“When I ask what’s next, it means I’m ready to move on to other things. So, what’s next?”
– The West Wing, Season 3 Episode 9
In the dwindling days of my college experience I fantasized about what it would be like after college when I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted. Nothing could hold me back now! I would have a degree and the world would be my oyster! I could finally dive into books, writing, auditions, training, spending emotional energy on the things I love instead of serving an institution I despised. I had summer and fall work lined up and I was ready to disappear into the mountains for half a year. I thought it would be pretty impossible to kill that momentum, but as of today I’ve been unemployed for exactly two months.
So far, it’s been pretty insufferable. I’m lucky that I’ve paid off my rent, otherwise I’d be homeless right now, but as it stands my home has become my prison. If I was working, I’d have a reason to leave the house but as it stands I can barely afford to get coffee or grab a beer, let alone get lunch with friends or spend the evening on the town. Most days, I don’t even change out of my pajamas. I just got approved to start Ubering, but that’s a choice between something that gives me heart-pounding, teeth-grinding anxiety (driving) and paying bills, buying food, and funding my writing habit. It’s hard to learn, write, and create when I’m pacing the floor trying to figure out how I’m going to pay my gas bill, so I guess making money takes the top spot in my list of priorities. If I was working, I’d qualify for utility bill assistance—one of the many lovely benefits provided by the state of Indiana to its poorest working-class citizens, in addition to SNAP and subsidized healthcare costs.
This is not the level of glamor I pictured for my post-college life.
I have really big dreams: writing plays, acting in Hollywood movies, the bright lights of Broadway, all that jazz and more. Sitting in my pajamas on my couch in Bloomington, this seems further away from me than the moon. I read interviews with people I admire—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jonny Sun, Chris Hayes, Chris Arnade, among others—and they seem so astronomically out of my league. I read their wikipedia pages, I try and figure out how I get to there from here. I don’t have Ivy League schooling, I can’t get into grad school, I don’t think anyone would ever pay me to talk about anything (what would I even talk about??)—I feel so incredibly inadequate. I want to do the hard work, the shitty jobs, bet my entire life on my own success, but I don’t even know where to even start. I don’t even know how to contact these people to ask them.
So, in August I’ll be moving: New York, Chicago, or LA. I figure I lack some of the connections that get me a fast pass to the in-crowd (Ivy League education, nepotism, a trust fund, a smokin’ hot bod) so my best chance is to put myself in the center of the crowd and make myself heard. As an extremely poor person, the thought of living in any of these cities terrifies me (I can expect my rent to DOUBLE or TRIPLE (!)), but that’s what needs to happen.
I’m from the Chicago area, so I know the rules of the game there, but I don’t have the faintest idea how to move to New York or Los Angeles. Even those cities feel far out of my league. Wherever I end up, it will be a practice in the power of self-confidence: lots of odds are stacked against me and the only thing I can really control is my work ethic, my self-ethic, and my attitude. I just hope that’s enough.
I packed up my apartment in May. I packed hastily: clothes wrapped around dishes, pens and CDs mingling with spoons and forks, Christmas lights and candles and pillowcases all tossed into a reusable grocery bag tied off at the top. When you pack up as frequently as me, you know exactly how much stuff you have. I have two skateboards, 86 records, 12 DVDs, 209 books, 8 skeins of yarn, four decks of cards, 11 N64 games—I packed it all into boxes and reusable grocery bags.
Every May, I pack up my home. I get a storage unit twenty miles to the north because I never remember to get one before all the students take them here in town. I plan to leave early so I can get into Kansas City with time to enjoy the town, but end up packing until the last minute and leave in the afternoon. I get into Kansas City after midnight, rocking back and forth in the driver’s seat to keep myself awake while sleepily singing along to whatever musical theater soundtrack I grabbed off my shelf. I sleep for a few hours and drive through Kansas in the morning. I get so sick of the soundtrack by lunch that I toss it out at a gas station in west Kansas (this is how I lost the copy of the Rent soundtrack I had signed by Anthony Rapp, rest in peace dear compact disc). I arrive in New Mexico and I go to the mountains. I go to the mountains and I don’t come back until August.
This year was different. This year I got a storage unit in town. I woke up early and grabbed Hamilton. I got into Kansas City at 6pm and ate real food, not whatever you call those gas station sausages that sit on the rollers all day. I slept for eight hours and got to New Mexico with enough time to visit friends. I went to the mountains and I didn’t come back until November. (P.S. – I still have my copy of the Hamilton soundtrack. Now to get it signed by Anthony Rapp…)
I graduated college in May, a seven-year journey with odds stacked heavily against me. Unfettered by my university schedule, regular employment, or serious relationships in Bloomington, I decided to do some soul-searching in the wilderness. That’s what I do for a few months every summer: soul-searching under the guise of employment at a youth wilderness leadership experience base. One year it was teaching astronomy, another it was playing music, then it was giving tours of an abandoned mine, and this year I directed a living history musical program—my resumé is complicated. The work I do is difficult to describe to people who haven’t experienced the place, but I’ll try. I hike long distances at 9,000 ft elevation to stand on a cliff and look at trees, often alone. I climb mountains and poop on the ground and drink water from streams (away from the poop). I teach high school kids how to be independent and self-sufficient, and they teach me things like how to do the whip and nae-nae (at least, they try). The summer is filled with priceless friendships and wonderful accomplishments, and the smiles of my kids are the fruits of my labor.
