The Mountain Goats

stylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.

Did you stop to read the stock Seconds blurb above this sentence? It’s a column that awkwardly tries to dignify transcendence—charming, antiquated transcendence—in music. As a column, it’s a loss leader for the project of looking into how or why music moves us: find your Seconds, line them up, see what happens in them. A detour to introspection. And a hopeless ideal, because getting out of those moments to try to talk about them is almost always impossible. And that’s totally fine with me.

Listen, I’m a Mountain Goats fan, and as a Mountain Goats fan, you have, I think, signed an abstract agreement with The Spirits by some manner of psychic bloodshed to not only accept John Darnielle’s pinpricks of clarity and revelation, but to bob in their wake, to tremble at their touch, to laugh at their insight, etc. It’s the difficult high you chase in the music—the second that shines. Arcing narratives, tape hiss, “ultra-literate” and “referential” lyrics abound, but when you get down to it, the Mountain Goats are almost entirely about moments wherein some quality of the song—the performance, the recording, something—explodes its content into something less close-readable, something dependent on experience.

Take a song like the hands-down MG classic “Going to Georgia,” about a couple’s reunion: “The world throws its light underneath your hair, forty miles from Atlanta, this is nowhere.” It’s a micro-drama; the town is so small that the sharpest detail John Darnielle can give is “forty miles from Atlanta.” The real emotional fissure is in the last chorus: “The world shiiiiii-iiines, as I cross the Macon County line, Going to Georgia-a-aeh-aaaaa-uh.” On the italicized syllable, his voice cracks clear through the tape, his medium buckles under him—go find it and listen, you’ll see what I mean. MFAs at Iowa will develop massive ulcers trying to capture this feeling; in one moment of fine coincidence or accident, “Going to Georgia” rattles the rafters, gives you a heart attack, and pumps enough dense feeling in the air to make the tires of the ambulance burst on the way to your rescue.

I saw him play last Halloween and—I shit you not—he was dressed like a priest. Maybe someone put him up to it, maybe he was mocking his fans, maybe he was accepting his honorary station. I mean, it’s just music, I guess. I realize there’s a zest of futility to this piece because I could write 1,000 words on half his catalog, so I encourage you to post your favorite Mountain Goats moments in the comments section. Anyway, small pen of possible miracles:

“International Small Arms Traffic Blues” from Tallahassee
“ISATB” is a hive for Darnielle’s deepest romance metaphors—“My love is like a powder keg in the corner of an empty warehouse, somewhere just outside of town, about to burn down”—and the emotional centerpiece of Tallahassee, the story of a couple ostensibly drinking themselves into oblivion. Their love is Level Omega-no-turning-back doomed, but Darnielle’s penchant for self-conscious melodrama on songs like “No Children” makes the collapse a subtle punch line about our emotional spirit—it’s more like a gas fireplace: fucking hot, but ultimately controllable and fleetingly sublime. On the bridge to this song though, the bleak truths of their relationship are too painful to overcome and too bittersweet to ignore; when Darnielle sings “There is a shortage in the blood supply, but there is no shortage of blood / The way I feel about you baby can’t explain it, you got the best of my love” he shies away from the mic at the end—“you got the best of my love”—letting the lines blow like smoke into the background, his voice shrinking like plastic from the first real fire he’s ever felt, the first real truth he’s ever told; the burns will be twice as bad because he lit it himself.

“Golden Boy Peanuts” from Ghana
Bryan Berge thought that this song was basically optimistic, but I’ve always disagreed. Our greatest reward in the afterlife is to be able to buy a particular variety of peanuts. When we get to heaven, we can shop some more: “There are no pan-Asian supermarkets down in hell, so you can’t buy Golden Boy Peanuts.” Our passion for consumerism reaches to the absolute depths of our spirit. And if you think it’s as slyly cynical as I do, nothing beats the quasi-biblical syntax of “If thine enemy oppresseth you, you must let him oppress you some more, so that when you go shopping in paradise you’ll find those magnificent peanuts from Singapore, with the”—fuck—“Drawing of the young Chinese farmer”: his voice strains to project a Cultural Revolution-style farce of optimism and spiritual redemption in work ethic contorted into a brand name by a company whose “young Chinese farmers” would be pretty into being able to even afford a bag of high-quality peanuts. Darnielle always seems both enthralled with and deeply suspicious of Christian “good life”/Alcoholics Anonymous rhetoric; the Golden Boy is one of his most emblematic characters.

“Quito” from We Shall All Be Healed
We Shall All Be Healed was Darnielle’s most overtly religious album; “Quito” is probably its most religious song, and maybe its saddest. Have you ever been to AA? People sit around drinking bad coffee saying things like “I got up this morning at 5:15 and took a walk along the river and god damn was it beautiful. I am sure happy to be here today. I think about how drinking got in the way of living my life on god’s earth” etc. etc. etc. “Quito” is about the guy just getting into AA; maybe he’s not even there yet, but damned if he’s not having fantastic visions about what his rehabilitation will bring: “When I get off the wheel I'm going to stop, and make amends to everyone I've wounded / And when I wave my magic wand, those few who've slipped the surly bonds will rise like salmon at the spawning.” Sane people don’t say stuff like this; you only say these things when you’re at the absolute bottom. In that sense, he’s pathetic, deranged. But right when he says it, Nora Danielson’s multitracked violins swarm in, twitching like the resurrected re-learning their bodies; if the narrator can’t make it come true in life, art will do.

“Waving at You” from Nothing For Juice
It always bewildered me that “Waving at You” didn’t seem to be more popular amongst Mountain Goats fans. I mean, the conceit is phenomenal: a guy in the midst of a divorce has a momentary lapse of reason on his ex-wife’s birthday; he goes to buy her a gift only to remember that they’re no longer together. It’s a quiet, insistent song; Darnielle closes the two verses with a waning chant of “Die hard, die kicking old habit of mine / Die hard, die hard, die kicking.” The guitar breaks into a gentle gallop but gets progressively more intense and percussive, clipping and distorting through the cheap microphone until it just sounds like a strobe of the chord, blasting through the fidelity of the song. Perhaps it’s the sound of the feeling that he can’t kill, perhaps it’s him beating the feeling out of himself; perhaps it’s just the sound of him cracking into tears. Really, the tension is that it’s all of those things, and something none of the words—however heartbreaking—can really convey.

“Going to Scotland” from Nothing For Juice
I would say that numerous are the times that I have sung the praises of “Going to Scotland,” but “shouting” would be a more applicable word. I think it’s one of the best love songs ever. Are you familiar with the idea that by flying your wildest, most anti-social tendencies, you’ll actually be able to see your friends and enemies very quickly? For example, if I go to a 24-hour zombie movie marathon in a sauna where all they serve to drink is carbonated water, I can reasonably assume that I will end up marrying one of the last three girls left in the room. Well, “Going to Scotland” is about a couple like that going on vacation, curiously hot for each other against a backdrop of silent wild dog packs, barn owls, and moss-dark hills. But their love—it’s pure. And you know it because Darnielle sings the line “I took your hips in my hands and I threw you down to the newfound, rich, brown, deep, wet ground—had a vision of you burning on my miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiind,” without breath, holding the last syllable for nearly five seconds, and still manages to force out one last chorus after it, an absolute castle of feeling.

By: Mike Powell
Published on: 2006-05-30
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