ESSAYS AND WRITINGS ON THE WORDS AND MUSIC OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS

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 http://popwreckoning.com/author/jwhitelaw/ and http://blog.kexp.org/blog/author/jeffreywhitelaw/. He is currently thinking of six ways to prove to you that you're wrong, but can be contacted at istayedupallnight@gmail.com.

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 √úbersong 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 (http://singsallysing.bandcamp.com ) and Cyco Sanchez Supergroup (http://garagepunk.ning.com/profile/CycoSanchez).

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 istayedupallnight@gmail.com.

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.

Monday, August 22, 2011

On "The Monkey Song"

Clocking in at just under two minutes long, the straightforward structure and direct, evocative lyrics of “The Monkey Song” place it among the pantheon of early hits by the Mountain Goats’ songwriter John Darnielle. However, the listener will find this song to both exemplify and define much of the difficulty of early Mountain Goats upon a careful reading. This work seems immediately playful, but the disorientation that the narrator feels vis a vis the Monkey spills into every aspect of the song. This lays the framework for a destabilizing of the form and function of the song in post-modernity.

The narrative structure of this song augurs a style Darnielle would later develop and turn to with increasing frequency; content bereft of context – an indistinct Something that is the unknowable quantity at the apex of the scene. That is to say, the details that the listener has access to feel trivial, but they’re the only ones immediately available. This device illustrates the fractal construction of the “I” of Darnielle’s protagonist, obviously Spectacular in nature; the Monkey’s origin eludes him because he eludes himself, incapable of disposing with cursory concerns. The dedicated listener must not make the same mistake, for how the Monkey got there is merely the most obvious of the myriad questions raised here.

Let us first distinguish the multiple perspectives at play here. The narrator pleadingly beseeches us for information about the Monkey, but Darnielle is both the conduit for the narrator’s cries and the reason his plight exists. Experienced thusly, while the song communicates the depths of the narrator’s confusion, the reprise is also a sly wink from Darnielle to the observer; he is the mouthpiece for a question to which he alone holds the answer. The listener, of course, once this is apprehended correctly, can access Darnielle’s point of view through a symbiosis of the textual and extratextual Something(s).

Ambiguity of tenses characterizes the song almost as much as ambiguity of action. The nature of time is here unclear; temporality is. None of the second verse aside from “the animal noises you used to make” gives the listener any grasp the chronology of events, indeed calling into question whether “the sonic boom” &c. have happened yet. That is, the “when” in the third line does not indicate a point in irreversible time (the construction and ordination of experience according to the logic of industrial civilization). The fact the narrator conflates the Monkey’s existence with its presence suggest that items/animals/people exist only inasmuch as they intersect with his life; his socially constructed conception of time/being is unraveling, as is the tenuous grasp he has on his Self as a discrete being.

How the Monkey “got there”, it turns out, is an essentially discrete question from where the Monkey “came from”. However, both are red herrings, insignificant except as part of the interrelatedness of Monkey-Narrator. The clear inference of the “perfectly aligned” heavenly bodies is that Something is no coincidence. To wit, it is the sine qua non of the work and whatever the listener may derive from it. The Monkey was always already in the basement. Additionally, the Monkey may well exist solely to the narrator; the non-action of the narrative relegates their relationship (as well as to the “you” in the second verse) to a purely psychological one, and the ensuing dilemma is certainly his alone. His general perplexity is symptomatic of his inability to engage with his role as a force of alienation rather than in collusion with totality.

Many of Darnielle’s tactics at this point in his career border on detournement. Purists wring their hands and proclaim the Mountain Goats early output (the Philyra EP, where this selection originally appears, has “Winter 1993” emblazoned on the minimalist front cover) to be “truer”, bereft of self-conscious traditional songwriting aspiration in opposition to the more recent portion of his body of work, thus closer to life. The low fidelity home recordings are supposedly an externalization of this hands-on approach to gritty realism. Rather, as has been shown, the noticeable whir and condensing of analog recording implements is appealing precisely because it disrupts the listener’s chances of construing this Spectacular exercise as anything but. Aforementioned contradictions here (echoed elsewhere on “Zopilote Machine”, “Chile de Arbol” and the like) serve to further push the listener to examine and play with the way their experience and emotion are mediated through song.