This year I watched all those friends and kids leave and I stayed for the fall season. The fall is different. The fall is cold, and there are no kids. I did what I was told. I hiked where I was told. There were no exceptions. It got dark early and I spent a lot of time sleeping. I didn’t have friends, I didn’t fit in with my coworkers—that happens, I turned my energy inward and continued soul-searching, albeit much more self-consciously.
At the end of the fall, I went back to Indiana because that’s the only place I know to go to. Two cars, two cats, six planes, 12,000 driving miles, and eight months later, here I am. Back in Indiana, looking for work, planning the Next Big One.
I’ve had a lot of time for soul-searching since May—there was a lot of alone time that was well suited for introspection and extrospection alike. I learned some things I’d like to share.
1. Happiness is made, not found.
Take it from someone who has bolted every time life flashes the slightest sight of bad news: you can’t run from unhappiness. After a bad relationship ended in 2012, I sold everything I owned and moved to a goat farm in northern California to live what I thought was my lifelong dream. It was warm, we were by the ocean, and there were goats—what more could a girl want? Turns out, it didn’t solve my problems. Why? Because I still had a bad work ethic, I still hated myself, I still had unresolved traumas, and no one was going to drive out to the goat farm to hand me the key to success on a silver platter. You can’t run from happiness, you can’t run to happiness. You won’t find the answers to your problems on the interstate, just like you won’t find them on a goat farm. I’ve been unhappy in 46 different states and never once thought to stop and consider the common denominator: me.
That is, until this fall. I realized that I’d been happy, I don’t know for how long, but the idea was frightening and confusing to me. I don’t know how to be happy! Yet, there I was, happy (I think). When the cold loneliness of autumn set in, I felt this eerie familiar feeling, like walking through a house I used to live in after someone else had moved in. I felt like I should be sad, but I didn’t want to be. My brain argued with my heart: “but you’re so alone! You’re so poor! It’s so cold! Trump is president! There’s no reason to be happy!” But I didn’t cave. I stayed content and made my own happiness, because I could. I realized then that, to some extent, unhappiness is also made and not found. The problems that caused my unhappiness, and my penchant for behaving like a textbook chapter on risk factors for suicide, were under control and I was living healthily and I was not unhappy. That doesn’t mean I had a blast, but hey, I didn’t die.
I know a lot of people who are still running, either toward an unknown happiness or from an unconfrontable unhappiness. I’m not running anymore, and I’m glad I stopped.
2. Community is made, not found, and it’s important.
I spent a lot of time traveling. I had a few periods of time off during my six-month employment, and did a lot of traveling in the two months post-employment. I went to Atlanta to help my mom find a new library, a new church, and a new coffee shop near her house. She’d just moved from Chicago, where she’d lived for the previous 57 years. I went to New York to see Hamilton and also saw friends, Josh Groban, and the Statue of Liberty. I went to San Diego (twice) and watched groups of surfers chat around mini-grills on the side of the 101. In between, I hung out with people on my delayed connecting flight in the Minneapolis airport. I taught a young girl how to play two chords on my mandolin in the Denver airport. I went to a super-cheesy tourist trap in Winslow, Arizona (take a guess) and took pictures of couples decked out in Harley Davidson gear. I went to a McDonald’s in every town and sat for a while, listening, just like Chris Arnade said to do. I learned that these small and sometimes temporary ad-hoc communities are the backbone of American society.
I spent most of my life thinking I was alone, friendless, unjustly disliked, thinking I just needed to keep traveling, keep moving, keep looking for the right people and the right place. This is, of course, insane. This is a function of a narrative I fed myself to externalize my self-abandonment and self-hatred. The same kind of people are everywhere, it’s just a matter of a shift in specific outlets for common interest and a shift in specific habits. Everywhere I went this year had the same kinds of people. Rural New Mexico has the same kinds of people as Los Angeles and San Diego and New York City and the suburban Chicago neighborhood I grew up in: families, people navigating office politics, people buying leeks and potatoes and onions and lunchbox baby carrots, people who do silly things with their friend groups, people who like to have Sunday football potlucks and who gather at the pub to watch the World Series. By abandoning the lie that I wasn’t worth spending time with, I’ve been able to find a temporary community everywhere I go.
It took a lot of painful soul-searching to discover that I was sabotaging my friendships and communities. I was over-committing then stressing out and taking it out on those around me. There are beautiful wonderful people who I’ve completely burned bridges with because I resented them for something I couldn’t control or because I wasn’t willing/able to keep up my end of the bargain. When I left the church in 2009, I lost the greatest and safest community I’ve ever known. Without a community behind me, I’ve been floundering since then. After my alone-time this fall, I’m invigorated to get involved in my community and surround myself with it and do a trust fall into it. It takes work to stay involved and stay interested, but eventually it comes naturally. I’m ready.
