Emma Stanford’s previous work as The Toast’s Mountain Goats correspondent can be found here. This is all on Nicole, for the record, Mallory bears no responsibility.
I get defensive when people ask me about the Mountain Goats. I distract them with pedantry. I tell them it’s really just the Mountain Goat, singular, plus a rotating cast of better-looking accompanists. Or I deprecate; I tell them the Goat has a dumb voice and incredibly close-set eyes and grins psychotically when he’s singing. I don’t tell them that Mountain Goats songs occupy about 80% of the space on my iPod. I don’t tell them that seeing John Darnielle in person for the first time was one of the happiest moments of my life. It’s not that I’m ashamed of these things, exactly; it’s just that it seems impolite to talk about them. For me—as for many people, I think—the Mountain Goats are inextricably linked to a very sad person who I’m not, quite, anymore. I can’t talk about this without sounding mawkish, and if I don’t talk about it I can’t explain how I feel about the Mountain Goats. So instead I go with “His son’s name is Roman, isn’t that weird?”
Take that as a caveat, I guess.
When I first heard the Mountain Goats I was nineteen, and my best friend had recently started dating someone. I don’t know what to say about this, except that it can be easy, if you’re lonely, to mistake missing someone for being in love with them. There can seem to be no other way of explaining the gravity of your loss. For various circumstantial reasons my loss seemed very great indeed. I radiated loss. I walked around disoriented by my own capacity for bitterness. You can see why this might have been a good time to start listening to the Mountain Goats.
What I first heard, actually, was not the Mountain Goats per se; it was my tall neighbor from across the hall, who stood onstage in the student union and played ten songs off The Coroner’s Gambit and The Sunset Tree and All Hail West Texas. “You can bring out all your weapons but you can’t make me go to war,” he sang, and “After one long season of wanting, I am breaking open,” and “One of these days I’m going to wriggle up on dry land.” Toward the end of the set, the friend I thought I was in love with got up to join in on the piano and sing, “I like these torture devices from my old best friend.” If something like this happened in a movie you wouldn’t believe it.
The next day I crossed the hallway with a thumb drive and came back with The Coroner’s Gambit and All Hail West Texas and live bootlegs of “Standard Bitter Love Song #4” and “Going to Georgia.” I listened to them studiously. I was disappointed at first to discover that the actual Mountain Goat had a hard, thin voice and had apparently recorded his songs next to some kind of generator. But I persisted, because I had never before heard anyone describe so simply and vividly what it was like to feel unwell. To experience even hope and joy as pain; to regard your own heart, however foolishly and melodramatically, as a crippled animal. I was used to dysthymic songwriters, but oblique ones, the kind with lyrics about Anne Frank and chimney sweeps. Listening to Mountain Goats albums was like mainlining emotional clarity into my bloodstream. Gut-socking lines came about once a minute, delivered always in the same tired, bitter wail: “My defenses may be working with a skeleton crew but I’ll be skinned alive before I’ll take this from you.” “You’ve done something awful. I’ve done something worse.” “I want to go home but I am home.” I listened to them over and over again, burrowing my way into the steadfast whine of his tape recorder, cultivating an allegiance to his sloppy, aggressive strumming. Once I realized how many more albums there were, I started petitioning my college music library to buy them. About eight months into my obsession I discovered Mountain Goats concert bootlegs on the Internet Archive, and that was about it, for me, in terms of hard drive space.
And in terms of love. I loved the Mountain Goats with a shameless intensity to which I was completely unaccustomed. I’m now somewhat more used to loving things, but that doesn’t mean I love the Mountain Goats any less. It’s been four and a half years, and I still listen to them every day. As more time passes it gets harder to believe that they’re a real band and not just something I invented because I was lonely.
Here are the things people say about the Mountain Goats: The singing is bad. The music is boring. The lyrics are melodramatic. They name-drop too many places. They name-drop too many kinds of peanuts. For a fortysomething man, he writes too many songs about sad teenagers. Too many songs period, actually. He recycles chords, he recycles stories, he recycles rhymes. You can rhyme “above” and “love” maybe once in your songwriting career, but that should probably be it.
Well, OK. These things are all true, in my opinion (except for the “too many songs” part, obviously). But, like, whatever. The Mountain Goats have negligible musical training and none of the feelings described in their songs register below an 8 on the emotional Richter scale; who cares? Not Mountain Goats fans, I can tell you. This is partly because Mountain Goats fans tend to be young and self-involved and melodramatic and therefore willing to embrace these traits in the music they listen to, but it’s also because Mountain Goats fans are strange. You have to be strange to spend that much time listening to objectively unbeautiful music. You have to be nerdy and negative and desperate. You have to put so much intellectual space between yourself and your feelings that when a songwriter comes along who can force you to bridge the gap, you undergo something close to a spiritual conversion.
Like most people, I was introduced to the Mountain Goats at a particularly bad time in my life. I said before that I was lonely. More to the point, maybe, I was depressed. I was in the middle of a very nearly successful attempt to give up binge-eating. This was something that had previously occupied almost all of my spare time, and the fact that I now did it so rarely ought to have made me happy, except that all of that time was mine, now, in which to be excruciatingly conscious. I couldn’t turn my brain off anymore. It was hell. For the first month or so I was alive with pain and then I began to shut down.
