Music Features

My Slow Climb with The Mountain Goats

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I’m eternally grateful to have had the music of The Mountain Goats since high school. Any kid who struggles with trauma, anxiety, depression, and any sense of deep alienation from their world can probably find the writing and work of John Darnielle to be a force of deep understanding and psychological solidarity. His songs are stories, often driven by vivid descriptions of time and place, punctuated with prose-like articulation of heavy-felt heartache. His heroes are entering, existing, or taking note of their current stance within rock bottom, the crossroads of life catching them in moments of contemplation, meditation, and blood-beating humanity at its ickiest and most profoundly sweet, oft surprised at how capable we are of containing such qualities in tandem. Whether a cowboy, wrestler, B-movie monster, Amy Winehouse, a couple on the verge of divorce in a dilapidated house, or just a teenager grappling with any number of pubescent terrors and family issues, Darnielle looks at his heroes deeply and with great empathy, noting a colossal connectivity amidst the human condition rooted within conflict. Life is pain, and it feels great to sing along with songs that so specifically and passionately “get it.” And The Mountain Goats have hundreds of them—their songbook is practically a Bible in and of itself, riddled with esoteric knowledge of pop culture, fantasy literature, and, well, the literal Bible. Whether you vibe with any aesthetic choices made throughout their 20-year long career, I’d dare to say it’s impossible to knock their ability to tell stories and turn soul-searching into musical blasts of love.

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Perhaps there was a little fate due to some specificities at the core of John Darnielle’s oeuvre that led me to his body of work. Aside from the perfect implementation of songs in the Adult Swim series MORAL OREL, I, too, am a child of Southern California with a strange relationship to Catholicism. Having just come off a ska and punk kick, finding solace in the toothy angst and romantic melodies of NOFX and Streetlight Manifesto, I was young and desperately seeking catharsis of some kind, hoping to find a song that sings back to me my unexplainable feelings. I don’t know if I even knew what there was to be sad about. I just was. 

Thank God that kid got therapy eventually. And thank God that Darnielle found it within himself to write music in the wake of his own lived-in darkness. He’s dealt with parental abuse and addiction, and has gone as far as to nakedly claw his way through his trauma and pull powerful hindsight and wisdom out of the terrors of life’s and Man’s complexities. I consider what he’s done, and does, to be throwing the ladder back down for people still trying to make their way through the murky waters of this existence. There are monsters constantly in our wake, and hills to climb. It’s a joke amongst fans, and it’s quite true: there’s always a Mountain Goats song for every occasion.

With that in mind, I wanted to nail down what those songs were, and what occasions they fit in my life. I wanted to get a good spread of the group’s quite varied discography, but also portray an honest trajectory of my relationship with the catalog. Super fans, I’m sorry I don’t have a lot of pre-TALLAHASSEE stuff. I also wasn’t able to include GOTHS, which is an album I do have so much love for (“For Portuguese Goth Metal Bands” is an underrated song and deserves more appreciation). Anyway, you can send threats to my personal email. My prompt was “10 Mountain Goats songs that inspired me,” so here we go.

“No Children”

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For myself and many others, “No Children” is the borderline memetic entry point into the existence of The Mountain Goats. Overly dramatic to a somewhat hysterical degree, this song’s relatively bright sound is offset by sentiment so brutal that it’s practically an anti-Valentine. It revels in the absolute worst feelings you could have in a relationship, with barbs that have the heft and exaggeration of wrestling drama. I heard this first in Adult Swim’s MORAL OREL, where it’s impeccably used in one of the show’s best and most cinematic sequences, perfectly juggling darkness and humor. The song stands out, highlighting and expressing the tonal balancing act in play. There’s an ethereal quality to the song’s magic. How does Darnielle balance the tones so perfectly? Perhaps it’s taken on more of an in-joke quality amidst the fanbase, but upon first hearing it, “No Children” provides power. It is catharsis in the form of a folk flamethrower, thanks to Darnielle’s unfailing ability to just pick the right words that feel good in the craw, and so perfectly reflect the darkest depths of our hearts. “I hope you die! / I hope we both die!” sung with the piss and vigor of a drinking song you’d bellow out in unison with a crowd at a pub is such a strong introduction; it fascinates and pulls at something true, painful, and somehow righteous in “letting it all out,” driving it away from edgelord novelty and into something more lasting. 

