Master of Reality

yesterday i woke up and
nothing was in my head. and
i’m talking about
the deep nothing, the
kind where your head thinks in incomplete sentences
and you don’t even care about the dangling modifiers.

so i stayed in bed with the shades drawn
my face illuminated by the screen of my phone.
i scrolled upwards and read ten months of text messages
while the people and things of ten months ago
came flooding into my empty head like cold salty water
into the titanic.

i walked around my apartment and stared at things
like the books whose authors sweat and bled into them
and which sit unread on my shelf. i took time to
appreciate
the designs on the bottles of liquor, and the bottle of patrón,
hecho a méxico, signed and dated
in black ink with a mexican-human hand.

i recorded myself talking and
i listened to it back and
i didn’t recognize my voice.

i listened to black sabbath and recorded it
then i recorded the recording
until all i heard was static.
i listened to that instead
and it made me laugh.

i refreshed my email inbox for 2 hours.
no one had anything to say
so i took a
shower.

yesterday i went to sleep with
nothing in my head, and i said out-
loud, to the air: “i hope i dream.”

Track-by-Track: Transcendental Youth by the Mountain Goats (Part 5)

So, you may notice that I was supposed to post this on Friday but that I am posting it on Monday, and you may be thinking to yourself “Why? Why is this happening? What is going on?” I would reply that, first of all, those are not very good questions to be asking. Don’t you have better questions to be asking? Like, “is Dick Cheney a war criminal?” or “to what extent is America responsible for the radicalization of Middle Eastern muslim extremists?” or “is the Big 10 Network really worth $15/month?” Truth is, I had the appropriate section ready to go for Friday, but I was just unhappy with it, so I went back to my .doc and did some editing and added some water and sunlight and tender mercy to my words and insights and got them where I wanted. Now they’re here for you, dear reader, and for me, because really I did this for me, but writing is never an entirely solitary thing so on the deepest level this is for you.

 

Transcendental_Youth

SPENT GLADIATOR 2

By this point in the album, if I’m listening (figuratively) cover-to-cover, I’m pretty emotionally spent ( 😉 ). I’ve been on a journey to the high highs and low lows of this transcendental world, and I’m vulnerable. I’m ready to hear the moral. I’m ready for my “Love Love Love” moment. By the time I get through “In Memory of Satan” I’m at the end of my rope clinging to a single thread watching the fibers pull apart above my fingers. Listening to “Spent Gladiator 2” is like watching the thread finally pull itself apart, and I’m watching in slow motion as I resign myself to the fact that I’m plunging to my death, yet unbeknownst to me I’m only a foot off the ground. I drop that those 12 inches and my heart stops and I just kind of stand there letting the pee run down my leg as I just mentally process my vitality and put myself back together and try to decide whether or not to cry.

“Spent Gladiator 2” is one of those songs that gets into my bones and synchronizes with my heartbeat, and it kind of catches me off-guard with its crisp imagery and vocal articulation (that acts as a unique instrument of its own1). The predictable rhythm is used very carefully to achieve the comforting effect the lyrics are going for, emphasized by John’s staccato vocal delivery. The lyrics give us some very nice vignettes of people STAYING ALIVE—the “spent gladiator crawling in the Coloseum dust,” “the mouse in the forgotten grain / way up on the top shelf,” “the nagging flash of insight / you’re always desperate to avoid”—people doing whatever it takes to not just STAY ALIVE and live the only way they know how, people who have “the virtue of being able to take a hit,” as JD put it to the audience in Nashville on December 1, 2012. JD’s voice remains calm and slightly detached the entire time, as if his mind is reciting a very important mantra to himself. The stoicism in John’s voice finally falters with a light quiver as he tells us about “that board game with the sliders,” but he quickly returns to his recitation and goes on to finish out the song with a small sizzle at the tip of his tongue.

This song is kind of the end-credits montage for the album, the omniscient voice inside the minds of our album’s characters, describing the multitude ways they are STAYING ALIVE through thick and thin. The narrator of “White Cedar,” resigning himself to his hospital bed and accepting his fate, the narrator of “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” who has to walk around bearing the weight of the growing distance between his mind and his body, the narrator of “Cry For Judas” who is just a broken machine, the narrators of “Night Light” and “The Diaz Brothers” and “Counterfeit Florida Plates” who are running running running and not stopping long enough to contemplate what is really chasing them. Those people are counting all the people they can trust and picturing in vivid sharpness the clock that ticks in Dresden with no one alive to witness it except a few Germans and Kurt Vonnegut picking through the piles of silent debris, and they are channeling the clock’s stoic attention to its duty to keep going.

This song isn’t necessarily JD telling us to STAY ALIVE. Much more than this is a bit of advice, this song is meant to act as that omniscient voice for all of us. It’s meant to give us a mantra, a hypnotic thing to play in our heads to snap us back to reality, to STAYING ALIVE. This makes it perhaps the eeriest song on the album, acting as somewhat of a sister-song to “Love Love Love” from 2005’s haunting masterpiece The Sunset Tree: a nagging flash of insight meant to flare up in the darkest of moments. I kind of like this interpretation for the song, because I like the idea of the characters in this album sort of closing their eyes once in a while and being connected by this same hypnotic mantra. And I like that this is what the song means to me.

TRANSCENDENTAL YOUTH

Lots of people on forums and around watercoolers interpret this song as being about a young couple who experience a winter of solitude together. It’s a sort of sister song to “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” from The Sunset Tree in this way, but also to “In Memory of Satan” from this very album.

But it’s hard to put an interpretation to this song—it’s vague, the information comes in flashes of moments and brief details strung together to form a loose picture of instability and maladjustment (“try to explain ourselves / babble on and on”). Yet, the people here seem happy. Resigned. Confident. In love. Are they? The “this song is about a couple” interpretation makes sense with the trend of Goats subject matter, but they vague “we” in this song could even be interpreted a bit more broadly. If anything, I think this song could be from the perspective from the sole thrivers of our album’s cast of characters. The narrators here seem to be dabbling in mysticism (Satanism?), they sing songs fearlessly, they’re a bit outcast, they’ve got some seasonal affective disorder, are drugs involved?, they want to get out of their circumstance—and you know what? They do. They STAY ALIVE, maybe go a little bit insane inside of each other, but they make it. The song ends on a true escape, “by the time you receive this we’ll be gone / sing, sing high while the fire climbs / sing one for the old times”. Where did they go? Are they truly physically gone or have they just receded so far inside themselves they have found a silent escape into the darkness of the mind? Did these people kill themselves? Did they move to west Texas and settle down in Denton!?!?

