Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Mountain Goats: An Appreciation

(This will be a long post, but forgive me; it’s my 200th, so I’m celebrating with a clearance sale on logorrhea.)

My friend Brad and I once considered the following barroom question: If you were a musician who had to perform for one night drawing on the songbook of only one artist, who would it be? My answer -- and if memory serves, his, as well -- was Paul Simon. I still don’t see a way around him. Between his solo material and his work with Monsieur Garfunkel (if French is the most beautiful language, is there a less French word than Garfunkel?), you’ve got a treasure trove. Consistent yet diverse both melodically and lyrically, a palette of those songs could make anyone look good.

I bring it up because, despite my unchanging answer, I’ve spent the past four or five days unable to stop listening to the Mountain Goats, a band essentially composed of one guy named John Darnielle. (I've had several albums of his for several years, but this recent addiction is a new phenomenon.) And while a more old-fashioned music listener -- either one of my parents, for instance -- could appreciate much of Simon’s work but would run screaming after a couple of songs by Darnielle, he’s probably one of two or three songwriters (with the emphasis on writer) who I would put in Simon’s class.

He can’t sing particularly well, but it’s misleading to stop there. His vocals are raw, without argument, and would be judged immediately -- on several songs in particular -- as unlistenable by anyone with a bias against adenoidal voices. I’ll come back to that, though.

Darnielle’s lyrics are front and center, in many cases barely less so than if he was working as a poet. Since most of his songs -- especially those that came before his last couple of albums, and there were literally hundreds of them -- feature a very simply strummed guitar and the previously described voice-a-mother-and-maybe-a-few-others-could-love, and even those elements are amateurishly captured with antiquated recording equipment, it’s a good thing the lyrics are mostly brilliant.

When he was interviewed by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) in The Believer last year, Darnielle said:
I feel like there are some people who should be working more baroque forms and there are some people, like me, who are better suited to do something really simplistic. I did have classical training on the piano, and I’d like to think that if I devoted myself to it I could do what Franklin Bruno does. I guess it depends on where your heart is. For me, a three-chord song that comes in, does what it needs to do, throws in some little fill at the end and gets out of Dodge is always going to be what I love best.
Songs like “Family Happiness” -- and yes, he references Tolstoy in the first verse -- are mostly built with the ballast of several writerly styles; the occasional imagistic jab of a poem, the pleasingly detailed miniature of a good short story, and the more casual style of rock lyrics. The second verse of that one:
Long winding Canadian highways,
innumerable evergreens.
Weather forecast on the AM radio
says we'll be expecting highs in the low teens.
When I mouth my silent curses at you,
you can see my breath.
I hope the stars don't even come out tonight.
I hope we both freeze to death.
Look at the person I've turned into, tell me,
how do you like him now?
No standards of any kind, no creeds to disavow
I am right here where you want me
do what you brought me out here for.
You can arm me to the teeth.
You can't make me go to war.
OK, I should’ve mentioned this is one depressing dude. A friend was recently reading Philip Larkin and said it wasn’t helping his mood, which is understandable, and like Larkin, it's possible that Darnielle will only help your mood if: a) you’re so happy that even dour art won’t dent your armor, and might even make you feel that much better by contrast, or b) you’re so dour that dour art is the only kind that's currently consoling. (If I admit that it’s been b. for me the past couple of weeks, can we just move on? I promised myself this blog wouldn’t turn into a full-fledged diary. Thanks.)

Whereas Simon is often expansive in his sentiment, even when dealing with the thwarted hopes of specific people...
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field.
"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike:
They've all come to look for America
...Darnielle shows us human relationships that are absolutely claustrophobic:
We may throw the windows open later
But we are not as far west as you suppose we are
Hot wind coming off the water
The sky gone crazy with stars
While we stay here we imagine we're alive
Or this:
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
And go with unsuspecting Christian men
La la la la la
Or this (thanks for indulging me), more outward-looking in its initial observations but no less despairing:
Window facing an ill-kept front yard
Plums on the tree heavy with nectar
Prayers to summon the destroying angel
Moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector
And you
Those lines are the opening verse to “Tallahassee,” the title track of a concept album about a couple that moves to Florida and essentially drink themselves (or at least their union) to death.