3. Never be too polite to accept an offer of kindness.
I was raised in a painfully midwestern household. I learned at a young age the complicated social mechanics that lead to coming to blows over who pays the check at an extended family dine-out event. I learned how to insult an ungrateful houseguest with the quality of my mac-n-cheese casserole (use panko instead of crumbled croutons). I learned to take my shoes off every time I entered a household—this is not a barn and I’m not an animal! Most importantly I learned that, under no circumstances, am I to take anything offered to me by a host, except maybe water if I know the person really well. Likewise, under no circumstances am I to fail to offer everything short of the sole benefits of my living will to any guest that walks through my door.
You see what I’m getting at. Welcome to the pain, stress, and confusion of being from the Chicago area. There’s a club for this, we meet two or three times a week in the warm season, at Guaranteed Rate Field on 35th street.
This behavior is something I had to grow out of very quickly while traveling. When I first started traveling as a lifestyle, I was couchsurfing. People let me stay in their home…for free! I brought food, or wine, or beer, or all three, and when I left I neatly folded my dirty sheets and towels (if I allowed them to give me towels (I’ve taken many showers using a sweatshirt to dry myself)) at the end of my bed. I went through my adult life for years not knowing that my aggressive politeness was…impolite.
Until Erin. Erin was a close friend who had me over for dinner every Sunday with her family. I went, I drank water, I ate modestly, and I aggressively attempted to do dishes in spite of her best efforts to keep me away. One night, she’d had enough. “Can’t I just do something nice for you, without you feeling guilty? Sometimes it’s polite to just take what you’re offered!” This was a major event for me. Now, when someone offers something, I take it. I’m not afraid, because this is part of the trust of friendship. You’ll make you a mimosa today, and I’ll hold your hair back while you’re barfing in the bush next to the Rally’s drive-through on New Year’s Eve. That’s just how it goes. Me saying yes has made people happy, given me opportunities, and pissed off no one. And thus, my Midwestern sensibilities are satisfied.
Part of accepting offers of kindness is letting go of the notion that I’m not worthy, I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve it. We all know that’s bullshit, and it’s a deep dark spiral of pain. Accepting offers makes other people feel like they’re doing something good, and it forces me to accept that I’m worthy, I’m good enough, and someone thinks I deserve it. So that’s cool.
I was able to put this into practice pretty regularly this fall, for the first time since opening my eyes to it. I can say this: it’s a good thing.
4. Don’t be afraid to fail.
A few years ago I tried something out: a friend told me the best way to show someone you admire that you admire them is to simply tell them, unconditionally. Sometime later, I was at a concert (okay, it was the Mountain Goats) and I stood in line at the merch table to talk to the lead singer afterword. People were handing him CDs and shirts and tickets to sign, and he was doing it politely, smiling with the gratitude of a singer-songwriter who makes all his money on tours and merch, and moving on to the next person, completely forgetting about the previous interaction (seemingly, but who am I to personify John Darnielle (actually…)). I wanted to stand out, not for me, but because I really loved him, his music had really touched me, and it was really important to me. I put my phone away, put my CD away, and when I walked up to the table I said “thank you”. I said I loved him, and the music had touched me, and it was important to me, and I thanked him. He hugged me fiercely and thanked me back. After a brief conversation about a shared trauma, he smiled with the gratitude of a singer-songwriter who makes all his money on tours and merch, and we both moved on. We became Twitter acquaintances and share a special smile at shows and I think he remembers me. If he doesn’t, I still think I did the right thing.
Since then, I’ve never been afraid to ask for something, as long as it’s coming from a genuine place. It’s extremely important to be genuine. I asked my employer, off the cuff, for a rare job opportunity and I got it. I wrote the president letters about my post-college anxiety and I got a letter back. Last year I went to LA and asked some comedians I like if they wanted to meet up—they did, and I made some friends. It’s as simple as asking, and part of that is owning failure, accepting failure, and telling failure to go fuck itself.
As many times as me asking for something has been successful, asking has also been unsuccessful. Those opportunities are dust in the wind, and who cares. I’ve made mistakes, too: the goat farm, the trip to San Diego where I blew through my savings, the time I took drugs at a frat party. We all make mistakes, we all fail, but taking that lesson and relaying it into further success is a skill that has to be learned and practiced, and it’s so integral to succeeding.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted one thing—to entertain people. I’ve wanted it so bad I think about it every day. Now I’m 25 and I’m not doing that, I’m a college graduate eating tortilla chips on her couch and who’s also been too afraid to pursue her dreams for too long. No longer. This fall I thought about what I’m still afraid to ask for, what I’m afraid to fail at. Of course, it’s the thing I want the most. Too afraid to fail to even try…what’s the sense in that?
5. I still have no idea who I am, what I want, or what my life should be.
I was sitting at McDonald’s at 9:30 AM in Sapulpa, OK, just outside of Tulsa. I’d been absorbed into a group of retirees that I’d sat next to. It was mostly elderly folks, a few “Vietnam Veteran” trucker hats, and some people my parents’ age. A few of them asked me about my travels, about my work in New Mexico, and soon I was talking about the finer details of my mental state. I told them that I have no idea who I am, what I want, or what my life should be. A man with a salt-and-pepper mustache laughed at me. “Honey, I’m 63 and I still ain’t figured that out. When you figure it out, come back and tell the rest of us.” The ones who were listening verbalized their agreement, and I heard some stories about long and winding career paths.