That’s the beauty of this song—it’s open ended, there’s so much to interpret and it leaves the album in a kind of wistful limbo, which is in step with the open-ended nature of most Goats album-closers2. I guess JD is saying that this doesn’t end, this isn’t a complete story, this is but a glimpse into the nameless dark that our characters exist in and there’s just endless more to be said. He doesn’t want us to have finality because there is none to be had. Mental illness, life, existence—it goes on and when you die the world ends (your album ends), because your perception of the world ends, which is basically the same thing. The best thing that you can do is go out having done every stupid thing to make you feel alive, and go out with shameless dedication to that quest.

—-Notes—-

1. Take a listen to the song and pay attention to the phonetics as if JD’s voice is a wonderful instrument and you don’t understand the words; the use of stops and assonance is very pretty.

2. I think this one most mirrors what the tone of “Absolute Lithops Effect” does for 2002’s All Hail West Texas, though I know that’s a controversial statement and NO I AM NOT grossly misinterpreting the song; think about it.

—-Navigation—-

Part 1 – “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”, “Cry For Judas”
Part 2 – “Harlem Roulette”, “White Cedar”, “Until I Am Whole”
Part 3 – “Night Light”, “The Diaz Brothers”, “Counterfeit Florida Plates”
Part 4 – “In Memory of Satan”
Part 5 – “Spent Gladiator 2”, “Transcendental Youth”

Track-by-Track: Transcendental Youth by the Mountain Goats (Part 4)

When I decided to start writing this, I promised myself I wouldn’t let it turn into a 10,000-word essay about mental illness, but honestly I should have known better. You me and the whole world knew that mental illness was going to be the focus of all of this, because A) psych-talk is the funnel through which I process everything, B) mental illness is something that I want to talk about with everyone all the time, and C) media can be a powerful tool for self-examination (at least for me—I’ve said more insightful things about “22” by Taylor Swift than I’ve said in the lyrical content of any of my songs) and I think it’s always a good idea to stay up to date on where I’m “at” w/r/t mental health. Music is what I live or die by every day; I can name several seismic shifts in my life and the music I associate with those shifts. As I listened to this album and outlined my essays and wrote down my thoughts, I knew pretty quickly that it would be a way for me to address and reevaluate certain aspects of my Self.

Or whatever, I don’t know, *fart noise*.

This is my favorite song on all of Transcendental Youth, and dare I say it is in my top 10 favorite Mountain Goats songs ever1, so I have a lot to say about it.

Transcendental_Youth

IN MEMORY OF SATAN

From start to finish, from sea to shining holistic sea, I think this song is the strongest on Transcendental Youth. This song is distilled Goats, the Goats at their Goatiest. JD’s lyrics shine over a simple rhythm and piano melody with the horns acting as a swelling background arrangement that is easy to take for granted.

And really, the lyrics here are amazing. Let’s start with the first stanza: “got my paintbox out last night / stayed up late and wrecked this place / woke up on the floor again / cellphone stuck to the side of my face”. Society is still figuring out how to talk about technology in its creative works (note all the awkward use of cell phones in movies in the late aughts, or the awkward omission of cell phones from movies and TV in the same period), but this is a good example of a subtle yet not-overt inclusion. The second stanza continues: “dead space on the other end / perfect howl of emptiness / cast my gaze around the room / someone needs to clean up this mess.” JD is setting this song up to be Transcendental Youth’s “Absolute Lithops Effect”—a transformation, a realization, the flowering of a human from something that seems lifeless and obstinate. Well-studied Goats fans will be familiar with the scenario playing out in this song, a favorite scenario of Mr. Darnielle: this is a story about being in a place mentally where you have to spend a week or a month or a summer alone in solitude, maybe even not leaving your apartment for a while. You just stop and say, “okay, I’m doing this now I guess, a stupid thing I need to do to STAY ALIVE, and I’m doing it.” JD is fascinated by the circumstances that bring people to a place like this, and he himself has been in that place—he’s one of us.

I’ve been in this place before. A lot of people have. A lot of people are still in this place. Its a hallmark of the intersection between depression, anxiety, and immaturity. During that time you sort of slap a “DOWN FOR MAINTENANCE” sign on your forehead and your mind really sinks into these abysses with strange creatures and you’ve got like this flickering lamp in the darkness and once in a while something is illuminated and you grab it and start constructing this world that makes sense again, life slowly starts to take a shape. You have this infinity inside of you that can only begin to be unraveled by the freedom you allow your mind in those times of solitude, and it’s intoxicating. And that’s the time when you form these inextricable bonds with things like the smell of the carpet and that one Bob Dylan album and that one season of Doctor Who—because that was the only DVD you had so you just watched disc 1 on repeat until you find yourself reciting dialogue in your head, or maybe you’re at the supermarket a few years later and you hear “Shelter From The Storm” and your stomach drops and your heart gives out this burst of burning adrenaline and you kind of freeze right there in the pet food section and just stare into the middle distance as all the nothingness comes rushing back. Sometimes you come out of those times with a weird knowledge of college basketball that people are always slightly discomforted by when at Thanksgiving you launch into a long monologue about the 2003 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game. A lot of times once you move on you have to abandon those things because it adds a kind of finality to it all to say to yourself that you’ll NEVER listen to Blood on the Tracks ever again and you can just put a period on that whole time period by throwing away your CD. However, in the midst of one of those periods you can only think how the only thing that’s going to get you through the next four minutes is that Dylan’s wailing. After a while though, that song becomes not quite enough and you work out the little intricacies in your head and you have this objective voice that tries to reel you back in to the surface of reality because the coping structures have been built in your head and the scaffolding has been taken down and now you can walk around aimlessly in this new space, scoping things out and figuring out how it is you’re supposed to live here.

But getting out of that initial phase of solitude is the hard part, right? Because it’s comfortable and it’s safe and it’s controlled. I mean a lot of times you know that what you’re doing is harmful or irresponsible but you just don’t know any other way. You have those moments when you’re calling your parents and you’re crying and asking for $100 so you can continue to live solely on Chinese delivery for another week, and the self-hatred inside of you just swells so much until they send it to you and you hang up you just sit there feeling sick but also wildly relieved. “Tape up the windows / call in a favor from an old friend.” You feel like such a suck on reality and society and your friends and family but you kind of push it to the self-hate background radiation and go back to smiling at the stack of delivery menus piling up on the bottom shelf of your coffee table. Sometimes you need that moment of saying “I need help, and how you can help me is by bringing me five orders of garlic naan from India Garden,” and you need to be okay with that, and you need to be okay with doing that while you also shut the whole world out (“tape up the windows”) and say to your friend “I promise you that sometime in the future I will be the best friend ever but right now I literally can’t think about socializing with another person without wanting to seppuku myself with this plastic spoon.” You have those moments and you feel like there’s no way out of this hole you’re digging (“locked up in myself / never gonna get free”), so you just keep digging and somehow you have dug through to the other side of the planet and you just go “oh, okay.”