By: Brian Z. Thompson. Mr. Thompson is a college dropout. He plays music in Dead Uncles, Escalator, and Nervous Nellies.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Satanic Messiah

Satanic Messiah. Some would say the title is deceptive. The Aeron Alfrey cover, perhaps, too, wrapped in a black background and a blood red grotesque in the foreground. With its four, quiet, sparse little tracks spread generously over two 7 inches in a thick, well-constructed gatefold, it is not music that one would likely expect if blindly given a hard copy without any prior knowledge of the Mountain Goats. But it seems that Satanic Messiah wasn’t conceived to win over new listeners. With only 666 copies made and distributed independently, the physical version has already become one of the holy grails of tMG collections and seems targeted for those fans that must own everything tMG related.

Satanic Messiah represents the turning of some corners for the band. For one thing, the band experimented with the pay-what-you-want digital distribution model for which Radiohead made headlines a year earlier with its massive digital pre-release of In Rainbows. While suggesting a price of $6.66 (perhaps a little steep in an age in which ITunes was selling single tunes at $.99 a pop), no payment was required, and no judgments made of those who paid nothing.

The EP’s hard copy release of 666 copies both enthralled the fan base that knew and relished Mr. Darnielle’s pre-occupation with death metal and dark themes, and served as a predecessor for the limited release of the vinyl version of the band’s next full length album, The Life of the World to Come, which offered 777 purple vinyl LPs. It is interesting to note that, while the number 666 and the name of the EP generated very little controversy with the band’s fan base, the 777 copies of Life of the World to Come, and its concept of naming each tune after a bible verse, caused many in the fan’s hardcore base to protest, worried that Mr. Darnielle was turning his band into a Christian one.

While Mr. Darnielle never wavered from his self-identification as a recovering Catholic, neither a devil-worshipper or Christian evangelist, the contrast between the names of the respective albums and the numbers of hard copy releases seems much starker than the difference between the musical content of the two. Quieter and more introspective than the band’s prior full length release, Heretic Pride, Satanic Messiah could almost be seen as a deliberate predecessor piece to The Life of the World to Come, a musical and lyrical complement in many ways. With more piano than guitar, more whispering than full-on singing, Satanic Messiah is comfortable listening, alone and at night, waiting for the ghosts to show themselves.

The work reflects a return by John Darnielle to a more isolated method of recording, albeit a temporary one. While Mr. Darnielle spent much of his earlier career with nothing between him and his audience other than a Panasonic boombox, in the years following his signing with 4AD Records, the band’s albums became more and more complex, adding layers of studio musicians and increased production efforts. With Satanic Messiah, there is almost nothing other than a sparse piano played by Mr. Darnielle. and little, if any, production. While Scott Solter is credited for committing the music to tape, there is no producer attribution.

The EP begins with the teasing ivories of the song Satanic Messiah, the tiny silence of the clean piano notes foretelling what we would later see in droves from Mr. Darnielle on The Life of the World to Come. The melody is so subtle it almost isn't there, until the tenth listen confirms its careful shape and structure. So different from prior offerings, this song is a determined and undeniable shift in the band's direction. There is new ground be covered, it announces bravely.

The lyrics are something else entirely, grim warnings and dark forebodings of a personality cult leader that would be the end of us all. Recorded between May and July of 2008 and released a month before the presidential elections of that year, the parallels between the unnamed antagonist of the song and then-candidate Barack Obama seem hard to ignore. While Mr. Darnielle vigorously denied any allusion to President Obama, the song's opening words, "I saw the posters popping up around the city, pale blue and washed out red," seem an easy reference to the political posters of Shepard Fairey.

Next up is Wizard Buys a Hat. This writer had the good fortune to be in attendance at the band’s charity gig at Brooklyn Masonic Temple, where this song was played for the first time, months before the EP's actual release. Along with an opening act by the quite hilarious John Oliver, the show revealed a version of Wizard far different than the one that ended up on the wax. Loud and raucously boot-stomping, the Masonic Temple version provides a hint of desperation that is largely absent from the studio version. Supported by the deep droning of a bass drum, the narrator sings quietly, gingerly, though his words are still framed with barely unnamed dangers.

Sarcofago Live quickens the pace a bit, with soft, misty piano bits barely accentuating the chug of the acoustic guitar. Mr. Darnielle's words drop in clearly and cleanly over the dual instruments, the sibilants strong and precise. And in the final tune, Gojam Province 1968, we hear the haunting musical suggestions of what we would later hear in Deuteronomy 2:10. What we hear on this EP, and on this song in particular, is the beginning of things to come. We hear the joyful sound of a man falling in love again with an instrument that he will continue to explore, with which he will continue to dance.

And that is Satanic Messiah. A threatening name and ominous cover masking a quiet intense quartet of carefully written and barely produced songs, which seem to somehow float above God and the devil, speaking with the glorious forked tongue of at least one of them.


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.