I’m terrified of the future. Sometimes I’m so terrified, I think of driving into oncoming traffic or joining the army or trying to get into prison—anything to take away the pressure of having to choose for myself what to do next. I have big dreams and we live in a high-stakes world. I’m privileged to be pondering my many options from the comfort of a rental home that my mom (mostly) pays for, eating food from the generous local food pantry. I’m privileged that I have time to search for the right job, and that a career as a writer or an actor is something I can even consider pursuing without fear of starving on the streets. It’s not any less scary. Failure isn’t any less scary, no matter the stakes.
I have a vague idea of what I want to do next. I want to move somewhere warm, write, and act. I don’t know if I want to do it forever, or if I can do it at all. I don’t know if it’s the “right” choice, but it’s what I want to do. It’s what I feel in my heart is the right step. I hope I’m making the right decision, I hope I’m not missing out on some better life as a pharmaceutical rep. I hope I don’t end up in my 50s with no savings and no plan for retirement, and I don’t know if that’s worse than looking back and wondering “what if…” after a life of pursuing security instead of dreams. Ideally, I’d be able to pursue both. We’ll see if that’s the case.
Here’s to owning failures, saying yes, finding a supportive community and, God willing, happiness.
Any one person’s origin story is complex and shrouded in mystery by the annals of time, but the most agreed-upon history is this: in the late 80s, John Darnielle was in his early 20s and was working as a psychiatric nurse at a state-run youth mental hospital in Claremont, California. It was around this time that he began getting more serious about his musical education. He had studied piano in his younger years, so he had an appreciation for classical music. He was also a modern nineties man with an appreciation for pop music. As a kid growing up during the disco era (he was born in 1967), he escaped into hard drugs and pop/dance music, so the dance-pop phenomenon of the nineties seemed natural to him. Influenced by his young hip personality and, ostensibly, patients at the hospital, he began exploring reggae, grunge and metal musics around this time, which inspired him to want to write his own music. In 1991 at the age of 24, he picked up a guitar and started learning chords out of a chord book. Too poor to buy his own chord book, he would carry his guitar downtown every morning to a local music venue. He used a chord book he found at the club, strumming chords slowly and quietly in the corner while the staff worked around him. Soon, he memorized a G chord, a D chord, an E minor chord, and an A chord and thus he had all the tools he needed for his multi-decade musical career.
MAJOR THEMES IN MOUNTAIN GOATS MUSIC
1. Unhealthy relationships. This comes out in many of the songs, but is most salient in the story of The Alpha Couple. This is a couple that John wrote like a hundred songs about. They are not real (allegedly), but their story can be traced from beginning to end through the years, culminating with the album Tallahassee (2002), which was a concept album entirely about the couple. With John’s help, fans have confirmed some chronology of the story. Songs are often identifiable by the word “Alpha” in the title.
2. Place/location. Going to X (“Going To Alaska”). John has written several dozen songs about going to various places for various reasons, usually to escape, but also about feeling connected to a sense of place. See: the map of every place mentioned in a Mountain Goats song. He frequently writes about places that are not particularly considered in the popular canon to be romantic. Like the entire album about Texas, or the one about Sweden, or the one about the Iowa/Illinois border.
3. Religion. John can quote the bible very well, and can talk your ear off about Christian contemporary music (don’t bring up Amy Grant around him unless you have an extra half hour to spare). John is a self-proclaimed atheist (this changes frequently in interviews) but loves the church and the idea of religion. He writes mostly about Christianity and Satanism, but others have been mentioned to a lesser extent.
4. Drugs. John was a (self-proclaimed) meth addict during his adolecence. He was an alcoholic at an early age (apparently). He was homeless in his late teens and early 20s due to his drug use (according to interviews) and had many addict friends (according to him). He has been clean for decades (it would appear) but remembers vividly his experiences as a drug user (I’m guessing) and writes about it frequently (this is obvious).
5. Mental illness. This probably comes from his time as a psychiatric nurse. He writes a lot of songs about people in desperate situations.
RECOMMENDED LISTENING ORDER
– Tallahassee is the best place to start.
– The Sunset Tree is a great second place. This is his biggest “hit” album.
– Transcendental Youth is maybe the most accessible album to people who like pop music.
– All Hail West Texas is my favorite album, and was where I started.
From here, it’s up to you. I recommend listening to full albums before you listen to EPs. To get into the old stuff, listen to the compilation albums (Protein Source of the Future, Bitter Melon Farm, Ghana), then move onto original full albums: Nothing For Juice, Full Force Galesburg, and Sweden are the most accessible old albums IMO but figure it out for yourself. You give a man a fish, etc. The best thing to do is dive in around 2002 and jump around until you find a sound you like. Then you can just go chronological. There’s something good for everyone somewhere along the line.
Now for the complete discography. I have included rarities obtained illicitly and radio recordings that have little meaning to the general public, in order to provide the most complete discography guide possible.
PHASE 1: THE PANASONIC BOOMBOX YEARS
John was recording on a panasonic boombox with a broken condenser, and occasionally also recording on an old panasonic tape recorder or directly into his Casio keyboard. During this era, John frequently recorded and performed with his friend and bassist Rachel Ware. After he signed a deal with Ajax in 1993, he stopped self-releasing and had professional editors and masterers. He would send boxes of home-recorded cassettes to his label and the producers there would cut them into EPs and LP-length cassettes.