Of course it has to go like that, and that’s so necessary but there’s a great deal of shame that comes with it, and there’s also this thought that keeps coming up like a dialogue between you and yourself, that’s like “well maybe we should stop” but Other You says “or…we could not stop” and you don’t argue and you just go back to wiggling around on the floor because you’re so damn restless you want to scream.

How does our narrator here? How is our narrator so complacent, so accepting of his circumstance, so resigned, so sad without self-destruction? IS our narrator self-destructive? These are the questions meant to stay with us, may even haunt us.

JD told the audience at An Evening of Awesome: “This is a song about making a contract with your solitude, that you want to hold it to later on, and you expect to be able to wag your finger and say ‘you said!’” And that’s what you gotta do. You really need to commit to doing every stupid thing that helps you STAY ALIVE, and in this song JD is offering up that you embrace a type of solitude, you embrace the loneliness and pain underneath your surface, and that you find an outlet that lets you grasp tightly onto it until you can release it into the ether. Perhaps you grasp onto Satanism, and you practice Satanism somewhat ironically, taking comfort in little more than the ritual and the mysticism of it—and it’s okay for you to do that because you are STAYING ALIVE and that’s all that matters.

This song is important because it’s validation—a reminder that it’s okay to STAY ALIVE however you know how. It’s okay to be solitary, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, and even more than that, it’s kind of beautiful.

—-Notes—-

1. Approximately (in no particular order): Broom People, Maize Stalk Drinking Blood, Sax Rohmer #1, In Memory of Satan, Moon Over Goldsboro, Love Love Love, Color In Your Cheeks, Riches and Wonders, Spent Gladiator 2, The Bad Doctor. Sometimes one of these is substituted for Historiography.

 

—-Navigation—-

Part 1 – “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”, “Cry For Judas”
Part 2 – “Harlem Roulette”, “White Cedar”, “Until I Am Whole”
Part 3 – “Night Light”, “The Diaz Brothers”, “Counterfeit Florida Plates”
Part 4 – “In Memory of Satan”
Part 5 – “Spent Gladiator 2”, “Transcendental Youth”

Track-by-Track: Transcendental Youth by the Mountain Goats (Part 3)

Over the past few days I’ve been laying out a track-by-track breakdown of Transcendental Youth by the Mountain Goats (you can see other posts here). Up until now my attitude toward the album has been overwhelmingly positive, but you knew there had to come a time when even someone who signed a petition to have John Darnielle nominated as U.S. Poet Laureate (with “ups” and respect to Natasha Trethewey, obvs) would have to grapple with criticism and even, [sarcastic gasp], negative feelings about Mountain Goats songs. We come to those songs today, and they’re all in a row! How lovely!

Let’s get on with today’s words, there are 2300 of them so happy reading.

Transcendental_Youth

NIGHT LIGHT

I think the one line that sums up this song best is from the first verse: “nerves strung so high / I am a mandolin1.” This song is incredibly tense; there’s this kind of light, nervous trilling on the drums the entire time, and a distorted bass line that keeps building building building until you’re like writhing with anticipation. Then this weird distorted totally un-Mountain-Goats-y synth rhythm comes in, and it’s sorta reminiscent of the distorted harmonica at the end of “The House That Dripped Blood” from 2002’s Tallahassee but it’s more curious and electro. For what it’s worth, it’s nice to hear the Goats experimenting, really, and I think this album is one of the most experimental in a long time2.

We have a very Big Thing happening here: our narrator mentions a girl named Jenny. According to Darnielle, this is the same Jenny that has appeared in a few Mountain Goats songs, namely as a part of the core cast for 2002’s concept album All Hail West Texas. It’s a matter of personal interpretation which songs on that album are about Jenny, or if the song “Jenny” is about Jenny or if it’s written from Jenny’s point of view, but the point is that some nonzero amount of Jenny is happening in both places, effectively placing the characters of this album and the characters in All Hail West Texas within one or so degrees of separation (!!!). Given the narrative of All Hail West Texas, this is an interesting connection to make. It can certainly be implied that AHWT and Transcendental Youth are similarly constructed, both of them comprised of storytelling-driven songs set in a particular place or region and revolving around a small group of people with lots of ills and only “a few stray hopes”. The parallels are certainly there, and bringing Jenny into this explicitly kind of solidifies it, don’t you think?

Though apparently, bringing Jenny into this wasn’t intentional. JD told Rolling Stone in January 2012: “She’s one of those disruptive characters, really through no fault of her own. I hadn’t planned on her reappearing but once I had an idea for the song’s sound, I just tried barking out some random lyrics […] so I’m just barking out this stuff and there she was again and I was just ‘Well, I’ll be goddamned.’” Still interesting, I don’t care, I firmly believe that somewhere deep down in JD’s beautiful brain he had intended all along to parallel this to All Hail West Texas.

So Jenny’s in Montana, she’s passing through, and she decides to call our narrator. That strikes sadness into the poor fellow, who seems to later find himself in a bit of a tangle with the law. That’s interpreting “room full of ambitious young policemen / everybody trying to make his mark / I was a red dot blinking on a screen then / and then the room went dark” from the second verse as literal, but even if it’s a paranoid delusion the tension is still infectious and palpable. I think no matter what this guy is chasing, he’s also being chased—by policemen, by memories (of Jenny?), by responsibility and obligation, by the visions in his head, et cetera. This speaker is very, very haunted, and Jenny’s call seems to have been somewhat of a trigger for him. “I think about Montana when I close my eyes” spells out a haunt to me (Montana = Jenny, or Jenny is associated with Montana, such as the narrator and Jenny went to Montana once, or used to dream about going to Montana, or used to live in Montana, and Jenny passed through and called like “Hey, I drove past our old apartment in Helena, I thought about you.”). That line being followed immediately by “possibly Jenny’s headed east” sets up a pattern of Jenny’s consistent association with spikes in tension (see: first verse, when “nerves strung so high / I am a mandolin” is followed immediately by “Jenny calls from Montana”).

I’d like to know more about this narrator’s story. I think the mood of the song is interesting, and the unrelieved tension that builds (and is never satisfied!?!?!?) leaves me wanting more more more, like I’m just waiting for the out-breath that never comes. I think even a screaming verse (see: last verse of “Lovecraft In Brooklyn” from Heretic Pride) would have acted as enough of a release to give this song what it needed. Listening to this song is like watching a .gif of a cat crouching and wagging its butt and flinching and getting ready to pounce, but it’s on a seamless loop and it doesn’t stop for 4 minutes. Listening to it long enough just makes you want to snap, and not going to lie I can’t listen to this song on its own because it makes me so agitated3. That said, well done on the part of the Goats for succeeding in giving the song the tension it needed to be interesting.

I want to put a period to my frustration with this song by acknowledging the phonetic beauty of the line “live like an outlaw / clutching gold coins in his claw.”

