How to Listen to the Mountain Goats

A BRIEF INTRO

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.

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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.

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)
  • Sweden (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
    • Ghana
      “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.
  • Tallahassee (2002)
    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)
    Second single.
  • 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.
  • Goths (2017)
    No pitch correction. No comped vocals. No guitars. No future. No hope.

VIDEOS

Interview & performance from 1995
Full concert at the Swedish American Hall
“No Children” for Gothamist
NPR Tiny Desk Concert
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
“Cry For Judas” music video
“You Were Cool” at the Newport Folk Festival 2013
City Winery
WTF with Marc Maron interview

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Knoxville

mountain_goats-33An 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.

It was a movie moment, and I enjoyed it.

Texas Adventures, Part 1, aka, The Great All Hail West Texas Road Trip

(Originally published here in the Mountain Goats fan forum on May 27th, 2013.)

Hello y’all!! Some of you may remember me saying in a thread somewhere that I had to drive through Texas for work and I would be visiting some Mountain Goats locations. Well I did just that and now I have things to show and tell you.

As soon as I entered Texas on Monday afternoon, I put All Hail West Texas into my car’s CD changer and vowed not to remove it until I crossed the state line into New Mexico. For the most part, I held up my end of the bargain, though by the end I was kinda at the point where if I heard “Source Decay” one more time I was sure that I would decompose. The only time I listened to non-AHWT material was during the tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings. In all I’d call that dedication.

My whole point with driving through Texas was originally to follow my vow to take a different route to New Mexico every time I had to drive there for work or pleasure, which happens a couple times per year. I’d never been to the areas of the country along the I-20, so I decided to take a route down US and State highways parallel to the I-20 corridor. This would coincidentally take me along several AHWT destinations and it seemed like fate was nudging me in a particular direction, so I ran with it. Also, it seemed like a great opportunity to try to gain some insight into this album, which has haunted me ever since I first heard it.

So, Monday night I stayed in a town called Tyler in east Texas. It’s a cute little college town that I wish I’d had more time to spend getting to know, but I had one week and (I kid you not) 666 miles of Texas to traverse. I stayed in Tyler with a musician and she invited friends over and we all jammed together. They asked me if I knew how to play any songs and as I thought through my catalogue, the options were limited and I was not sure if “Best Ever Death Metal Band” would land too well. Not wanting to offend, I played “Rockin’ Rockin’ Pet Store”. Lo and behold, I discovered that a few of the people there were Mountain Goats fans. Already my time in Texas was auspicious! Imagine, meeting a Mountain Goats fan!!! In Texas!!

The next day I continued on my journey to Denton. I arrived there just as hell itself rained down from the heavens. I was certain that death was imminent, as I waited to lunch with my friend at a TGIFriday’s (tried to convince her to take me literally anywhere else but c’est la vie). I made it through alive, survived TGIFriday’s food, and drove around Denton for a bit. It’s an extremely boring town and I didn’t see much going on outside of the two colleges (University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University). I hear it’s an interesting town, so perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right places. Anyway, I stayed that night in Lewisville, which lies between Denton and Dallas. The only thing I learned from visiting Denton: Denton is clearly not in West Texas, which for some reason never registered with me.

Wednesday morning I took off for Dallas at an ungodly early hour to make it to Dealey Plaza and miss the famed Dallas traffic. I only hit traffic during the last few minutes of my journey, which I count as a win.

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DFW Airport, to which She came on the redeye, +1. Denton, where a death metal band never settled on a name, +1. Dallas, in which blues are had, +1.

Dealey plaza was pretty cool. The tourists really did mill about, and minions flowed all about. I talked to some dudes about conspiracy theories and did some investigating of my own (I have my reasons). My conclusions are not relevant to this post so I’ll spare you.

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Milling about Dealy Plaza, +1.

After visiting a JFK museum and a holocaust museum, I hit the road outta Dallas right after the morning rush stopped. I had to make it from Dallas to Midland that day, which with my route was approximately a 6.5 hour drive without stops.

I was pretty on track, and even stopped a few times to record some songs at rest stops along US-180. About 4 hours into my trip, my fuel pump went out, about 4.5 miles east of a town called Anson. I got a tow into town and discovered I’d be stuck there overnight (and even better, it would cost me almost $1000 to get it fixed).

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West Texas, +1.

So, with no other options and a dangerously depleted repository of ca$h, I checked into a bargain-priced room on Commercial Ave. and set myself up for the night. Given that this town had a population under 2500, even the bargain-priced room was pretty okay in terms of quality, save for the dead bugs that littered just about every surface in the room (no live bugs, though, that I detected).

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I walked down to the corner store just before nightfall, but not in my bare feet because there were no sidewalks and it didn’t seem like a great idea.

Jones County was a dry county so I couldn’t purchase B&J, and I couldn’t find St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, so I made do with what I had. I purchased my sundries and when I came back I spread out my supplies on the counter by the sink…

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…and looked myself right in the eyes.

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I ducked behind the drapes when I saw the moon begin to rise…

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…gathered in my loose ends, switched off the light…

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…etc.