Taboo VI – The Homecoming (1991) – SEMI-RARE
According to John, he had been playing guitar for four months when he bought a tape recorder so he could record himself in his dormitory (the nursing staff lived on premises at the hospital) playing guitar. He had made several cassettes and would play the tapes for friends at parties. ALLEGEDLY: a friend asked to borrow one of the tapes, and John let him leave with a copy of that tape. That friend was a marketing assistant at Shrimper Records and gave a copy to his boss, who agreed to release the record. John Darnielle found himself very quickly pressured into releasing this cassette, and he has stated it was released without his consent. Very few if any copies exist, but a digital rip has propogated through Mountain Goats hardcores over the years. John has released a few statements about this album. The gist of it is: he stands by it, but asks people to consider it as existing outside of the Mountain Goats canon.
Songs For Petronius EP (1992)
First official cassette release. He at this time was accompanying himself on a Casio keyboard using stock beats and short loops.
Chile De Arbol EP (1993)
A short one-side cassette.
The Hound Chronicles (1993)
First full-length cassette release.
Transmissions to Horace (1993)
Hot Garden Stomp (1993)
Taking the Dative (1994)
Why You All So Theif? (Split) (1994)
Beautiful Rat Sunset EP (1994)
Philyra EP (1994)
Yam, the King of Crops (1994)
Zopilote Machine (1994)
JD’s first release on Ajax, a legit record label. This is a huge shift in his songwriting because he can now request money for equipment and pay advances for taking time off work to write and record. He still follows his standard songwriting method of writing and recording album takes in the same day, many times only playing the song once or twice through before recording it. This is his first CD/vinyl release. “Going To Georgia” from this album is a classic fan favorite.
Songs For Peter Hughes EP (1995)
Written for his friend and collaborator Peter Hughes, who would be the Mountain Goats bassist and backing harmonizer beginning in 1995 until the end of the foreseeable future.
Songs About Fire EP (1995)
Orange Raja, Blood Royal (Split) (1995)
Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg (1995)
An abandoned LP album written ostensibly as a companion to Sweden. The mastering was never finished properly (the only copy floating around was mastered at 1.5x speed, and despite attempts by fans to manually slow it down and remaster it, the album is completely disowned and disavowed by JD).
Nine Black Poppies EP (1995)
Jack And Faye (1996)
Nothing For Juice (1996)
Absolutely beautiful album. Very experimental sounds happening here. “Going To Reykjavik” is a highlight for me.
Tropical Depression (1997)
I want to point out that in six years we have gone from strumming chords from a book in the back of a bar to 12 albums, 7 EPs, and two splits. Homeboy is prolific.
PHASE 2: THE TRANSITIONARY PERIOD
John moved to Iowa, married a woman he met in an online Mountain Goats fan forum, became a vegan, adjusted to married life, and experimented with major life decisions and suicidal ideation. At this time he’s working at a grain elevator near Ames, Iowa. His style is starting to mature here, starting to slow down and mellow out as he transitions into a studio setting.
Full Force Galesburg (1997)
Written in Ames while he was depressed and alone. A classic gem.
New Asian Cinema EP (1998)
Isopanisad Radio Hour (1998)
1999 Compilations – aka the Great Goat Studio Revolution, wherein JD simultaneously releases three greatest hits records a mere seven years into his career as a way to signal his transition out of the lo-fi sphere.
Bitter Melon Farm
“Golden Boy” is a previously unreleased fan favorite. People shout out at shows for John to play this song—it’s more annoying than “Free Bird” because 1) he isn’t going to play it, and 2) it visibly pisses him off. There are publicly documented instances of him being pissed about a request for this song, and one youtube video of him granting the request after a long lecture about how much he hates people who request this song.
Protein Source of the Future…NOW!
Coroner’s Gambit (2000)
First studio-recorded album. (!!!)
Oh Juhu Beach EP (2001) – TOO RARE FOR WORDS
Literally like four physical copies exist.
Devil in the Shortwave EP (2002)
“Yoga” and “Commandante” are fan favorites.
Jam Eater Blues EP (2002)
All Hail West Texas (2002)
The last hoorah for his panasonic days, after which the panasonic pooped out and John moved permanently into a studio. This signals the end of a major era in the Mountain Goats’ career. AHWT is a concept album about a group of people living in Texas whose lives are loosely interconnected. In 2015 this album was re-mastered and re-released on CD and vinyl with new songs. I still haven’t stopped crying.
CIVILIZATION PHAZE III: IN WHICH JOHN DARNIELLE IS A SERIOUS MUSICIAN
By this point, JD has quit his job as a nurse to pursue music full-time. He’s also begun writing (like, words not music) professionally. He starts with essays and poems on the internet (still available at lastplanetojakarta.com), then jumps head first into Twitter, eventually landing deals writing books and professional columns in magazines. The Goats sign with 4AD, a major international record label. To celebrate his commitment, John brings Peter Hughes (of Songs for Peter Hughes fame) and Jon Wurster (of Superchunk fame) on as full time band members and begins thinking about things like string arrangements and studio mixes. Around this time, John moves to Durham, NC where he still resides.
See America Right EP (2002)
Prelude to Tallahassee. John is on a major record label now, so he’s playing the game the way it has to be played. Most record releases on 4AD are preceded by a hypable EP and/or a couple singles.