THE DIAZ BROTHERS

So this is the jumpy, jaunty kind of song we needed after “Night Light” got us all riled up (though I’m still not sure the Mission Accomplished banner should go up, this song is fine but I’m not so forgiving about my frustration with “Night Light”). You can hear the energy dripping from JD’s voice in this song, even if you aren’t familiar enough with the Goats know that when JD is particularly excited, he gets extra-nasaly and punctuative and shuddery. It’s just an infectiously exciting song, with a pretty strong rhythm and some upbeat major-chord piano going on.

From a January 2012 interview with JD:

“[The Diaz Brothers] is based on the drug-dealing siblings referenced briefly in the movie Scarface. ‘Frank tells Tony he has to respect the Diaz brothers, and Tony tells him to eff the Diaz Brothers, and by the time we do see them, they’re dead,’ said Darnielle. ‘I’m obsessed with people we never got to know but who we know about, because you have a sense of who they were and what became of them since they died, but they’re essentially blocking characters in this story we all know. And we’re all basically blocking characters in life, when you think about it.’”

Now, I’m not part of the crowd that believes this song is overtly about the aforementioned Diaz brothers, nor do I think it is, as JD said at The Mercy Lounge in Nashville on December 1, 2012, about “hallucinating people that are out to get you.” I think there’s truth to both of those things. I like to interpret it as the story of someone with a serious mental illness who internalizes the plot to Scarface and in their paranoid-delusional brain thinks “MERCY FOR THE DIAZ BROTHERS, THEY ARE TO BE RESPECTED” and then goes out and tracks down Al Pacino at the Seattle International Film Festival and murders him then steals away cackling into fugitivity with the frenetic conviction that they served justice!, and that the enemies of all things just and right will come after them now so they must be alert and vigilant, when really the only people actually chasing them are police doctors with guns full of klonopin needles.

I don’t think this song is all that interesting, to be honest, but it’s certainly fun and it’s awesome to dance and scream along to. It fits in with the album with no problem, but I think it shies away from saying anything too bold. It’s certainly created a distinct and interesting character, but I think it can be overshadowed by the monolithic other songs on the album. I think it just fails to be as interesting as it wants to be.

COUNTERFEIT FLORIDA PLATES

This is a pretty textbook-standard song from the point of view of someone with paranoid schizophrenia. Right off the bat, “steal some sunscreen / from the CVS / use too much / and make a great big mess” is indicative of the infirm grasp on reality that a schizophrenic would have. Just imagine you’re squeezing sunscreen onto your leg and you use half the bottle because it makes sense to you to use that much, that’s what you need, but then it turns out you only need to put it on your leg and now your leg is fluorescent white and you have sunscreen smears all over your body and clothes and you just don’t know what to do so you put the bottle down and walk away and you “wait where shadows mask or hide [your] scent” so that your “so-called friends” who are “working for the government” can’t find you. When you’ve got schizophrenia, this is what happens in your head. There is a fundamental disconnect between you and reality. It’s not necessarily always as in “A Beautiful Mind” (sometimes it is!) where there are physically embodied voices speaking to you, and sometimes you don’t even have auditory hallucinations (sometimes you do!). Schizophrenia can be like #thatmomentwhen you recall a cripplingly embarrassing thing you said or did and you just kind of think about it and cringe and your internal monologue to yourself is “aghhh, you’re so stupid.” Only, schizophrenic people hear that about a lot more than just cripplingly embarrassing moments. They have an internal monologue when their friend checks their phone for texts that their friend is sending secret messages to the CIA and the CIA is going to come get you and take you away because you have special knowledge or because of something or other—but you’re going to be taken away, and now you can’t trust that friend. It’s not so much hearing a voice that belongs to a person (though it sometimes is!!!), as it is receiving in your head a very clear and articulate message that is explicitly speaking into your inner ear (i.e., your head telling you “Ack, I am an idiot” as opposed to just getting the feeling of being embarrassed).

“Dig through the trash / sleep on the grates / and watch for the cars / with the counterfeit Florida plates” sets up the notion that our narrator is perhaps homeless and/or sleeping on the street, unable to take care of himself—certainly not unheard of w/ schizophrenia. Perhaps the narrator believes that buying his own food will leave a trail that his enemies can use to track him down. Perhaps he thinks that the food in the store is loaded with chemicals from the government to control his mind. Perhaps food just tastes “funny” and the narrator is on a quest to find the food that is okay (“hmm alright so the safe food is probably in the dumpster at NW 63rd and 28th Ave NW, and I just need to dig around until I find the food that’s OKAY”). With paranoid schizophrenia, the possibilities are endless and endlessly fascinating.

Then there’s the great lines “it seems like everyone’s cut me free / and left me to the tender cares / of my faceless enemy,” and “wait for the fog to catch up with me / so I can at least feel numb,” which for me sum up the mindset of a paranoid-delusional person pretty well. I’m absolutely terrified of schizophrenia and of developing it, so this song kind of looms over me and makes me think a lot. I’m not sure why I’m afraid of developing schizophrenia, but I think it has to do with not being able to trust my perception of reality and losing control over my Self. See: my words about “White Cedar” for more info.

Overall, though, this song is kind of…boring? I really hate to say that, and I honestly can’t place any solid criticisms of it because it’s an awesome song. Maybe because my favorite song on the album comes next, this song just feels kind of like a waiting room. It’s sonically interesting, yes, and the narrator is A-1 prime awesome/interesting, but I find myself zoning out during this song quite frequently. I think it just goes on a little too long to hold my attention, which is unfortunate really, because I do think it’s a great song.

—-Notes—-

1. Acknowledging the giant grin that I get whenever I think of JD saying “I am a mandolin.” Honestly who else could have pulled that line off without seeming ridiculous?

2. Warning: fanspeak ahead. I mean the early boombox days were severely experimental (Casio recordings) but since All Hail West Texas, the Goats have been a little less testy in the waters—they’ve had a more-or-less consistent sound. Don’t get me wrong, I like the sound they fleshed out with Tallahassee, and I can get behind w/ JD’s belief that The Sunset Tree was the first “real” Mountain Goats album. Every album since Tallahassee has been part of a pretty logical and consistent progression (We Shall Be Healed excluded), and I think the biggest jump so far has been between All Eternals Deck (2011) and Transcendental Youth, though I accept arguments re: Get Lonely although I think that’s more of an outlier. I think Heretic Pride is another candidate for “outlier” because if an average album is a novel, Heretic Pride is a not a novel: it has a very narrow focus IMO, which is not a diss at all, not in the least. I think because a lot of the songs sound similar (“Sax Rohmer #1”, “Autoclave”, “Craters on the Moon”, “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature”) it makes the album feel less like a novel and more like a mutant David Foster Wallace sentence (not unlike this paragraph).

