have to roll with the blast.” This line pokes at the Bible verse as a way of expressing that although he completed other tasks, the narrator was not ready for one this intense. Later in the song another set of lines of desperation poke at the Biblical verse yet again: “And then came to your bedside/and as it turns out/I'm not ready.”

The lesson to this song is that you will be faced with many responsibilities and hardships in your life that you have to overcome, no matter how impossible they may seem. Despite the fact that the narrator felt unready, as any person would, to leave someone they love, they were still able to get through it. The song concludes with the lines “And you were a presence full of light upon this earth/And I am a witness to your life and to its worth/It’s three days later when I get the call/And there’s nobody around to break my fall.” Although there was nobody to comfort the narrator through this tragedy, the positivity of the mindset that they knew this amazing person who passed away proves that the person will be able to get through it after all. The lessons of these previous three songs never tell the listener to find solace in God, but rather just state that there will be many problems in life that will either make people skeptical that God exists or angry at God.

The third track is “Genesis 3:23” and, in contrast all of the aforementioned songs, does not deal with spirituality. The words from the Bible verse “So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken” are used to express the emotion Adam felt from leaving his homeland, rather than the concept of being literally banished from somewhere.

The narrator “picked the lock on the front door” and entered the house of which he used to live. The lines “see how the people here live now/Hope that they’re better at it than I was” shows that he lived in this house at times of hardship. He then starts to recollect his past experiences in the house. Although the lines “hours we spent starving within these walls” and “fight through the ghosts in the hallway” tell that the narrator had a lot of bad memories there, he is happy recollecting that part of his past.

The lesson behind this song is that no matter how bad our life has been, every horrible moment defines us as a person and makes us who we are today. Darnielle explains to Pitchfork, “when you go back to the places where the pain was at, you find that there was more stuff there, and that there’s stuff about it that you miss just because it’s you.” This lesson is supported with the lines “Drive home with old dreams that play in my mind/And the wind at my back.” Thus the good and bad memories are now meshed into dreams while that past is behind him.

“Genesis 30:3” is the sixth track on the album, and doesn’t deal with spirituality either. The song is about a couple who is madly in love with each other. The verse of the Bible is also about two people who are in love. Darnielle, in an interview with Paste Magazine, says that the Biblical story is “the most beautiful love story [he’s] ever heard in [his] life.” The verse reads: “Then she said, ‘Here is Bilhah, my maidservant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family.’” In this story, Rachael is unable to bear children for Jacob, so she decides to give her servant Bilhah to him has a surrogate. The fact that Rachael decides to do this arrangement ties into the Mountain Goats song perfectly with the chorus: “I will do what you ask me to do/because of how I feel about you.”

The lesson behind this song is simple: true love will be able to surpass any hardship. The song reads simply as a love song, with lines such as: “Sounds kind of dumb when I say it but it's true/I would do anything for you.” Furthermore, it explains that although bad times are coming, they “had a hard time believing” because they were so in love with each other. Although there is trouble ahead, the narrator feels safe and explains it with the lines: “you keeping care of me/keeping watch.”

The tenth track, “Deuteronomy 2:10,” is the last of the three songs to not touch on spirituality. It shows three separate accounts of the last living creatures of now extinct species. The Bible verse: “(The Emites used to live there—a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites.)” is just a parenthetical verse that many people would pass up without much notice or thought. Darnielle commented on the verse in an interview with PopMatters: “that is the saddest thing I ever heard, this whole race of people who’re just a parenthesis now.” The fact that most people wouldn’t pay attention to the small parenthetical verse supports the sadness of the race being extinct. It is almost as if they never even existed.

The first verse of the song is an account of the last Tasmanian tiger, the second is the dodo bird, and the third is the golden toad. The end of each verse is similar to: “Feel in my bones just what the future has in store/I pace in circles so the camera will see/Look hard at my stripes, there'll be no more after me.” Each one ending with the last line “there’ll be no more after me.”

The lesson behind “Deuteronomy 2:10” is that everything at some point will die and be almost forgotten, no matter how numerous or powerful. One race of powerful giants were marked down to no more than a parenthetical reference in the Bible. When this occurs, the last member of the species can do nothing and gets rendered virtually useless to its unchangeable demise. The line “I have no fear of anyone I'm dumb and wild and free,” from the verse about the last dodo describes this perfectly.

These twelve songs from the Mountain Goats album The Life of the World to Come hold lessons that were taken from the Bible. Most of these lessons deal with why people believe in religion and how faith will be tested, rather than persuading the listener to believe in God. A few others have different meanings, such as “Genesis 3:23,” which describes how your past defines you as a person. Also, “Genesis 30:3” covers love, “Matthew 25:21” explains that you can surpass any task, no matter how daunting, while “Deuteronomy 2:10” expresses that everything is mortal and will someday inevitably die. Although the album has Christian overtones, you can still take something of importance out of this album regardless of religious beliefs.

By Josh Grube: Mr. Grube is currently a Mass Communication student working for his college's newspaper and indie/alternative radio station. He also enjoys making videos and music.