This album is all about the Alpha Couple. It’s a concept album that summarizes and outlines their whole story from start to finish, and makes subtle references to old songs if you read close. He has said that no songs released after this album are about the couple.
Palmcorder Yajna EP (2003)
First single from the new album.
Letter From Belgium EP (2004)
We Shall All be Healed (2004)
An (allegedly) autobiographical album about the time he spent as a homeless drug addict in California and Oregon. John claims no songs/albums written before this one are autobiographical. He says that he felt okay writing these songs because all of the people he’s writing about are dead now (#yikes).
Dilaudid EP (2005)
John is now working on another autobiographical album about his childhood and the first single is an anxiety-inducing song about a surgical grade painkiller. Oh boy.
Come, Come to the Sunset Tree (2005)
John releases a couple of albums like this, a companion album containing outtakes, cuts, and demo versions from the co-released album. This one is the companion to The Sunset Tree.
The Sunset Tree (2005)
An autobiographical album about his abusive stepfather and his troubled childhood and adolesence. The premise is that he is back visiting his hometown and he begins to sift through his memories. At the end of the album it’s revealed that his stepfather is dead, and presumably he’s in town for the funeral. JD thanks his stepfather in the liner notes, saying the album would be impossible without him (#yikes). “This Year” is one of the biggest fan favorites, a live staple. “Up The Wolves” is another popular one that has some wider listenership. “Lion’s Teeth” has been described by JD as a “revenge fantasy”
Babylon Springs EP (2006)
Get Lonely (2006)
The only thing John has said about this album is that he wrote it during “a very difficult time in [his] life.” It’s very depressing.
Daytrotter Session @ SXSW (2007)
Daytrotter Sessions (2008)
Satanic Messiah EP (2008)
Black Pear Tree EP (Split) (2008)
Heretic Pride (2008)
So many songs written in C major!!!!! JD is writing happier, calmer music—but fear not! He finds a way to slip a knife in between your ribs and twist, as he is wont to do. This album features a lot of the classic Goats themes with a bit more poetry and emotional distance. “San Bernadino” is a sweet song about the birth of a child. JD has gone on record as saying that when he wrote this, he had a very naïve view of what childbirth would be like. He says that the real thing is “bloodier and louder”. JD has adamantly stating that “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room” is not about rape, even though it sounds like it is.
Moon Colony Bloodbath (Split) (2009)
Life of the World in Flux (2009)
Outtakes, cuts, and demos of the next album.
Life of the World to Come (2009)
All about the bible. Tells stories of people going through tough times who are looking toward the bible for support. John has claimed that this album is reflective of the darkest period of his life.
All Survivor’s Pack (2011)
Outtakes, cuts, and demos of the next album.
All Eternals Deck (2011)
Starting to openly dabble in the occult. John Darnielle’s first son, Roman, is born a couple months after this is released. According to him, life as a father brings him joy and happiness. You see a major shift in his music at this point, because it has much more perspective and hope, even when dealing with sad subjects.
PHASE IV: JOHN DARNIELLE IS STILL A SERIOUS MUSICIAN AND ALSO A SERIOUS AUTHOR AND A WEIRD TWITTER MEGASTAR WHO IS NOT POET LAUREATE
John is now signed to Merge Records, which is a major record label. He is now an international recording artist. John’s music has transcended into the amorphous realm of weird grad student music and also music for emo teens who are wise beyond their years and also instagram-famous college students who smoke weed and have multiple mandala tapestries hanging in the home they share with a shroom dealer and also music for people who read John Green books (tag yourself). The crowds at shows are a meeting of many cultures who all want to sing “I HOPE WE ALL DIE” in unison with 250 strangers. I see John Green at an Indianapolis Mountain Goats concert and give him a fist bump. I drive ten hours to see the Mountain Goats in Kansas City and I steal a cigarette from Peter Hughes (I don’t smoke). I cry onto John Darnielle at a merch table in Nashville. Obama is elected for a second term. The world is changing rapidly and our boy is dealing with it the only way he knows how: Twitter and concept albums.
Steal Smoked Fish EP (2012)
A preview featuring a great song cut from the next album.
Transcendental Youth (2012)
An album about Satanism, naturally. The Goats enlist brass arrangements from the Matthew E. White brass quartet and tours with them for this album. Anyway, I wrote a 10,000+ word essay going through this album song by song and John has read it (apparently).
Blood Capsules EP (2015)
Beat the Champ (2015)
A concept album about wrestling. This one needs time to grow on you, and it has lots of wresting lingo that you will need to look up (lots of articles exist to help people with this album). Sonically, it’s the most subtle and sophisticated ones they’ve ever done. John Darnielle’s second son, Moses, was born shortly before the release of this album. At a live show once, John looked at me in the eyes during “Animal Mask” and said the line “they won’t see you, not until you want them to” and I cried.
No pitch correction. No comped vocals. No guitars. No future. No hope.
This is an art movement—digital graphics, poetry, music, and video production style—in its entirety born on and borne by the internet. It emerged from webforums like tumblr and aesthetic art movements conjoined with very millennial views on nostalgia and consumerism in the age of information, an age when all of everything is at our fingertips. Vaporwave takes a political and emotional stance on these topics and confronts it with political and emotional art.