3. I listened to it on repeat a few times while writing this and my heart was pounding and I was breathing soo heavy, wtf??

—-Navigation—-

Part 1 – “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”, “Cry For Judas”
Part 2 – “Harlem Roulette”, “White Cedar”, “Until I Am Whole”
Part 3 – “Night Light”, “The Diaz Brothers”, “Counterfeit Florida Plates”
Part 4 – “In Memory of Satan”
Part 5 – “Spent Gladiator 2”, “Transcendental Youth”

Track-by-Track: Transcendental Youth by the Mountain Goats (Part 2)

I can understand how you may come to the conclusion, after reading my blog, that perhaps I have a “thing” for the Mountain Goats. “Oh, she’s just a huge Mountain Goats fan.” “She’s a fangirl.” Stop right there, though. I’m talking about the Goats’ 2012 living classic Transcendental Youth this week on MY blog, but not because I’m trying to force-feed the Kool-Aid through the only funnel I have, or because the fan forums just couldn’t handle posts of this length. I’m not impervious to the flaws of the Goats, and I’m a reasonable and mature human being who sees things in with some fair amount of nuance and grace, but the purpose of my week of gushing over what is probably the best Mountain Goats album (drawing a line between “the best” and “my favorite”) is not about spilling gospel about the godliness of the Goats, but more for me to practice music writing and interpretation and close listening and attention to craft. This album inspired a lot of thought in me and it was better for me to get it out and kind of put a period on my emotions about this album. This album came to me at just the right time, and it’s not really forming an emotional connection the same way that All Hail West Texas (2002) did, but it’s certainly speaking to me. It means a lot to me to share this emotionalism with the readers I get here and I appreciate your patience in all this.

That said, let’s get on to the songs for today.

Transcendental_Youth

HARLEM ROULETTE

Backstory: Frankie Lymon was the young star of the 50s rock band The Teenagers. The band broke up while on tour in Europe, Lymon went solo, and he was not successful. Compounding with that, Lymon was living irresponsibly (heroin addictx). He got married, had a kid (who died when aged two days!?), got divorced, and remarried (allegedly), et cetera. This went on for a handful of years. He was still unsuccessful career-wise, but he was really trying super hard, then in 1965 he recorded some live shows in Harlem and those became sort of popularish. BUT then he was drafted into the military. Ever the fuck-up (<3), Lymon went AWOL in ’67 and moved to New York with his (new, probably third) wife who he met while living on a military base in Georgia. In Feb. 1968 he recorded two songs in a recording session at Roulette Records in Harlem, “I’m Sorry” and “Seabreeze”. To celebrate the successful recording session of these songs that felt like hits, he went out that night to do some heroin (as you do) and he overdosed and died. He was 25.

So that’s mostly what this song is about. JD is (rightfully) obsessed with people whose lives are devastated by childhood fame, though I’d chance to say that JD is obsessed with any sort of life devastation, though clearly not in a rubbernecking sadistic sick entertainment sort of way, and it’s not really the “my life could be worse, at least it’s not that guy’s life” thing, because that’s a sick and fucked up way to think about other people if you really think about it and JD probably isn’t like that. Personally, my interest comes from an addiction to the cosmic anguish of watching someone suffer and the resulting empathy and love that wash over me like the rising tide. Especially if you’re a particularly empathetic person, watching someone suffer can inspire an intense feeling of love for them, and when you’re a depressed person also, you can sit rapt in awe before a holocaust documentary and feel this overwhelming desire to jump in there and hug everyone (even the prison guards??). When everything feels numb and fuzzy it can be SO NICE to feel something that big and powerful. Sometimes this can stand alone as the only beautiful thing you feel in a given period of time, and no matter what you feel day-to-day you can always count on it to be there. Sometimes it’s less about others and more about yourself, like, it’s nice to channel all the pain you feel through something that feels legitimate. Because in your brain, crying at a Khmer Rouge documentary = legitimate, but crying out of sympathy for yourself because you’re depressed or life is hard or sad or you have trauma or society tells you things about yourself that you don’t like = illegitimate. Other times you just want some darkness to be shrouded in as a weird sort of confirmation bias. Like, you want darkness to confront you so you can take your darkness out and say “me too”, and just let your darkness reign free before you stuff it back into your self-shaped repression sac. But other times—and this, I think, is where the song is coming from—you hear the stories of people whose lives are devastated by their own self-destruction and pain et cetera, and you feel so proud to be alive and you say “I’m STAYING ALIVE one more day, just for you, Frankie Lymon, because you don’t have the chance anymore,” and before you know it you’re finding tons of dead fucked up people to live for and you’ve made it through to the other side of your life and you’re ready to leave this place as an old person who lived a life with a heart full of respect for the people who have lived and suffered and whose lives you honored by doing every stupid thing that makes you feel alive instead of torturing yourself like those people did. Everyone who suffers deserves respect, but of course all of us are silently suffering over something and not telling anyone else and we think everyone else is fine but so few people are fine, maybe not even anyone, and that’s okay and beautiful. I have a lot of feelings about the concept of “deserving,” but I think everyone can agree that whether someone is suffering from self-hatred or emotional abuse or health issues or from physical torture, they most likely don’t deserve it at all.

I wish I had a good fart joke on hand to bring that paragraph out of the deep, dark pit that it ran away into, but alas. While we’re down here, let’s all sit and contemplate this lyric from the song: “the loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again.”

…………[contemplating]…………

WHITE CEDAR

This song acts as a sort of buffer between the intensely polar emotions of “Cry For Judas” and “Until I Am Whole”. The soft piano, the swelling horns, the tense, tired drum rhythms at the end. The mantras, the mantras, the mantras! “I will be made a new creature / one bright day”. “You can’t tell me what my spirit tells me isn’t true / can you?”. “My spirit sings loud and clear / even in here”. “I’ll be reborn someday, someday / if I wait long enough”. “I don’t have to be afraid / I don’t wanna be afraid”. This is the kind of song that you once in a while need to put on repeat and lay on the floor and cry while the horns wash over you and lift you up and make you float with the power of romance and sentimentality.

There’s so much futility here, so much hopelessness. As far as I can tell, this song is about accepting the permanence of one’s condition, especially if you have a mental illness that causes you to be dysfunctional in some way (“woke up in lockdown one more time / my visions won’t ever learn”), and coming to terms with the fact that you’re always going to live with that burden (but at least you’re living!). Personally this song kind of addresses my deep fear of falling into schizophrenia, or any paranoid-delusional disorder that would cause my brain to test the consistency of reality and come back reading errors and there’s not much I can do to get better. That’s the power of life and agency stripped from you, and when you get treatment you get your agency back, but then you relapse, because with mental illness you always relapse, and it’s like having your power stripped away anew, again and again, your whole life long. I can’t even imagine what the narrator of this song has had to go through to accept that #thestruggle is never going to change for them. I guess that’s a feeling you get with depression also: the feeling that you’re always going to feel this way. That’s what drives people to suicide, is that they believe there is no hope for them to ever stop suffering like they are suffering in that moment, and why would they want to go on living in agony? It can be exhausting everyday to go about your life when you’ve got a mental illness. Like utterly exhausting.

