Saturday, February 11, 2012

On Sweden and its Orphans

“So there you are in your room and you’re not by yourself, though you feel as though you are. And the same thing is going on in your intended’s mind, but nobody’s saying anything about it. Because a lot of people, including the people in this song, think, ‘Y’know, if I just don’t say anything then magic will happen and everything will change.’

Nothing will change. Only thing that’s gonna happen is they’re gonna fall back into an old behavior pattern and for somewhere between 20 minutes and three hours, depending on how much they’ve had to drink, it’s going to feel really, really intense, but then afterwards it’s a bad situation. This is called ‘I’ve Got the Sex.’”

-John Darnielle

“It stoned me to my soul, stoned me just like Jelly Roll.”

-Van Morrison

There was a time when Sweden was my favorite album. I remember declaring it the only album anyone would ever need. Not since discovering The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan at 16 had my young ears heard an album that inspired such evangelizing. Sweden even had the advantage of being obscure to the general population which lent my mission a previously unknown sense of necessity.

Where I had simply been the latest in a long line of mop-headed, bookworm Dylan disciples, the Mountain Goats remained a non-factor in most versions of the pop canon. Even 15 years after its release, when The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee have brought the world an unexpected appreciation for John Darnielle’s literary bleat, Sweden remains a cold, dense, mystery rarely suggested as an entry point or highlight of the discography.

I discovered the album at an age when bitter romance and heartbreak held greater appeal than happiness; at an age when music was not meant for the background. I listened to it closely and often. I studied its lyrics and its liner notes, even the stories John told about the songs before playing them live. Sweden rewarded me with the comfort and companionship that only a cold, dense, mystery of an album can give. Each listen reopened time-sutured memories and revealed new angles from which to interpret the seemingly simple songs and impossibly complex lyrics.

By the time I discovered the cult of Mountain Goats fans and got to discussing the album’s merits with those who knew it best, my mind was hungry for the theories of time travel, Gods, violence and true-to-life confessions that fellow devotees would throw at me. Alone together, we listened, discussed and drank. These days it’s hard for me to listen all the way through Sweden, but not because of an emotional toll or unwanted remembrances. I don’t shiver when the first chords of “The Recognition Scene” ring out. I don’t hurt alongside the narrator of “Snow Crush Killing Song” and I don’t yearn for the returning past in “Downtown Seoul” (though I’ll never stop smiling at the gentle scolding that opens “Some Swedish Trees”). The album is old to my ears.

It is far from crossing into the territory of embarrassing former obsessions, but it has fallen from the front of the list of albums I throw at every passing stranger. I’m a happier person these days. I live a life of my own choosing. I admire people who are looking to improve the world rather than those attempting to destroy themselves and their surroundings. It’s easier to fall asleep and it doesn’t hurt when I wake up. On especially good days I can admit my own ambitions to myself. When Sweden made sense to me, ambition didn’t.

According to Darnielle, there were two songs left off Sweden. “I’ve Got the Sex” was the album’s original opener. The tape was left at home when he went to the studio to master the album. As a self-identified Mountain Goats fanatic, this story always bugged me. It does not come close to explaining why the song was actually left out. Leaving a tape at home is far from an insurmountable problem, but I’ve yet to hear a more detailed or alternate explanation. Needless to say, this perceived misdirection only fueled speculation that the song was somehow more important than any committed to wax.

“I’ve Got the Sex” seems to be a thesis along the lines of “The Recognition Scene,” though one performed with more intensity than the album for which it was written. It’s a furious storm before the agonizingly slow descent into destruction that follows. Despite the song’s power, it would have, perhaps, been repetitive on the album and, perhaps, slightly out of place with the rest of its mood. Relatively rare live performances maintain its impact and help fuel the band’s devoted fans.

“Duke Ellington,” the other song left off Sweden, is the one that will truly never lose its place in my heart. It doesn’t have a back story and is performed live even less than “I’ve Got the Sex.” The plot is almost non-existent: Our narrator watches a musical performance and is affected by it. That’s it. There are brief mentions of Sweden and an undefined “you,” but nothing even as coherent as the unspoken center of “Neon Orange Glimmer Song” and certainly nowhere near the detailed storytelling found in late-era Mountain Goats songs.

This song is, thus, a relic of an older time in Mountain Goats history. We’re given fragmented thoughts and images without context and left to piece together the mess ourselves. Here, the narrator seems to be going through the same process himself (it’s a man singing and there are no other clues, so, for the purposes of this paragraph, “him” it is). The performance breaks him up, it causes him to reevaluate the memories he’s accumulated. His conclusion -- “I’d had just about enough of losing things” -- represents a reversal of “The Recognition Scene’s” acceptance, and even romanticizing of loss (“I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone”). The pain may not be over, but its resolution is finally, at least, a goal.

And then John pressed the STOP button and sent the tape to a different label for a compilation.


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