The style is characterized by a fascination with consumerism (especially malls and mass consumerism), an 80s-esque starry-eyed view of technology that is now obsolete, Japanese writing, neon signs, the city of Miami, the background music of malls and elevators, suicidal ideation, the feeling of being purposeless and anonymous in a massive generation, concepts of decadence and luxury from the 80s, 80s pop, greek statues and aesthetic, early versions of the Windows OS (pre-ME), 80s/90s computers, virtual reality, VHS artifacts, weed, and glitch art.
See the Further Reading section at the bottom of this post for more info.
Vaporwave has become a bit of a cult with active forums, facebook groups, and IRC channels dedicated to uniting people who connect to this music. Many of these people are nostalgic old punkers from the 80s, or disaffected millennials. This music hits home for people I think because it’s rooted in philosophy and nostalgia—two of the things that are very unique and intensely personal to an individual. On the venn diagram of people who enjoy memes, anti-capitalist sympathizers, and those in possession of the musical patience necessary to process new musical movements, vaporwave lies in the minuscule center. This is necessarily small, and a genre like this is only possible because of the access granted to it by the internet.
But how does something like this come to be in a larger cultural context?
After the deregulation of the advertising industry under Reagan in 1983, the ban on advertising in children’s programming was lifted. Likewise, merchandisers were also now allowed to make consumer products based on children’s shows. 1983 saw the cancellation of many popular (but ultimately unprofitable) education-based television shows for children (think: Schoolhouse Rock!) and the premiere of many merchandisable television shows and movies, creating an explosive consumer demand for toys, action figures, and branded merchandise based on television programs. These practices grew more and more predatory, infiltrating all aspects of a child’s visual media experience (magazines, television, etc). The dawning of the age of television caused the so-called “atari crash” of 1983-85, when the video game industry nearly collapsed due to the shift in young consumer interest FROM video games and TO television. After years of depression, the video game industry stepped up their game and began producing games with stories not unlike the stories children would watch on television, leading to a major shift in focus for the video game industry that lasted until the smartphone boom of the late 00’s. Video game companies also made partnerships with television brands, releasing branded video games. The competition for the attention of middle-class children was so intense that it drove innovation not only in media, but in technology. As computer chips shrank, science fiction because science reality and transported children into a living fiction that escalated their connection to the consumer market. This ran amok until it was scaled back with the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which put back some of the regulations on advertising in children’s media. While the CTA did effectively scale back advertising, the culture of the preteenage experience had already been permanently changed. Advertising to children was still happening, the toy industry went global and raked in billion-dollar profit margins year after year, and a whole new generation was reared with consumerism engrained into their cultural experience.
Children’s media is almost entirely designed with the goal of educating the child. Usually this education happens subtly through moral teachings (Spongebob, Scooby Doo), storytelling (Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, Clarissa Explains It All), problem-solving (Dora the Explorer, Blue’s Clues), and modeling of appropriate behavior (Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street). By relying on media to teach the child these lessons, the child is less dependent on the parent and the parent is free to pursue their own activities while the child is watching television. Many parents trust children’s media to aid them in raising their child. Many parents allow their kids to watch a lot of television. Those kids are in turn exposed insidiously to consumerist propoganda and subliminal messaging (not in a conspiracy sort of way, but the whole point of advertising is to work a product into your brain’s subconscious so that you don’t even realize the advertising is really affecting your behavior or thoughts, right?). Kids who have watched television AT ALL since 1983 have been exposed to this. Thus, it should be no surprise that when those kids grow up, some of them will realize the truth of this. It should follow then, also as no surprise, that some of those people would use these tools (video game music, pop music, advertising, logos, and the oft-capitalized ideals of wealth, prosperity, and leisure) and to create art and music that acts as commentary on these things, and to achieve a sociocultural criticism they wish to make. It should be no surprise at all that art is being made from these things. Vaporwave is the philosophical treatise of the millennial generation. The tools of vaporwave—consumerist icons and imagery—is part of the cultural currency of this generation of artists. Every vaporwave artist and fan shares the common experience of resenting the manipulation of their ideal of prosperity for profit by a capitalist market.
I know less about Japanese cultural history but it’s my understanding that they have a similar story, and that many Japanese philosophers and psychologists of the Gen-X and Millennial generation believe they as a society are a casualty of rampant consumerism and unregulated advertising. I think there’s a natural connection between Japan and the US for this reason, and thus vaporwave’s fascination with Japan fits right in to the issues underlying the genre.
I hope this helps you understand the genre. Please enjoy the links below to learn more and start some listening. It’s great background music, and it’s enjoyable even if you don’t go very deep with it.
An auspicious morning — sunny, calm, warm — turned into a grey afternoon as our planned departure time came and went. We were still scrambling to get out of town when the rain started, but our spirits were high enough to keep things going. Tennessee was a foreign land to Annie, and I’d never been to Knoxville before. We were breaking up the freshly-settled fall semester routine with a debt trip to Knoxville, TN.
This all came out of a destitute beginning to the fall semester. I spent the last penny of my summer job money on gasoline to get back home, with one month before I’d get a paycheck from my next job. I lived on freeze-dried trail meals and peanut butter packets I’d snagged from my summer job and when my car gasoline ran out, I rode my bike wherever I needed to go. When someone stole my credit card info mid-September and tried to spend $3.86 at a gas station in Louisville, they overdrafted and I had to borrow four dollars from a friend to get my bank account out of the red. I was eating free dinners at the community kitchen a couple times per week and when I couldn’t make it because of work or school, I didn’t eat.