And I think that’s what this song is getting at. It’s about telling yourself: “okay, this is it, this is how it’s always going to be, this thing in my head is going to be a lifelong thing,” then making a decision: whether it’s no longer worth it to go on, or if you can forge some armor in the old fire and find every single thing that you can control about your situation and clutch onto that control for literal dear life. If you change the things you have power to change, then the things you don’t have control over don’t seem so big—and you know what? There is always something you have control over, bottom line. And that’s really the secret if there ever were a secret.

Let’s say a quick collective serenity prayer in honor of that last paragraph, eh?

UNTIL I AM WHOLE

This is the first song that places us in the region where this album is apparently supposed to be “set” (a notion shared by fans but which I don’t wholly “buy”): Snohomish, WA, a small town situated about 40 minutes north of Seattle (or, as “Harlem Roulette” put it, “4 hours north of Portland” which is accurate to the minute). This song isn’t about Snohomish, though. JD told Marc Maron on WTFpod in March 2013: “it’s about the yoga of self-mutilation.” He told Time.com in September 2012: “It’s about a person you know who is struggling with the sort of depression that prevents you from taking care of yourself.” Both of those sentiments are expressed in the song. Take this dark section from the first verse: “hold my hopes underwater / stand there and watch them drown / fishing out their bodies / from the bathroom sink / leave them in a bucket / ‘til they start to stink”. I mean…yikes. Just take a minute to let that sink in. That’s a pretty powerful image that kind of hits you in the stomach and makes you wince and groan. JD is so good at punchy, specific imagery like this.

I’m not going to lie, when I first heard this song I really didn’t like it at all. The chorus bit is weirdly Ziggy Stardust, the word “Snohomish” just gives me creeps, and I thought the lyrics bordered on insubstantial. All those things are valid criticisms for the most part (though I’ve come to revel the chill that I get when I hear “Snohomish”), and this song is definitely one that grows on you after a while, that is if you can get past the vocals (which in general, are kind of all over the place on this album—and as a side note, I love and totally jive w/ the way Eve Tushnet described JD’s vocals in an article from The American Conservative: “the light shuddery little voice that he sings with, the aural equivalent of too much shakycam.”). But this song has gone from being the one song I skip on the record to one I anticipate and let wash over me as I breathe it in and breathe it out.

I’m not even sure I can place what I like about this song so much. I think this song speaks to me and my personal struggle a bit. It’s hard for me to ask for help (it’s hard for anyone to ask for help), and like so many others who have experienced depression, I just keep denying my illness and its scope and telling myself to sack up, SACK UP!, and smile and go to school and do your work and for fuck’s sake sack up. That’s much easier said than done, and denying your mental illness is like denying a tumor growing on your face. In the chorus of this song (“I think I’ll stay here / ‘til I feel whole again / I don’t know when”), JD is kind of saying “hey, you need to get right and be okay and STAY ALIVE, so you go do that and fuck the haters (which is mostly yourself—you are your own biggest hater—so I mean this in the most loving way possible but go fuck yourself, but also really get down deep and jive w/ your hate and make it your buddy because it’s a part of you too) and take as long as you need until you’re better.” I recall sitting in my car once, listening to this song at a stoplight, when the chorus really hit me. I started crying and slobbering snot all over and I felt like this rushing relief, like someone was telling me it was okay to be sick and to need time/space to just be with my sickness for a bit and expunge it (whatever that means???). The pressure to be OK is just so intense, and I’m not always OK, and it’s so hard to pretend that I am when I don’t want to, obviously. But there’s this fear of judgement, and this fear of being looked at delicately, or of being a topic of concern. Too often, fear is the winner in that battle.

Anyway, at the risk of this post turning into “Obsessive and Possibly Bipolar-Upswing-Fueled Mountain Goats Ranting,” this song is valuable to me because it gives me a big warm hug and then lets me go, which is something I love to get from a song.

Thanks for reading, sound off in the comments section, tip your waiters, feed your gators (??).

—-Navigation—-

Part 1 – “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”, “Cry For Judas”
Part 2 – “Harlem Roulette”, “White Cedar”, “Until I Am Whole”
Part 3 – “Night Light”, “The Diaz Brothers”, “Counterfeit Florida Plates”
Part 4 – “In Memory of Satan”
Part 5 – “Spent Gladiator 2”, “Transcendental Youth”

Track-by-Track: Transcendental Youth by the Mountain Goats (Part 1)

Transcendental Youth (2012, Merge Records) is one of my favorite albums evar. How can I say that about an album that’s only five months old? Let me elaborate over the course of the next several thousand words.

The album is an impressive achievement for the Little Band That Could out of Claremont Ames Durham, and the hypey acclaim it has received is totally warranted. I’m not just saying that because I like-like the Mountain Goats—which in full disclosure: I do like-like them, and please ask the Goats to check yes no or maybe on whether they like-like me too—but because the album is musically innovative for them and lyrically masterful in true Mountain Goats form. It shows that this musical project, now old enough to order a martini, is still growing and developing. Every time that the Goats go into the studio they do something big and new and different, and this album is no exception to that rule1.

I’m spending this week talking about Transcendental Youth track-by-track. You can see the other posts by going to the bottom of this post and clicking on things.

Transcendental_Youth

AMY AKA SPENT GLADIATOR 1

As an album opener I think this song does a damn fine job. In all of my dreams, John Darnielle is strutting onto a stage gleefully and Peter Hughes is picking up his bass and grinning at an ecstatic audience in a bar somewhere in Minnesota in March (which is inarguably the worst month2 to be anywhere, especially Minnesota), an oasis of light in a bleak and desolate late-winter landscape, and the crowd quiets down for just a moment until the CLICKCLICK CLICKCLICK CLICKCLICK CLICKCLICK comes in from Jon Wurster and every person in the room looses their marbles. The energy of the song is just palpable, it’s ripe, and man if listening to this song doesn’t make you want to scream then you need to ask yourself: “what’s wrong with meeeeee?

