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.

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