The Mountain Goats
I'm going to skirt through the givens of the Mountain Goats so I can get to what results the formula produces. Here we go: he's recorded approximately 7000 songs on 700 albums, largely recorded on jamboxes in a rush, his songs have been fiction until the last three where he fessed up to writing about himself, he has a pronounced penchant for hormonally charged acoustic guitar runs over which he spills a mix of deep insight and repurposed cliché pronouncements in the service of The Poetry of Life, and his best song is probably "This Year" of The Sunset Tree, where all these things came to a head and provided the perfect tension in his product line required so that he could slingshot into something new.
That new was the quiet, reflective Get Lonely which found center of the Goats' cosmology John Darnielle in darker spirits; still clever as hell but coming off broken, both in the shattered glass and bronco context and, frankly, I was a little worried about him. I met Darnielle once, briefly, and he hugged me, but I'm not saying I know him in a buddy kind of way. I know him the way you know an author you follow or a basketball coach. You talk about them in familiar terms, as if you expect them to bust in the room and say "Hey, what are you guys all talking about?"
The thing I get off him, or more precisely, get off on about him, is that I immediately internalize the arc of his songs as they fly out of the speakers, his dropping of smarty-pants literary references, his peccadillo for Black Metal, the way he keeps talking and talking until he rounds the corner to The Point. He feels like a more articulate me, talking about me in his songs. And this level of narcissism on my part is heresy, feeling everything to be ensared by tendrils of my unique being, stretching out like starving roots, desperate to tap into a wet something and suck it dry in the service of my own persistence, but fuck, y'all - who doesn't feel that way? Like Chris Bell, I am the cosmos! We are the world! If we aren't, then the nihilists are all right and it all is for naught, that we "just keep living." Do we really want to take a Matthew McConaughey catch-phrase as a mantra? I don't know about you, but I lack the abs to pull it off so I take pride in my heretical celebration of the self.
Heretic Pride opens with "Sax Roemer #1" a guitar strum and the thud of hand drums, with Darnielle cool, collected working up to I am coming home to you if it's the last thing I ever do. The song takes its name from the author of the Fu Manchu action franchise from the 20's and the imagery is borrowed from countless scenes of harbor-side tension between shady criminals on boats in the fog, but it s all exploding the self into scenes and machinations laden with cliché and slippery meaning. It's awesome. On the title track, he pictures the crowds coming for him ala Frankenstein or Jesus or maybe, just maybe, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Patrick Susskind's Perfume which has a superb climax of being destroyed for being too alive.
The key track on the album is "Autoclave" where he (and by "he," I mean the character in the song, though I don't completely believe there is all that much narrative distance either) steps back from all this messianic glory and views himself as the wretched unlovable mess he is, and then steps back into it, and then defuses it with a succinctly played pop culture groaner:
I am this great, unstable mass of blood and foam,
and no emotion worth having can call my heart its home.
I dreamt I was perched atop a throne of human skulls
My heart's an autoclave
I dreamt that I was perched atop a throne of human skulls
On a cliff above the ocean, howling wind and shrieking seagulls
And the dream went on forever, one single static frame
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name
That, my friends, is a song. This album is crammed to its heaving choking gills with great songs as it desperately flops on the floor of your boat, trying to get back in the water, but like the many scenes of depicted herein, the point of it is to consume all and therein, be consumed.
Darnielle has hit his stride on this one, the flame-outs of his more effusive songs woven tightly with his increasingly tender touch. "So Desperate" is a sweet microcosm of love experienced in a car parked outside a church with a falsetto and guitar plucked gently enough to have come from a young Alex Chilton. "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" is on the other hand, an amped-up nervous rocker, the narrator embodying the horror writer seeing the world as a nightmare like that he's created - I woke up afraid of my own shadow, like, genuinely afraid. This is the downside of being the center of the universe, just as you feed off everything else, the rot inside you seeps out into the soil through those same roots; instead of you becoming a summation of the universe, the universe becomes populated by you. Perhaps it's basic thermodynamics, that pressures allusive themselves across the fragile membrane that is you, and by "you," I mean me. And perhaps, just perhaps, this same hyper-inflated sense of self is what orders the planets and stars into orbits around me, and that the causal mess in which we find ourselves is not because we are all that important but instead because we don't take care of business like the rest of the zombies out there paying bills and whatever other boring things they do. Perhaps. Maybe I'll know more after I listen to this record twenty more times before the sun sets on my own glorious horizon.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com