In this song, JD pretty much lays out the same philosophy that he’d been spouting in interviews for the few years prior to the release of this album, which is: whatever you do to make yourself happy is okay, as long as you’re not hurting other people, or at least as long as you don’t try to hurt other people. He told Rolling Stone magazine in August 2012 that “All the self-destructive stuff I did to myself when I was younger was vital,” alluding to his former drug use and general wildness. “I did it to stay alive. So therefore it was all good. The only time it’s not good is when it hurts anybody else. Short of that, anything you do to make yourself OK, is OK.” Okay okay okay John, you got me, reel me in bro. I’m all about that—honestly we put so much judgment on ourselves and for what? How many of us join with the rest of society to balk at the truths of mental health and the whole “mental illness” issue? That people who see therapists are CRAZY and CRAZY = UNLOVABLE, and if we don’t seem perfect perfect perfect all the time then it’s embarrassing, we should be embarrassed, and no one is allowed to have problems or be imperfect! No one is allowed to be anything but “good,” now may I direct you to exhibit A:

INT: GROCERY STORE IN ANYWHERE, USA
PERSON 1:
Person 2! Hey! Hi! How are you!?
PERSON 2 [INTERNALLY]:
I’m only here because I went into the cabinet and
the guy on the Lucky Charms box made me cry so I 
came to the store to buy some Cap’n Crunch because 
Cap’n seems like a much more loving guy who could 
probably get real down on some platonic cuddling
and I bet his beard would mop up my tears real
well and his strong sailor arms could hold me
nice and firm when the shakes get bad.
PERSON 2 [EXTERNALLY]:
I’m good, I’m good! How are you!? It’s been so long!
PERSON 1 [INTERNALLY]:
Yes it’s been so long because I'm pretending not to
care about you as a defense mechanism when really
I’m just hurt and upset that you don’t make more of
an effort to have a friendship with me and I'm guessing
you don't make an effort because I'm not worth loving, I mean
that's probably why my dad  doesn't make an effort
right ??? so to reiterate I am being intentionally aloof
as a DEFENSE MECHANISM, ON PURPOSE because then I AM IN CONTROL
of the fact that our friendship is so tenuous.
PERSON 1 [EXTERNALLY]:
Yeah! Hah. Well, see you later!
PERSON 2 [EXTERNALLY]: 
Yeah! Bye bye now.
PERSON 1 & PERSON2 [INTERNALLY; HARMONIZED AT A MAJOR 2ND]: 
[SCREAMING]
END.

Now of course not everyone is a fucked up thing, but anyone who doesn’t have some level of “issues” is a mythical creature probably. Whether or not you need therapy is a matter of personal preference and, hey, no sweat either way. What I’m saying is that if we were all a little more comfortable with honesty and intimacy, and we all did every stupid thing that made us (and each other) feel alive, I think we’d all grin a bit more, and what a world that would be.

This song is also sort of about Amy Winehouse, though JD did write it after Amy Winehouse died. He told Time Magazine in September 2012: “When Amy Winehouse died, I wrote the first ‘Spent Gladiator’. That’s what people don’t say when drug addicts die—that they are mentally ill, that it is a disease. I felt really sad and I thought about all the other Amy Winehouses in the world who aren’t famous, whose deaths go uncelebrated.” So I guess in certain technical senses, yes it is about Amy Winehouse, but it’s more about Amy as a concept, right?

LAKESIDE VIEW APARTMENTS SUITE

This is the first piano song we get on the album. In general, Transcendental Youth relies heavily on piano, which is awesome because as much as I love JD’s “unique” guitar style, we all know that when he whips out the grand piano that things are definitely getting especially real, and, yeah. Things get pretty real3 in this song.

The first stanza alone has several opportunities for me to pause to sit with my mouth agape in awe: “downtown north past the airport / a dream in switchgrass and concrete / three gray floors of smoky windows / facing the street”. Ladies and gentlemen, that is how you set a scene. Extrapolating from interview data and Google Maps, this stanza is placing us in north Portland (Oregon) in maybe the Kenton or East Columbia neighborhoods (?). As far as I can tell, this song is about some people, maybe a drug dealer or two, who are STAYING ALIVE despite some legit maladies, all backdropped to the bleak landscape of north Portland (it’s not difficult to make north Portland hella bleak tbh).

I think the most telling line in the song is “days like dominoes / all in a line”. The solitude of this song is almost panicky in nature (there’s energy bubbling just beneath the surface of JD’s vocals)—frenetic, even. Frenetic solitude is a very vivid emotional state that John has written extensively on (see: Get Lonely, All Hail West Texas—the entire Goats discog actually) but I think he captures it here so adeptly, with a haunting quality not seen (arguably) since “Lovecraft In Brooklyn”. There’s a beginning-and-end relationship between the dominoes line and the line three stanzas later, “emerge transformed / in a million years / from days like these”, the intermediate words describing an amalgam of moments passing in flashes of awareness.

The most overt part of the song is the powerful #tenuouslyfe vibe that it injects into your chest, and that’s certainly the take-away point of the song, but what I find most interesting about “Lakeside View” is the seemingly unintentional shout to Elliott Smith. We know that JD is not above explicit calls to other artists: he’s quoted a range of pieces, from the Cheers theme song (“Autoclave”) to Biggie (“Fall of the Star High School Running Back”) and…actually, let’s elaborate briefly on Biggie. Something about JD’s voice takes away the swagger of rap lyrics to reveal the dark véracité that lays just beneath the surface of hip-hop (see: JD covering “Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly). Note also: the little bit of dealer lingo in this song with the line “lakeside view for my whole crew”. The way JD spits out the word “crew” makes it such an angry and controlling and insidious word, it just sears you like a rugburn. JD has the perfect voice for rap, and he would/could/should make millions in the rap game, and to be perfectly fair, if the lyrical content from his career as a folk-rock/whatever musician is any kind of indication, he would probably have his own wing in the rap game museum up in rap heaven right between RZA and Q-Tip.

Back to Elliott Smith.

J. Darnielle sings in “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”:

And just before I leave
I throw up in the sink
One whole life recorded
In disappearing ink

Elliott Smith sang in “A Fond Farewell”:

Veins full of disappearing ink
Vomiting in the kitchen sink

Darnielle claimed on twitter that the parallel was unconscious, and that he is not familiar enough with Elliott Smith’s music to make such a subtle allusion. It’s interesting nonetheless, especially considering that Smith and Darnielle had very similar Portland experiences (paraphrasing Darnielle there) and the thematic parallels between the lyrical content of “Lakeside View” and “A Fond Farewell” (which is about heroin addiction and deals mostly with feelings of powerlessness). Smith’s song also includes the mantra “this is not my life / it’s just a fond farewell to a friend” which is eerie for a number of reasons and partners very well with the mentality of the main character in this song.

CRY FOR JUDAS

In a January 2012 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, JD called Transcendental Youth “The Satan Record”, referencing the thematic presence of Satanism as a coping mechanism (“make up magic spells / we wear them like protective shells” from “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”) and the not-so-subtle LaVeyan undertones to the whole “do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive” mantra.