“Cry For Judas”

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“And I am just a broken machine / and I do things that I don’t really mean,” confesses Darnielle in this single off of 2012’s TRANSCENDENTAL YOUTH. Such a self-diagnosis is what makes The Mountain Goats so powerful to younger individuals who perhaps don’t have such a way with words, be it internal or external. Sometimes we desperately look for art that knows us better than we know ourselves. The healthiness of such a relationship could be debatable, but it’s just factual, and has made Darnielle’s writing so powerful and persevering over the past two decades. 

Frank jabs of explicit emotionality that hit like roller coaster drops kept me coming back, and this came out during my first year of college, where I found myself feeling deeply lonely and grappling with depression for the first time. That depression has stuck around in waves, and has reared its head in very bizarre behaviors that feel inexplicable or almost outside of my own power. Time and time again, I see my own actions outside of myself and wonder if I’m truly powerless to my own glitched-out programming… are we all? Having gone through trauma and addiction, and seemingly come out the other-side a little wiser on his own bruises—bruises that we all might find on our own skin—John’s tendency to pen anthems for the helpless and those who tend to see “the dregs” of life a little too frequently is profound and powerful, and prove the worthiness of “the point” of The Mountain Goats. Songs like this are rallying cries on missions to make sure the lonesome and dysfunctional, feeling trapped in their own bubbles of broken code, realize that they are not alone. 

“Cry For Judas” plays almost like a vengeful suicide note, with which anyone would use to prove a point to those who just don’t understand, or those who might be an element of the system and environment that drove you to such pain in the first place. You are not alone, and it is so painfully difficult to look in the mirror again and accept the ingredients that make you human and alive also drive you into vibrations of dysfunction. Sometimes looking up from rock bottom can get the blood pumping in just the right way to help you get up and start again.

“Song For An Old Friend”

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“Song For An Old Friend” is tied specifically to a video from 2007 where a floppy, emo-haired Darnielle performs a couple songs for an AOL sessions series. After playing a few cuts off the latest record, the then-underappreciated GET LONELY, Darnielle plucks an older tune from his tape days. This version of “Song for an Old Friend” is filled with lush, Malickian imagery, depicting a picnic in the middle of a sunny field, and a visceral refrain expressing the physical force of love “screaming” through our protagonist. What made this one stand out so much, and cement Darnielle as an all-around artist and storyteller that I wanted to know everything and anything about, was the sheer performance in this video. Come verse two, he ratchets his voice up in a staggering and goosebumps-evoking bravado, stretching his vocal chords and reaching his extremes with deep passion, like a bright and heavenly trumpet solo. His delivery suddenly becomes the centerpiece, and more or less a calling card. I’ve heard Darnielle’s voice compared to Kermit the Frog or Spongebob Squarepants, and overall an element of that prevents some listeners from even getting into the work. Opinions on the timbre be damned, his soul is undeniable. You’re transported into the POV of this hero, and feel every nerve plucked: this was one of the best days of this person’s life, they were biologically restructured, changed at their core, and they miss the person that did it to them so dearly. This video shows just how dedicated of a performer John is, exerting the energy of a drummer in the throws of a solo, urgently belting lines like “[you had] seven different kinds of light welling up inside of you” as though his life depended on it. In watching this performance, it’s just so easy to confirm that he means it, and thus, “gets it.”

“Woke Up New”

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Sometimes there are Mountain Goats songs where pretty much every word smashes your tiny little heart into pieces with a ball-peen hammer. This exploration of the aftermath that comes with loss on “Woke Up New,” be it a break-up or the passing of a loved one, contains a deceptive levity and soft wit; a quick-versed anecdote about making too much coffee, but drinking it all because whoever left their life (“hated when [they] let things go to waste”), turns to exaggerations of feeling like a little boy lost in the mall, while an astronaut could see the hunger in his eyes from space, are delivered with a soft but jaunty whimper. Darnielle’s pop poetics serve up a Spielbergian blend of knowing humor through familiarity and specifics, and the right amount of heart just before it gets a little too maudlin. Even when it chainsaws at the heartstrings, he comes with so much honesty no matter the character or situation that it always feels rooted in something as sure as sunlight baking one’s skin. 