I decided to abandon my plans to visit Midland since I already had a nonrefundable room booked in Fort Davis. By the time I left Anson on Thursday, it was almost 5pm and I had a 6+ hour drive ahead of me, so there’s that. The drive was pretty okay. I could really feel the blues in a lot of these towns I passed through; most of these places looked just completely run-down and abandoned, with loads of boarded-up buildings and completely desolate streets. I could really feel the desolate nature of AHWT coming to life in my heart. I remember “Pink and Blue” coming on while driving through a particularly depressed town and shedding a few tears just because it all felt so futile.

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Coming back to Midland, I hope you don’t mind, +1. Not coming “back” exactly, and not using 128, -2.

I arrived in Midland just as the sky was beginning to darken. I learned the following things about Midland: 1) it’s the childhood home of George W and Laura Bush, 2) the whole town smells like cigarettes and crude oil (or cat piss, the two smell shockingly similar), and 3) Midland is a pretty big city. It has skyscrapers. It has a population of 111,147. A hundred thousand people!!! If I wasn’t pressed for time I would have spent more time there, it seemed like a lot of fun. My original plan had been to stay with a friend in Odessa, but I was pressed for time after losing a day in Anson so I couldn’t stop. I decided to just pass right through Odessa, which, in retrospect, is still too much time in Odessa. What’s wrong with Friday Night Lights-ville, you ask? Well, talk about feeling the blues. That place has seen way better days and they are far out of sight. No skyscrapers there.

By the time I neared Jeff Davis County it was raining steadily and it was pitch black. I was tired and road weary. I was sick of that stupid album. I had almost run over a snake. Things were bad and I just wanted to get to my room in the hotel in Fort Davis and sleep. I did, of course, stop to get a quick pic:

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Toyahvale, +1. Night, night comes to Texas, +1. Headed south INTO Toyahvale, not north FROM Toyahvale, -1.

At this point I can literally recite all of AHWT in my head and keep almost perfect time. I discovered this when I turned down the music to pay closer attention to the signs and found that I had kept near-perfect time from halfway through “Jeff Davis County Blues” all the way to the second verse in “Blues In Dallas”.

After a short rest, I took off at the break of dawn toward the Mexican border and Big Bend National Park to do some sightseeing. I’ve been to just about every state in this country and the most beautiful places I’ve seen goes about like this:

1. Grand Canyon, Arizona
2. Glacier National Park, Montana
3. Southwest TX
4. Oahu, Hawaii

On the road south from Fort Davis, I only passed one town (Marfa) in the entire three-hour drive to the border town of Presidio. The whole drive was just this stunning mountainous land completely free of pollution and mostly free of development and just so freaking rural, I mean, more rural than I’ve ever been and I’ve been pretty freaking rural.

Presidio was awesome, Mexico was cool, the drive along TX-170 (which runs along the Rio Grande) was kill-me-now beautiful. Am I the only one that wants to die when they see beautiful things? Because how can it get any better? Ha-ha-ha. Anyway, Big Bend National Park had a $20 entrance fee so I just drove the perimeter for a bit, then headed up to Fort Davis in the early afternoon.

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Jeff Davis County, +1. BONUS: the world shines as I cross the Jeff Davis County line, +1.

After two nights in a cheap motel / I head north from Toyahvale / switch to 285 in Pecos / head up to Red Bluff (+1). I want to mention that none of the locations he mentions in that song are actually in Jeff Davis County. Pecos (which is home to the most repulsive Travelodge I’ve ever visited and that’s saying something) and Toyahvale (which is a cool town, has a sweet state park with a giant natural freshwater pool that they call a “desert oasis”) are in Reeves County. Midland is in Midland County. Red Bluff is in Loving County. I mean, not to be a nitpick, but where does Jeff Davis County come into play here? I didn’t even see a police station in Fort Davis, except for the Texas Highway Patrol office. The only place in Jeff Davis County besides Fort Davis and the adjacent Davis Mountains State Park is Valentine, a town consisting of 172 people as of the 2000 census.

But who am I to say.

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Switch to 285 in Pecos, +1.

Red Bluff is actually not much more than a reservoir and a trailer park. I almost missed the sign on 285-N pointing me toward Red Bluff, but I took the turnoff and began a really genuinely dangerous journey to the reservoir. Now, I’ve taken my car through some pretty unforgiving terrains before, and despite the fact that my car is a 2007 Ford Focus, it’s always come out a winner. Driving down the 2 mile road to Red Bluff was the most certain I’d ever been that I’d finally written a check my car couldn’t cash. I was certain I wasn’t making it out of there. There were potholes LITERALLY BIG ENOUGH TO SWALLOW MY CAR. I drove about 7mph down the stretch of road past oil rigs and oil storage tanks and oil derrick after oil derrick. Heading in, I never saw another soul on the road besides two oil tankers that were really struggling with the terrain.

O8G9qp4
Head up to Red Bluff, +1.

