Holding aloft a flickering torch for John Darnielle’s older stuff
by Gordon Campbell
A few weeks ago, the AV Club went and published a ‘best of the Mountain Goats’ list consisting entirely of post-Tallahassee songs (and/or live performances) by John Darnielle… So for posterity, here’s a matching set to the contrary. I don’t really want to be the grandpa banging his cane on the porch and insisting that pre-Tallahassee beatbox Mountain Goats was when he was really at the top of his game….even though I hold that premise to be true, or feel its defensible at least.
For the usual reasons too. As in (a) the sonic expansiveness post-Tallahassee has been at a cost in immediacy and (b) for the past decade, he’s written far too explicitly about stuff, from the outside in. It didn’t used to be like that. Ironically, while the songs he recorded pre-Tallahassee were also fictions, they seem more personal than the overtly autobiographical material on The Sunset Tree, and since. I know, this is a very tired debate, one re-ignited solely by that infuriating AV Club list. At the live shows anyway, it all goes through the MG blender, and comes out good. And besides “No Children” is on the Tallahassee album, which blurs the lines. A little.
So….. lets hitch a ride back one more time back to the days of the Panasonic boom box and the wheel grind, when a man could make the punk rock with just an acoustic guitar, a heart full of joy, a stomach full of resentment and a head full of book learning.
1. Overview : For me, “The Whole Wide World” has always seemed to sum up the early MG project. It is about being awed and transfixed by the very fact of one’s own pantheist place at the epi-centre of the sensory world. As you do feel, age nineteen. “ Going to Georgia” on the other hand, is the inescapable Magnum Opus : a song about evil weakening its resolve in the presence of beauty, in a narrative with beyond Raymond Carver levels of economy. Forty miles from Atlanta, this is nowhere….man, there was such certainty in his writing at this time.
2.Sense and Sensuality The Full Force Galesburg album provided the name for an early blog in the Listener and later, for the Galesburg music promotion company in Wellington. “Weekend in Western Illinois” is the keynote track : a song about hope, geography, and carnal/canine joy.
“ Going To Queens” is the other obvious choice on the same subject, with Rachel Ware sharing the vocals ….
On another sensory plane entirely there’s “Original Air-Blue Gown” which starts out as a small miracle of observation :
Rain all burned away
the horseflies are an iridescent green
plums boiled down to pulp
drying on a screen
Bright red air inside the house here
I can barely draw breath
Dark blue shapes pop behind my eyelids
I am not afraid of death
Yet having anchored the song in detail and in mortality, Darnielle turns to what is transient and preciously alive :
…..Sailing headlong into nothing
and disappearing, reappearing
Out there in the clearing
floating down the slight breeze
that plays along the edges of the leaves
Finally, the other key songs from FFG are (a) “Maize Straw Drinking Blood” – which has some intense imagery ( the sad young cardinal trying to sing, followed by the” I should not be allowed to touch anything” line ) and (b) “Masher” which – once again – shifts from precise observation of physical chemistry out outwards to the ineffable :’ I am losing control of the language again….’
3. Geography etc. Around the time Darnielle met and married Lalitree, a number of terrific MG songs emerged that name checked aspects of India – “Raja Vocative” is one, and “Yoga” is another that come immediately to mind. Yet the best is “Jaipur” (from the Coroners Gambit album) and it demonstrates just how well Darnielle could bring jarring elements together – Moses in the rushes, old Testament images and spirituals, modern day terrorism, Indian cooking, the palatial glories of old India, the cityscapes of Atlanta etc – and still drive the whole careering thing home :
Yeah I came to the gates of the fabled pink city
hungry, and tired, and mad as all hell
swing low sweet jewel-encrusted chariot
make me young again
make me well
I am the killer dressed in pilgrim’s clothing.
I’m the hard to find stations on the AM band.
I am the white sky high over Tripoli
Iam the landmine hidden in the sand…..