Darnielle bleeds facts of the human condition in such clever specifics that it confounds as much it touches. At the time of hearing “Woke Up New,” and seeing its cute video by then absolute nobody Rian Johnson, I was moved by Darnielle’s depictions of sadness and loneliness, even if it didn’t necessarily resonate specifically. But something that happens to Mountain Goats songs is that… well, life happens, and sometimes certain tunes will be waiting for you when the hammer falls, and the wind blows when we’re at our most foolish. The last verse of this song paints it perfectly; a level of attainable zen that could help us in ever-changing waves of grief and confusion.

“Deuteronomy 2:10”

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So here’s your standard song written from the perspective of three extinct animals in their final moments. Very common trope, basically a genre unto itself. Sarcasm aside, this first-person glimpse into loneliness and the smallness of our animalistic beings in this quick life is heartbreaking and celebratory all at once. The premise swipes at your heartstrings with the heft of a battle axe, but the simple combination of Darnielle’s voice and powerfully light plinking of his piano, whimpering and belting out weepy notes of simultaneous desperation and acceptance, makes its dramatics deeply unpretentious, and instead something easy to escape into. Seriously, what better metaphor do you need to equate your struggle to feel alive? The lonesome teenager I once was found comfort in the articulation of this ethereal, yet all-too-vivid feeling of deep sadness. When you’re feeling down, especially as a dramatic adolescent, it feels good to indulge, and The Mountain Goats always provided the perfect material to siphon your soul through. The production of this tune is also a crucial element to its power, feeling the space of John performing alone at his piano, and a wide, open, and seemingly dark space. You hear the strokes and changes of the piano, echoing like gears in a machine, or vital organs breathing every breath with solemn urgency. It’s meditative. With the current hindsight I have, I appreciate the reverence for “living life while you have it” the song calls into light in ending each verse. “I have no fear of anyone, I’m dumb and wild and free” and “I sang all night, the moon shone on me through the trees” are haunting and sweet depictions of meek vitality, followed by declarations of there being “no more after me.” It can be hard, but I like the idea of celebrating the light streaks of life whenever I could muster it. I now find a streak of hope in this incredibly bleak tune.

“Jeff Davis County Blues”

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I view ALL HAIL WEST TEXAS, the last tape-based album just before their studio-quality run, like a Robert Altman ensemble picture, capturing disparate souls in times of worry and crisis with light poetry and humor. Each tale is like a chapter out of SHORT CUTS, giving you a glimpse into wayward souls looking for a sign; a semblance of direction toward “the right way,” often frozen in their environments and present moments. This song in particular has a celestial, twilight-glowing loneliness to it, with its protagonist wandering through travel lodges, and just trudging ahead, like a shark unsure of its future. The opening line of “after three nights in jail” immediately plasters a cast onto our hero’s soul; this is a quiet meditation on licking our wounds and wondering what’s next, whilst also fixated on the past. Each passage of the song ends with the protagonist in a sleepy daze, dreaming about home. I had a nasty personal association with this album when I first heard it back in college, but in rediscovering it these past couple of years, this song stood out for its longing for safety and the concept of “home.” Since graduating college, I’ve felt like I’ve done nothing but wander, finally receiving the independence that I so longed for in my adolescence, and now feeling like the ending of THE GRADUATE. Small and aware of a life I wish I took less for granted slowly leaving my grasp. This song’s sleepy daydream quality of constant transit creates such a sweet and loving sensation that I deeply admire as a storyteller. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and heart-warming, poetic in its portrayal of endless highways and a potentially brighter future ahead. Hope incarnate.

“Sax Rohmer #1”

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This apocalyptic diddy has simply one of the most infectious choruses of the band’s entire catalog. It’s like a swashbuckling declaration of hope and motivation, birthing into the universe capability and potential for the sake of love. Darnielle admits to feeling not-too-hot on Sax Rohmer’s personal views, despite respecting and aping his ability to paint scenes of great dread and tension. The lyricism here, again propped up by bouncy and somewhat lighthearted melodics, signals impending tragedy; factual finality that we cannot avoid, which is only negated out of spite by the endlessly singable chorus. This song’s inspiring attitude and throbbing heart, built up to and paid off by its choruses, were natural dopamine fountains for me in high school. Any song that could help me think that maybe things would be okay, or that I could actually rise to the occasion and persevere on anything, feels pretty meaningful in hindsight. This song essentially marks the addition of comedy hero (half of Scharpling and Wurster, writer on TIM & ERIC AWESOME SHOW GREAT JOB!, MONK, and TOM GOES TO THE MAYOR) and drummer of Superchunk, Jon Wurster to the group. His inclusion would prove to be crucial to lighting incredible fires in the furnaces of Darnielle’s woven webs, and the way in which he gives “Sax Rohmer #1” life is invaluable, and infectious. (It’s a hoot to play the drums with, too!)