By the time I reached the above sign, I was getting base survival reactions out of my body. Everything happening on the other side of that sign screamed “NO GOOD”. Thoughts flashed through my head along the lines of “this would be the perfect place for the world’s largest meth factory or a Cartel hideout, because it’s so inaccessible” or “the government isn’t stupid enough to keep aliens in Area 51 or Roswell, they would keep them two miles down a nearly inaccessible road in west Texas and then they’d indefinitely detain any humble Mountain Goats fans that stumble upon the location on a self-discovery road trip”. I tried following the turnoff to the actual reservoir, which was 3 miles east, but a few minutes of inching down the turnoff road (inching being the fastest I felt safe traveling given the condition of the road) and I decided it wasn’t worth the hour-long drive.

When I made it back to the Red Bluff road after exiting the turnoff road, I was greeted by two big white pickup trucks. They were just sitting there by the sign. I waved at them and turned down the road back toward the highway, and they followed me. I’m not going to make any assumptions about whether or not they were intentionally following me, but I will say this: they stopped about 100 feet from the intersection with US-285, watched me turn onto the highway, then turned around to head back toward Red Bluff. I got some real bad vibes from that place and I won’t be going back ever again and I would advise anyone reading this to heed my words.

Red Bluff is just 8 miles south of the New Mexico state line. I had three days before work and no plans, and since I had no place to go, I drove up to New Mexico, and fixed my eyes on the rearview when I crossed the state line.

7stogDm
Drive up to New Mexico, +1.

I actually ended up going to Carlsbad Caverns, which was cool. I was headed up to Carlsbad proper to look for a bargain-priced room, but right about that time, I heard on the radio that a line of tornadoey storm cells was headed right for Carlsbad and Roswell. Tornadoes are my biggest fear (besides allowing myself to be loved) so I did some math and if I booked it up to Roswell right at that moment, not only would I make it to the UFO Research Museum before they closed, but I’d be off the road before the storms hit. However, then I wouldn’t have time to take the first exit to 128, which meets up with US-285 several miles south of Carlsbad. If I waited in Carlsbad for the storms to pass, though, I wouldn’t be leaving until after 6 and as far as I could tell there were no vacancies in Carlsbad (being Memorial Day weekend and all), and no viable rooms in Roswell, which meant I had to drive up to Albuquerque to stay with a friend (I had to head north anyway).

So I headed up to Roswell (and snapped this picture,WARNING: CONTAINS FRIGHTENING STORMCLOUDS), learned about UFOs, then got to ABQ in time to go see a 10:00 movie.

Tonight I’m in Santa Fe and tomorrow I start work in rural northern New Mexico. I can’t yet put into words my new insights into All Hail West Texas, but as of two weeks from now I’m going to be in the mountains for almost three months with limited electricity, limited cell service, and sporadic access to internet. Also, very limited capacity to listen to recorded music, though I’ll be performing all summer. Luckily I can play many of the songs on All Hail West Texas on guitar so I may survive. The point is, I’m going to have a lot of time to do some thinking and I’m sure I’ll be able to reserve a bit of mental airtime for All Hail West Texas, and when I emerge with rifles from the haystacks at the end of summer, perhaps I’ll emerge with an essay about All Hail West Texas, so if/when that happens, everybody act surprised. If I get desperate for some Goats up in the mountains, I know for sure that I can at least entertain myself with the content between verse 2 of “Jeff Davis County Blues” and verse 2 of “Blues In Dallas” in near-perfect mental replication.

Editors note (April 3rd, 2017): I still can’t write anything about this album. I’m still scared of Red Bluff but no longer afraid of tornadoes. RIP 2007 Ford Focus.

original poetry ebook: “one long season of wanting”

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 8.51.03 PM

For my final project in my poetry workshop this semester, I assembled a chapbook with revised versions of the poems I presented in the workshop. I want to make it available for everyone to download and peruse at their will, should that be something you’re interested in.

Get the ebook here.

The poems were heavily influenced by the Mountain Goats’ 2002 album All Hail West Texas, which is something you guys should totally expect from me at this point. The title is taken from the final song on AHWT, “Absolute Lithops Effect”, a song which alone heavily influenced several of the poems in the ebook.

Again, get the ebook here. I have an ebook. It’s a PDF but it’s an ebook.

I pass a lot of judgement for myself re: the heavy influence of the poets I was reading while writing these poems, but we were encouraged on several explicit occasions by our professor to imitate poems and poets and poetic voices, which I agree is a great exercise. I pass a lot of judgement on myself whenever the Mountain Goats come up even by association, simply because I am so worried that everyone will see me as a “fangirl” (that is the worst). The fear of being perceived as a fangirl is a lot greater than the fear of being a fangirl, which says a lot about me.

Suffice to say that it’s sort of painful to put out something so obviously affected by All Hail West Texas and as always I have very mixed feelings about everything. One thing I’m straight positive on, though, is that I’m very proud of this ebook and I really hope you all enjoy it and maybe share it with people who you think will like it or to whom you wish to suggest their need of mental healthcare.

As always, thanks for reading.

Download.

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”