“Jaipur” builds on a simple enough idea : that the past and the present, what culture bestows and what we learn from experience co-exist in us at once, jostling for attention. The other great example of this sort of cultural roadkill/overkill in the MG repertoire is ‘Grendel’s Mother’ – which takes the Beowulf story and then (as did John Gardner’s terrific novel Grendel) directs all of our sympathy to the monster. ‘I beat down a new path to the castle /I come naked and alone…’ Again, the song has a great opening line : “The cave mouth shines/from sheer force of wealth…” And has there ever been a better image of bloodlust & desire ? “And I will carry you home/ I will carry you home/ in my teeth…”
4. Humour, Wit etc. Back in the day, Darnielle could also be pretty funny. No dour sentimentalist, he. Not ust overtly on ha ha songs like “ The Anglo-Saxons” or “Big, Big Rabbit” either. Given that he has since devoted entire albums to the legacy of his abusive stepfather Mike Noonan, it is kind of amazing that on an early song like “Cao Dai Blowout’ he could treat a visitation by the ghost of his father with such scary levity:
On the Coroners Gambit album – not exactly a cheery collection (eg“There Will Be No Divorce” ) he also tossed in “Insurance Fraud No2” which depicts a failing relationship as if it the whole debacle was being backlit as some lurid newsflash on CNN….
Bag full of oily rags, fifty cent lighter
dreams of retirement in Cancun burning ever brighter….
Burned out shell of a Volkswagen,
blood stains on the driveway,
torn up Mercedes, by the side of the highway
big plans, big plans
let me tell you something sister,
you will never get away with it.
You were sitting in the recliner with the TV on,
when you said something evil and then you were gone,
Explosives in the water main,
a blown fuse
College graduation photograph
splashed all over the six o’clock news…
5. Bile A Plenty For obvious reasons, “No Children” has its myriad devotees. Good. Yet if you’re really of a mind for the bitter songs of co-dependence and recrimination that Darnielle has always excelled in, lets not forget “Alpha in Tauris” ….probably my favourite installment in the series of songs about the Alpha Couple…That’s partly because it sounds so strung out and haunted, and partly because of this lyric, which is the sort of detailed, reflexive moment that you only notice when you’re locked in mortal combat with someone you love :
My hand brushes against the lock of hair that hangs down past your ear to your jaw
it’s real neat, the moment’s sweet, but it’s all wrong
Plus from the Sweden album here’s “Prana Ferox” : an even more claustrophobic song about the links between home brewed chemistry and domestic warfare :
6. The Wheel Grind. Finally – if there’s anyone still with this, here are a couple of hard ones to listento. Real heart-of the-boombox tracks. Dating from when Darnielle was singing this stuff into his cassette player after a hard day’s effort in a nursing home for troubled kids in Ames. Iowa. Can’t logically explain why I’ve picked “Chinese Rifle Song” out of the crowd. Maybe because it has such a laconic, desolation-in-suburbia quality to it :” I lay out on the patio/dreaming….” And yet those Chinese rifles keep on popping off somewhere nearby, as he reclines on the chaise longue, with one hand dangling down onto its hot redwood frame…The song paints a picture of lassitude, in the face of random menace. I guess we all do that, hoping we won’t be hit.
“Quetzelcoatl Comes Through” on the other hand, is a brief shot of pure dread. “He came spitting fire /on a day like no other/ Tried to hold you near to me /heard him passing over/ He made a banquet for the stray dogs of the air/he put our love in clear perspective…rising, rising rising…”” Over and out.
Yes, there is more …there’s “Snow Song” and “Bad Priestess” ( “with your super-special eyelash trick”) and“ Going to Maryland” and “Monkey Song” and “Bad Doctor”…Is there such a thing as a bad Mountain Goats song ? Not many before Tallahassee, I would wager. And I know… I haven’t listed a single track from the All Hail West Texas album. I’m a FF Galesburg and Zopilote Machine man, myself.