“Up The Wolves”

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“This Year” is the populist Mountain Goats tune, and for good reason, yet it’s not even the best heartfelt and passionate battle cry for a better future off its own album, THE SUNSET TREE—“Up the Wolves” is not only about things getting better, but of us rightfully seizing what we’re due after years of being under the thumbs of any force that took away our power. It’s like the melodic embodiment of maniacal cackling as a wrong is finally made right, even if it’s a fantasy. The potential catharsis is so sweet and uplifting that you start floating. The third verse’s declarations of “bribing officials” and “killing judges,” and making such an impact that “it’s gonna take [you people] years to recover from all of the damage” is gleefully demented, and simultaneously shattering considering the real abuse it stems from. 

I was drawn in so deeply by Darnielle’s guttural delivery and desire for justice on “Up The Wolves.” No matter what you’re going through or feeling held down by, I find pleasure in screaming off the rooftops with all of one’s might. There’s something to letting it all out, and Darnielle’s handle of poetics and language sometimes have such precise aim at the things that hold us down and back. “Up the Wolves” is endlessly empowering, even able to transcend the painful truths of existence, instead indulging in the emotional gravity of daydreaming, and the hope it brings.

“Never Quite Free”

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Being the realist that he is, John Darnielle every once in a while projects grace, be it flagrant and powerfully fantastical, or something flesh-and-blood that we can reasonably will into our own existences. I’ve always been surprised that “Never Quite Free” wasn’t the closing track off ALL ETERNALS DECK, as it feels like such an emotionally definitive and triumphant piece. For a group that deals so heavily in coping with trauma, and lack of will and means, this acts a gorgeous blanket of power and perseverance. John sings of peace—FINALLY peace—after years of pain, and anguish, and fear in hiding. He paints visions of catharsis, and being set on dry land by the same waves that thrashed his raft all night. Instrumentally, it’s so very loving, almost to the point of sounding like a tune you’d play during communion at a Catholic church. While I lost my devotion to Catholicism a year or so into, well, Catholic school, my parents grew stronger in their faith. This separation created a little alienation, undoubtedly, but there are some things I couldn’t shake from the culture, and from my parents’ loving gaze from within it. There’s grace, and Darnielle’s deliverance of it to the hero, which in this case is the listener. If this was the last song The Mountain Goats would ever put it, it would feel incredibly fitting, as it provides a sense of love and assurance to the eternal, universal protagonist of the project. I’m moved to tears by the lyrical picture crafted here of true peace and understanding. The knowledge that you made it in spite of what anyone in your way may have done to put you down. It’s definitive, and feels like an editorialization in lieu of the true pains and possibilities of human existence.

“Color In Your Cheeks”

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“Color In Your Cheeks” feels like the thesis of this group of songs, and the piece that I often think about first when considering them. The Mountain Goats presents music like you’re a traveler in a tavern, where each patron is the hero of their own perilous journey. They are drinking their troubles away, and you may say “no kidding, me too!” at the sharing of a broken spirit or longing hearts—someone you might’ve crossed paths with leaves before you could say goodbye, and you catch yourself thinking in looped vibrations to the effect of “I hope they’ll be okay”; we know sometimes, it’s just not going to be. But the deal of potential, and hope, is somehow undying. Maybe cruelly so, but while there are other spirits around us, I believe we ought to do our best to make clear to one another that we are not invisible, and that someone, even recklessly, has some semblance of faith in them. Statistically, in some fucked up way, you just have to. But please listen to one another, and acknowledge, and make gestures and effort to pull each other up. John Darnielle’s music has inspired me to see potential, and myself, in everyone, even when things are so incredibly hopeless-feeling. In picking oneself up, it certainly helps to hear “Hey, I get it. You are not crazy.”

Rocky Pajarito
Rocky Pajarito is a filmmaker and comedian based in Los Angeles, CA. He likes drums, cacophony, catharsis, kaleidoscopes, SPEED RACER (2008), and colorful toy keys that you can dangle in front of his eyes. Please watch Everything Now! on Twitch.

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