“Cry For Judas” is the first song that blatantly references Satan. Darnielle gleefully instructs us to “unfurl the black velvet altercloth / draw the white chalk baphoment” and reminds us that if you “mistreat your altar boys long enough” that “this is what you get”. There are some overt points being made here, but looking deeper I think this is a song about someone who empathizes with Judas Iscariot’s point of view and is angry that Judas had to be killed. Perhaps this person is a contrarian, or maybe their moral compass rests slightly askew, or perhaps this person has overwhelming empathy for the detested among us. Maybe they are sympathizing with Judas for more adolescent reasons, like, if the majority of people believe something (e.g. “Judas was evil”) and you are a special snowflake so unlike the majority of people, then the majority of people must be wrong. Anyone who has been a teenager has used this logic.

Anyway, this person is sympathizing with Judas and is like “well hey, Judas and I are both fucked up and no one ever asked Judas what was going through his head, maybe he was just trying to make a buck, and dang, he def had some existential angst if he really thought there would be no consequences for sending The Messiah to his death, it really must have been a tough time to be Judas, I feel for the guy”. I’m very cautious about ever saying “I think this song means…” especially about any Goats song, because as soon as you say “it’s about being happy because your father stopped drinking and you had an epiphany!” you are guaranteed to read an interview or listen to a bootleg where JD says “this song is about a dog who is upset because his owner bought Pedigree instead of Alpo and the dog really likes Alpo”. Some of that is John being “funny” but some of it is the fact that John can write a song about anything and he writes songs about everything and he values the small struggles and the parallelism in everything. So take my interpretation with a grain of salt because it’s most likely wrong, and this song might very well be about dog food brands.

That said, I think the lyrics bode well for my interpretation being at least partially true, and the upbeat nature of the song is in keeping with JD’s affinity for putting soul-crushingly depressing lyrics in the envelope of a dance-y beat and a major-key progression (see: “Dance Music,” “Autoclave,” “Half Dead,” and others). A lot of these lyrics punch pretty hard. Take the opening line, “some things you do just to see / how bad they make you feel” (like, perhaps, ratting out your friend Jesus of Nazareth to the feds?), which is answered two lines later with “but I am just a broken machine / and I do things that I don’t really mean”. Wow. I mean, this is an A+ depiction of mental “illness” in my book. If you’ve never been mentally ill (pausing to acknowledge the argument that the term “mentally ill” is a misnomer) and you’ve ever wondered what it’s like: you feel like a broken machine whose body and short-term brain and long-term brain are like three people with complicated sexual histories together and they’re having a very passive-aggressive argument at a dinner party and it’s making everyone else in the room uncomfortable and some other part of you is just meeting everyone’s fraught stares and mouthing “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” But even that is a very important stage of mental illness that you reach after a significant amount of practice in self-awareness. Before that, and even often after that, you just do things you don’t really mean that make you feel bad and you have no idea why you feel bad. It goes on and on.

And that’s what the song is really about, isn’t it? It’s hyper-self-aware and it’s expressing that particular iteration of depression where you’re like, “okay, if I just do a 1000-piece puzzle then I have a goal-oriented task and I won’t kill myself, and by the time I’m done it will be time for bed and I can go to sleep and say that I’ve lived another day.” So you do things that you don’t really mean and you test the waters and eat bullets just to keep yourself in check and STAY ALIVE. This song is about STAYING ALIVE and riding out the bad things and owning your dysfunction. “Sad and angry / can’t learn how to behave / still won’t know how / in the darkness of the grave”.

I would like to take a moment now for us to appreciate Peter Hughes’ stellar bass playing. Hughes is one of the most seaworthy bass players on the scene—he’s versatile and does a really good job of composing interesting bass parts that don’t get in the way of the guitar or vocals. He shines on this song in particular. Just listen to the song and think about the bass, the beautiful, dancing, bass. I like to imagine Peter Hughes (the sentence could end right there, really) dancing around the studio recording this with a smile on his face—it’s just so fun and simple.

I’d like to take another moment to appreciate Matthew E. White’s horn arrangements for this album. This song really pushes those horns in the listener’s face: HERE WE ARE, HERE ARE SOME MAJOR CHORDS! It’s like an unexpected hug from a friend. This album would be awesome without the horns of course, but the horns bump it firmly into the “unmatchable masterpiece” tier imho.

So between the amazing bass, the lyrics, the upbeat rhythm, Peter Hughes dancing in a recording studio in Durham, and the swelling horns section, this song is utterly amazing and if you don’t have a smile plastered on your face after listening through it for the third time on repeat (I mean, or however long it takes you to get over the initial shock of its UTTER PERFECTION) then there is little hope for you.

Side note: is the music video for “Cry For Judas” okay? Does it go too far? Is Jon Wurster a playah in this video? Is child molestation happening? Is child abuse happening? Is minor-on-minor domestic abuse the same as adult-on-adult domestic abuse? At what age are human beings capable of making decisions about their lives and being responsible for them? Is sex-ed satisfactory in America? Why do parents hate talking to their kids about sex? What’s JD’s role in this video? Why does Peter Hughes kill John Darnielle? Why doesn’t Peter Hughes have an Oscar for his acting in the scene after he kills John Darnielle? Why isn’t there an Oscar nomination category for corpse acting (which John Darnielle would clearly win)? What did John Darnielle ever do to Peter Hughes? No but really, what is going on with Jon Wurster in this music video?? Do you also want Peter Hughes to be your father? Why is Peter Hughes hugging his wife in the car? What the hell is happening!?!? We report, you decide.

—-Notes—-

1. (Warning: fanspeak ahead.) I’m willing to hear arguments on the notion that 2011’s All Eternals Deck is an exception to this rule; also note use of word “studio” and not “studio apartment equipped with a Panasonic RX-FT500”. I’m not hearing debates on innovation in the boombox years, it doesn’t need to happen. There’s no reason we shouldn’t already be on the same page there.

2. It’s Spring! Spring is finally here oh my GOD, OH MY GOD! OH MY—NO. NO. WHY IS IT SNOWING. IT’S BEEN SNOWING FOR DAYS. I THINK IT’S 50 DEGREES OUT TODAY, OR MAYBE THAT SAYS 30, I HAVEN’T BEEN ABLE TO SEE STRAIGHT FOR A WEEK, HAVE I HAD THIS SINUS INFECTION FOR THREE MONTHS? IS IT JUNE AND AM I LOSING IT? HAVE I ALREADY LOST IT?

3. And I’m picturing an anime JD whipping out a grand piano from his jean pocket and wielding as a weapon against the forces of the partially- and mostly-real.

—-Navigation—-

Part 1 – “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”, “Cry For Judas”
Part 2 – “Harlem Roulette”, “White Cedar”, “Until I Am Whole”
Part 3 – “Night Light”, “The Diaz Brothers”, “Counterfeit Florida Plates”
Part 4 – “In Memory of Satan”
Part 5 – “Spent Gladiator 2”, “Transcendental Youth”