I made a quick post on the KDR Facebook page the other day about the Mountain Goats song, “Genesis 30:3″. I’ve been pretty well entrenched in Darnielle’s writing for weeks, reading the lyrics to every song online before I even listened to some of them. I’m about to finish my MFA, finally, at a school in Louisville starting in August, and between that and editing the poetry journal, I’ve been trying to surround myself with the right words to put me in the right frame of mind. There’s not too much better than the Mountain Goats for that.
But what I discovered (quickly!) was that a lot of the people who read my blog are either (a) diehard tMG fans, or (b) had never heard of them. Fair enough. I’m one of the weird few who always liked what I heard, but never delved too deeply into the music of the back catalogue for one reason or another. That all ended last weekend on our trip back from Lexington. We’d already listened to a couple of new disks (The Deep Dark Woods, for one), and my husband put on The Life of the World to Come. If you don’t know much about the record, it’s a concept album based on different specific verses in the Bible (hence, song titles like “Genesis 30:3″). A lapsed Catholic and someone who has done extensive interviews about his own non-believing, John Darnielle has expressed his awe in the Bible many times. None quite as extensive as this record: and in fact, I’ve read enough interviews in the last week to know that it upset some people on both sides of the coin, bringing some unquestioning believers and militant atheists together.
“1 John 4:16″
But at The AV Club Darnielle is quoted as having said: “Every good songwriter at some point addresses Biblical stuff. Maybe one or two people who only like one song saw the track list and went, “Oh, now he’s a Christian songwriter.” I hope they hear it and enjoy it, but I’m not writing for them. I’m writing for people who look a little harder than a title. I was actually more concerned that Christian listeners would hear it and take it the wrong way, not take it as a Christian record. It’s neither nor. It’s not an explicitly Christian record. It’s not an anti-Christian record. It is engaged with Christianity.”
This might not seem like it has much to do with me giving you a list of good songs to listen to, but it has everything to do with it. Because like Darnielle said of the Bible– you have to engage with Darnielle to understand his music. He’s written literary songs (like one of my favorites, “Love, Love, Love”), Biblical songs (all of the previous record), and songs about his own life. He’s written some of my favorite love songs of all time. He’s written about Denton, Texas! I felt like until I read a little bit about him– and a little bit from him– I couldn’t fully understand why his music did to me what it did.
And it has messed me up. I’m moved and drowning in music in a gut-punch way that I don’t always feel anymore, now that I’m a grown-up. Because as we were driving down the highway, talking over the music– I wasn’t even listening to the words– I realized I was crying. Pretty hard. This wasn’t a cute, feminine weeping. Every single time Darnielle hit the chorus, “I will do what you ask me to do/ Because of how I feel about you,” I started crying again. And it’s because there is something deeply, deeply human about his characters and his music. They are screwed up, they are broken, they are triumphant. And he ties them all together with his knowledge of literature and art, and seems to be able to help make the listener more whole, patching their cracks with these stories.
So I’m going to tell you what songs to listen to. Then I’ll give you a couple of links to things I read. Then you should go buy all of his music and go see his shows, because I feel like not having seen him live is one of my greatest failings as a music blogger (of course, I didn’t realize that until recently, but there’s always time for a new regret, haha). Then, go to Daytrotter and download all the excellent stuff they’ve got there, too. Join me in this indoctrination. Let’s all get together and talk about how this is the best music we know. I wrote on Facebook that I was pretending that the Mountain Goats were the only band left on earth, and that for a while, even if that were true, I’d be happy. As the hours pass and I commit more lyrics to memory, I’m more convinced that that’s true. The blog MamaPop describes seeing him live like this: “He spits you out into some blinky new world that feels better than the one that hurts all the time.” His words do seem to ease the human condition. Wow.
Anyway. Without further adieu, etc. All of the record titles link to iTunes where you can purchase the entire record. After reading Dave Lowery’s article about file sharing last week, I want to make sure to do my part and link to places you can purchase. (If you want to debate that article, we can do that, too, that’s fine.)
SEVEN SONGS THAT HAVE MADE ME MORE WHOLE
Disclaimer: As a recent tMG convert, these are just some of the first ones that reached out of the speakers and slapped me in the face. I’m sure this list will grow and change as I learn more.
“Woke Up New,” Get Lonely, 2006
Just in case you were thinking you could get through Darnielle’s entire catalogue easily… Get Lonely is his tenth record. And there have been a lot of good ones since. But I would recommend you starting here– it’s where I started, and I love it. I’ve loved this record and this song for a long time. It was on in the car the other day and Grace asked, “So is he happy or sad?” I think the fact that she knew to ask that question means that Darnielle writes complexity with a beautiful directness.