When I woke up one morning to find my new roommate, Annie, had written “$110 for bills” on our whiteboard, my heart dropped into my stomach. There was nothing for me to give her but promises. I offered to pay Annie’s way for a weekend trip to Tennessee instead of paying her for my share of the utilities, and she was open to the idea (thank god). My paycheck deposited into my account on a Friday morning. I filled up my gas tank, bought us lunch, and we took off for Knoxville in the rain that same afternoon.
We made bad time through Louisville — construction is the bane of the road traveller. The rain broke as we broke free from the city traffic, and we soared over the rolling leafy hills of northwestern Kentucky. Light fog was settled in the valleys on either side of the highway and rivers coursed with fresh brown water. Bourbon County offered giant, pelting rain drops propelled through the air on gusts that felt like a hurricane. The hazard blinkers went on and we moved tensely past pulled-over cars occupied by people with more sense and more time. The plan was to get to a concert at 8pm in downtown Knoxville. I’d bought tickets in the Starbucks drive through back in Indiana, and I wasn’t about to lose that investment. We’d built a couple hours into our schedule for food and exploration, but between construction and weather we were slowly losing that time.
It always takes longer to get somewhere when you’re on a tight schedule.
Night fell with still an hour to go, but our spirits were high. Annie slept while I listened to an NPR station that was fading in as we approached Knoxville. We’d long-exhausted the classic time-passing methods of talking and singing along with old music. We started off discussing travel and family and boys, and before long we’d fixed American politics and expressed deeply hidden hopes and dreams. Road trips work this kind of magic if you’re willing to let it.
We arrived in Knoxville in time to run into the venue—accidentally leaving our phones charging in the car—and catch the last couple songs in the opening band’s set. Some laid back Eagles-esque country rock from dudes with long hair wearing chacos beneath their flooded chinos. The main act came on (the Mountain Goats, of course) and we cried ourselves silly, living and dying with each line.
My generation lives in a wormhole of perception, of movie moments and snappable sights that put up a wall between us and our own memories. Our technology has made us extremely self-aware, sometimes cripplingly so, to the point of dissociation. Travel is a benign inoculant to this tendency; being confronted with the nature of humanity outside the “hustle” changes one’s mind, changes one’s priorities and biases. The simple act of experiencing something, of being with one’s self or simply enjoying the company of another person, is so novel and stark. I wonder how much my own sensibility is subject to this bias, and in typical self-aware fashion, question my own enjoyment of each moment.
The concert was great. Music has the ability to transport a person just as much as a jet, just as far and with just the same psychological benefits. Experiencing it with Annie grew us and grew our friendship, as much as eight hours in a vehicle did.
We crashed at the home of some couchsurfers who were out of town, and left early in the morning. We slowly meandered through Kentucky on our way back, stopping at coffee shops and exploring desolate downtowns in the foothills of the Appalachians, talking about the future and about America, the great unfinished symphony of humanity.
I’m bringing back this classic series. Not because of popular demand, because HAH!, NO ONE READS THIS BLOG, but because I feel like doing it again.
Here is what I listened to last week.
Halsey – Badlands (2015)
Halsey has been around for a while, making the rounds on tumblr every few months for her endearing teen-girl-in-her-bedroom sound and a winning softgrunge selfie aesthetic. She’s recently garnered lots of attention for being “discovered” on Soundcloud and following the suburbs-to-stagelights Lorde Trajectory while still keeping her Insta game hella real. I say all this to emphasize that she didn’t come out of left field. Her theme has been pretty consistent for almost two years now.
So if Halsey has had all this time to refine her sound and carve out her own niche, how does Badlands sound so familiar? Halsey obviously has good taste in her influences, but this album never manages to make it to a place where it progresses the paradigms laid out for her by her idols. Instead, it stagnates in the zone of imitation and ends up coming off as cheap–a trap many young artists fall into, especially on their first albums.
Badlands isn’t bad, really, how could it be? Halsey draws (in a very savvy way) on some of the most innovative young female popstars today: Lorde (see: “Strange Love” and compare to Lorde’s “Tennis Court”), Taylor Swift (see: “New Americana” and “Colors, Pts. I and II”) sans the perfectly manicured image, and enough of a Lana Del Rey touch to make her seem deep, but not enough to make her dangerous. The highlight of the album is the song “Ghost”, which first appeared as a demo on Halsey’s Soundcloud in 2012. The hand of record company execs is a lot less heavy in this track, and feels much more authentic than something like “Castle” or “Strange Love”, which both feature the hopeful popstar demanding more cred than she’s yet earned.
The whole blend should be thrilling to me, as someone who loves each of these artists tremendously, but something just feels…off. It hits the uncanny valley of pop music where it’s not close enough to the influences to be imitation, but not unique enough to be innovation. Halsey chose this sound for a reason, though; there’s something going on in this area of pop and there’s lots of room for progress and derivation, but this album doesn’t get it quite right, and Badlands will likely and unfortunately fade into the background noise that accompanies any musical paradigm shift.