And I suppose this is where I go back to his singing, because all of this sounds so grim, but it’s not. Or not quite. There’s something boyish about Darnielle’s tone, and like most effective singers, regardless of their natural gifts or lack thereof, he knows how to deliver his songs. And amid the long sentences and listed observations, he occasionally nails a minimal, elemental moment, as when he repeats “I’m coming home, I’m coming home” in “Elijah,” or sings “I am losing control of the language again” in “Masher.”

It should be clear at this point that anyone looking for musical tapestry is in the wrong aisle. In that same interview with Handler, Darnielle said of his younger years:
My prog friends thought Lou Reed was a joke. ... They would say “Do you like this because it’s funny that he can’t sing?” and I’d say, “No, that’s not it,” and they’d say, “Well it has to be, there’s no good guitar,” and I said, “It’s different from that.”
Darnielle is different from that, too, and different from Reed while we’re at it. Reed is all cool detachment (even if it’s ironic) in a lot of his best songs, whereas Darnielle is so invested that even his cheekiest material can be moving. That’s clearest in “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” which has a jokey title, and even many jokey lyrics (very casually crafted on the page, but again, delivered well), but somehow you empathize with its characters when you’re done laughing (or, even more impressively, while you’re laughing). I reprint the whole thing here because I think it’s instructive, and because I like taxing your patience in order to test your loyalty:
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
were a couple of guys
who'd been friends since grade school
One was named Cyrus
the other was Jeff
and they practiced twice a week in Jeff's bedroom
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
never settled on a name
but the top three contenders
after weeks of debate
were Satan's Fingers and the Killers and the Hospital Bombers
Jeff and Cyrus believed in their hearts
they were headed for stage lights and lear jets
and fortune and fame
So in script that made prominent use of a pentagram
they stenciled their drumheads and guitars with their names
This is how Cyrus got sent to the school
where they told him he'd never be famous
And this was why Jeff
in the letters he'd write to his friend
helped develop a plan to get even
When you punish a person for dreaming his dream
don't expect him to thank or forgive you
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
will in time both outpace and outlive you
Hail satan
Hail satan
Hail, hail
Allegedly, Darnielle actually has a thing for death metal, claiming that he can’t listen too much to people who traffic in his brand of quieter, more literary rock. From the same interview, and it’s the last time I reference it:
HANDLER: You are revered as a sort of cuddly troubadour.
DARNIELLE: I was always hoping people were afraid of me.
HANDLER: I’m not aware of anyone who’s afraid of you.
DARNIELLE: Then I’m not doing my job.
I can’t imagine people are afraid of Cyrus and Jeff either, despite their Columbine-like potential energy, because Darnielle makes them too three-dimensional for that. In The New Yorker last May, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote:
Cyrus and Jeff are familiar Mountain Goats characters, long on bad luck and short on problem-solving skills, and Darnielle, through his poetry, grants them the dignity that eludes them in their lives.
I disagree with this notion in general, and so here as well. Darnielle’s poetry doesn’t grant dignity to his characters, it simply illuminates the dignity already there. (It’s unfair to raise this distinction here, because it deserves further exploration, but I need some sleep and most of you aren’t still reading at this point, anyway.)

In the same piece, Frere-Jones calls Darnielle “America's best non-hip-hop lyricist.”

With all due respect to the great hip-hop lyricists, I really don’t think the qualifier is necessary.

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Blogger Dezmond said...

Great post. It was worth the length. I am interested in hearing some of this stuff.

I have two answers to your barroom question, by the way (this is if you don't have to take in consideration your own vocal range, etc...just looking at a body of songwriting work that would be consistently interesting all night).

1. Ray Davies. The singer and main songwriter for The Kinks. He has one of the most interesting and (from a lyric standpoint) varied body of work I've come across in rock. I'd love to put a cool set of his tunes together for an evening of entertainment.

2. Bob Dylan, BUT (before you say "oh, how obvious"), it would be cool to restrict yourself to only songs that have NOT appeared on his Greatest Hits albums. So, you could dispense with the "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Blowin' in the Wind" obvious choices, and just play deep album cuts all night. Those are still great, great songs...better than most peoples' A-List hits.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend Nick has a real hard-on for the Mountain Goats, and rightly so. He's been putting together recordings of his own songs that's he's written over the past few years. He's done all of this while travelling around from Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest and back and forth again. He's developed a whole persona around his band leader and the band itself seems to be developing a following.

This post and your description of the Mountain Goats made me think of him and his music.
Check him out if you get a minute.

5:43 PM  

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