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
And I wandered through the house like a little boy lost in the mall
And an astronaut could’ve seen the hunger in my eyes from space
Everyone has lived through a day where they woke up and their entire world was different and new– but no one else knew or cared. There’s an innocence to the narrator, but the sadness is all laced with the hope of what’s next. I’m currently in a phase where I don’t think there’s a better record on earth than Get Lonely, so this isn’t the only song I think you should listen to…
“Moon Over Goldsboro”, Get Lonely, 2006
This is another one of those moments where I was absolutely shocked by how good the song felt the first time I listened to it. It was like going from some polluted atmosphere into a place with clean air again. Just amazing how good this song feels. I’ve listened to it a hundred times this week (sadly, not as close to an exaggeration as I wish…) and it’s still as powerful as the first time. Part of what is so effective about this song is the darkness in the music (the same dusk hangs over “Girl With the Cobra Tattoo, also on Get Lonely; it’s another song I love). Something I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that probably 90% of my favorite artists are insanely detailed when it comes to setting. This might be the most vivid setting I’ve heard in a song. I feel like I went on this walk with him:
I went down to the gas station
for no particular reason
Heard the screams from the high school
It’s football season
Empty lot the station faces
Will probably be there forever
I climbed over the four foot fence
I was trying to sever the tether
Moon in the sky
Cold as a stone
Spend each night in your arms
Always wake up alone
I lay down in the weeds
It was a real cold night
I was happy ’til the overnight attendant
Switched on the floodlight
There’s not a single misplaced word or phrase in this song: it’s exactly perfect. It’s shaved down to the essentials to pack the greatest punch. A line like, “Frost on the sidewalk/ White as a bone” is so precise as to be surgical: which is why it’s amazing and breathtaking that the song ends as a reflection on his relationship–
And as I was crossing our doorstep
I hesitated just a moment there
Remembered the day we moved in to our small house
’til the vision got too vivid to bear
You were almost asleep
I lay right down next to you
held your head against my chest
And a guy with any kind of courage
would maybe stop to think the matter through
Maybe hold you still and raise the question
Instead of blindly holding onto you
But we crank up the heat
And you giggle and moan
Spend all night in the company of ghosts
Aways wake up alone
Huh. I was really going to try and cut down on this some, but I posted almost the whole song. And I can’t find anything to cut. It’s seriously the most perfectly, exactly written song I’ve heard in a long time. I can’t get those strings out of my dreams or my nightmares. Perfect score for both.
“There Will Be No Divorce”, The Coroner’s Gambit, 2000
This is the band’s fifth record. Darnielle is the only person listed on it, for the most part– because the record is basically him and acoustic guitar, recorded on a boombox and, some tracks, on a four-track recording machine. It almost feels like he’s said, “Sit down, I just wrote this song.” And that’s really effective with intimate songs like “There Will Be No Divorce.” I love the title of the song– it never occurs in the lyrics– but it’s one of those things that colors the rest of the lyrics. It’s a simple, beautiful love song, and I’m in awe of how good the story is.
And you were sleeping on the floor,
Breathing free and even,
If I ever want to drive myself insane,
All I have to do is watch you breathing
And at 5 AM, I turned the radio on,
And an old man’s voice sang a short sweet song,
And then the static roared again hungry for blood…
And you gathered your hair behind your head
Like god was gonna catch you by the pony tail,
And then the old voice crackled through the static.
And I felt young and alive
And the hair stood up on the back of my neck
We were rising from the grave, yeah yeah.
“Up The Wolves,” The Sunset Tree, 2005
One of the best examples of how Darnielle uses other people’s stories to become your own, the chorus of “Up The Wolf” literally goes, “Our mothers have been absent/ Ever since we founded Rome/ But there’s gonna be a party when the wolf comes home.” But the lyrics in this song more accurately describe my transition in the last few years than any song I know. It’s hard to describe everything that’s happened– my father-in-law’s illness, our wedding, becoming a stepmother, the housefire, all the job insecurity and change– without sounding fictional. But it’s caused a sea change in who I am. But I like who I am better now– if that makes sense. I’m more ready for the things the world has to throw at me, and I think I’ve realized my place in the world better– even if that means I’m less invested in my own significance. Some of those discoveries were sad to me. This song is perfect.
There’s bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet
No matter where you live.
There’ll always be a few things, maybe several things
That you’re going to find really difficult to forgive.
There’s going to come a day when you feel better.
You’ll rise up free and easy on that day.
And float from branch to branch,
Lighter than the air.
Just when that day is coming, who can say? who can say?…
I’m going to get myself in fighting trim,
Scope out every angle of unfair advantage.
I’m going to bribe the officials.
I’m going to kill all the judges.
It’s going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage.
Plainly stated: there are many Mountain Goats songs that are anthemic. This one is mine. This is my anthem. I feel like I’m being generous to share it with you.
“This Year,” The Sunset Tree, 2005
So here’s an anthem for you. I feel like this is one of those songs that feels universally good to scream along with. (I have to be right on this.)
My broken house behind me
And good things ahead
A girl named Cathy
Wants a little of my time
Six cylinders underneath the hood
Crashing and kicking
Listen to the engine whine
I am going to make it through this year
If it kills me
I am going to make it though this year
If it kills me
But in case you haven’t figured out that Darnielle doesn’t know how to write a simple song that only works on one level, this song has an incredible powerful turn. After telling a pretty straightforward story about driving around as a 17-year-old, meeting up with Cathy, and getting drunk while playing video games– the kind of story that is nostalgic even for someone who didn’t live it, because it’s collective nostalgia– Darnielle shifts gears.
I drove home in the California dusk
I could feel the alcohol inside of me hum
Pictured the look on my stepfather’s face
Ready for the bad things to come
I down shifted
As I pulled into the driveway
The motor screaming out
Stuck in second gear
The scene ends badly
As you might imagine
In a cavalcade of anger and fear
There will be feasting and dancing
in Jerusalem next year
I am going to make it through this year
If it kills me
I am going to make it though this year
If it kills me
I don’t feel like there’s really anything else to add there. The song speaks for itself. And there’s something to be said for a song that shows a narrator facing consequences: songs are so short as to usually only be a glimpse, either the actions or the consequences. Darnielle has such a keen eye for the big picture that he can tell the whole story in a few words.
“Southwood Plantation Road,” Tallahassee, 2002
Tallahassee is the best record I’m not talking about more. In fact, it’s got one of what appears to be Darnielle’s best loved live songs, “No Children” (which is a phenomenal song, it’s included above: but I’m still unpacking it). But this was one of the first songs that jumped out at me, and with Darnielle, I let his songs select me– it’s worked so far. This is an awesome song– a little bit more anxiously paced than some of the other’s I’ve posted. Like a lot of my favorite Darnielle songs, there’s a love song here– but it’s certainly not going to be easy, ha. It never is for Mountain Goats characters.
I’ve got you,
You’ve got whatever’s left of me to get.
Our conversations are like minefields,
No one’s found a safe way through one yet.
I spend a lot of money,
I buy you white gold.
We raise up a little roof,
Against the cold…
All night long you giggle and scream,
Your brown eyes deeper than a dream.
I am not going to lose you,
We are going to stay married.
In this house like a Louisiana graveyard,
Where nothing stays buried.
On Southwood Plantation Road,
Where the dead will walk again.
Put on their Sunday best,
Mingle with unsuspecting Christian men.
“Genesis 30:3,” The Life of the World To Come, 2009
This is the song that kicked everything off for me. I’m not sure a better, more loving statement has ever been made than, “I will do whatever you ask me to do/ Because of how I feel about you.” This song is based around the story of Jacob and Rachel, and that doesn’t surprise me: that story is one of the definitive ones in my life as a writer and to me personally. It’s phenomenal writing, and, as I think Darnielle himself said (I have done so much reading, I can’t remember where), it’s the first romantic love story in the Bible. This song has some pretty brutal lines that imply even sadder things than that story does, but it all comes back to, over and over, “I will do what you ask me to do/ Because of how I feel about you.” I wish I had known this song before I got married; I wish I had known this song my whole life. It feels like a waste of time that I hadn’t immersed myself in it the second it was released back in 2009.
And after printing all these lyrics, I was reading and re-reading this song trying to figure out which ones to print and I realized, I can’t. As much as the lyrics are perfect, you just have to listen to this one. It’s worth the three minutes– and it will hit you so much harder. Because I don’t doubt for a second that there is light and truth in Darnielle’s delivery. It’s a powerful experience, and I think he’s definitely achieved what he set out to with this record. I would advise, though: as much as this is now my favorite love song of all time, it’s not an easy song. There is real hurt and sorrow here– like in any real love story.
OK. So. There’s some homework I guess, haha. I know there are (quite literally) hundreds of other songs I could have chosen, and I expect that many Mountain Goats fans are going to be frustrated or confused that I didn’t pick theirs. But that’s the best part about Darnielle’s lyrics: they’re so ridiculously personal. I’m excited to get to share my obsession with you guys before it truly crests. I’m excited to see where this music takes me.
FIND THE MOUNTAIN GOATS ONLINE:
(And by the way: I heartily endorse following Darnielle on Twitter (he’s very funny) and checking out the blog: he’s not just a good songwriter, he’s a good writer. I’m always into reading more from someone talented.)
CATCH THEM ON TOUR (IF YOU CAN FIND TICKETS):
22 - Rio Theatre , Vancouver, BC
23 - Columbia City Theater [SOLD OUT], Seattle, WA
25 - Mission Theater [SOLD OUT], Portland, OR
27 - Swedish American Hall [SOLD OUT], San Francisco, CA
28 - Swedish American Hall [SOLD OUT] , San Francisco, CA
30 - McCabe’s Guitar Shop [SOLD OUT], Santa Monica, CA
28 - Antiwarpt Festival , St. Petersburg, FL
6-8 - Hopscotch Festival , Raleigh, NC