It’s funny. It seems in retrospect like a very clean time. You behave differently if everything you do hurts. You pare down the elements of your life to a handful of essential things, and when you start feeling better you memorialize those things as a kind of survival kit. Mundane ways of passing time become talismanic. After all, you used to want to die and now you don’t; this seems so remarkable, and the number of things in your life that could have compelled such a transformation seems so small, that you can only assume each one of them was vital. You tell yourself (ignoring the fact that people change and circumstances change and postadolescent depression is objectively small potatoes) that from now on it will be OK, no matter how bad you feel, because you still have those things, and you can pare your life down to them again if you need to.
These are my things, if you’re curious: online SET; Stairmasters; Nutella; trivial conversations with my brother; and—principally—Mountain Goats songs. I listened to Mountain Goats songs almost constantly. “Baboon” and “Horseradish Road” on my friend’s floor at Thanksgiving; “Have to Explode” and “International Small Arms Traffic Blues” on my walk to the pharmacy; “Source Decay” and “Chinese House Flowers” and “Oceanographer’s Choice” sitting cross-legged in the space under my bed. I collected them like Pokemon cards. I skinned them and tailored their narratives to my need. I recognized my own feelings only as they were related to me through Mountain Goats songs. In May, reacting badly to Wellbutrin and waiting in a gutted-out dorm for my summer job to begin, I sang along sarcastically to “Heretic Pride;” in July, on the right drugs and ablaze with heat and love, I sang along to it in earnest. It seemed miraculous that I could feel proud to be alive, as the song said, and even more miraculous that I had a song that expressed that feeling.
At this point I’d like to lay down a grand theory about what makes Mountain Goats songs such good survival tools, but the truth is I don’t know. It’s easy to see why a balls-out anthem like “Heretic Pride” or “This Year” would be effective, but that doesn’t explain why so many people—myself among them—develop emotional dependencies on all the ugly little songs about dogs and owls and alcoholic Floridians. Their brevity helps, I suppose; JD doesn’t dick around building harmonies while you’re waiting to get healed. There is also the roughness of the early albums and the live recordings, which sound as if the man himself is shouting bracingly into your ear. But I think it’s mostly about the breathing room carved out by his metaphors. He has a poet’s gift for injecting universal feelings into specific and alien narrative contexts, which allows you to catch your own emotional bogeymen by surprise. If you discover that his song about moon-colony organ harvesting is actually about how criminally lonely you felt the first time you made yourself throw up, the obliqueness of this association makes it possible to look almost directly, even almost compassionately, at something that three minutes ago you’d have given anything to disown. Darnielle is in the business of reattaching limbs, gently steering us towards the things we need to feel about the parts of ourselves we need to hold onto.
It helps, of course, that Mountain Goats fans tend to be overmetaphored English majors who will see significance in anything. My favorite Mountain Goats song is “We Were Patriots,” which I latched onto like a drowning animal without any lyrical justification at all. As far as I can tell, “We Were Patriots” is about two people in Calcutta listening to Dvorak on several radios; it may also be about feeling languid and a little melancholy. It’s almost certainly not about reconciling yourself to an unacceptable loss. But it was, for me. When I heard him sing, “Let them all play longer and louder and long after you’re gone,” I registered it as a statement about the ephemerality not only of my suffering but of all the things I hoped would ease it. I played the song on repeat and it gave me the sense of distance necessary to make whatever I had lost seem losable. And I think Darnielle is on board with this kind of self-tailoring of his material. After all, this is the man who said once, while covering “The Sign,” that “the things that you hallucinate because they are true for you are as true as anything in the world, and you are entitled to them.” I took him at his word. I built my emotional compass out of Mountain Goats songs. Within the band’s fan base, I suspect that this separates me from exactly no one.
Which brings me to what may be the actual reason Mountain Goats songs are so powerful: John Darnielle knows this is happening. He wants it to happen. It’s easy to ridicule the way his songs name-drop obscure cities and unusual foods, but they are all very obviously written by a man for whom music’s primary function is to enable him to come to grips with his own emotions. This is explicit in some of his more autobiographical songs: “It’s the one thing that I couldn’t live without,” he sings of his childhood stereo, and “So this is what the volume knob’s for.” With his music, he’s turning that function outwards: “This is a song that I want you to have, when your time comes,” is how he introduces “Woke Up New” and “No Children” and any number of other miserably cathartic numbers. He knows that his listeners are going to use his songs as a box of self-preservative tricks; he knows that most of them have already done it. This is, I think, what makes his songs so searing. There’s no need to be coy if your fans have already built their lives around you.
After listening to several gigabytes of JD’s stage banter, I began to feel some misgivings about this. His songs aren’t exactly cheerful templates, after all. Most of them are about miserable relationships and mental illness and compromise, and even the happy-sounding ones aren’t actually happy (I spent several years believing “Minnesota” was an honest-to-God love song before learning from an obscure bootleg that it’s actually a standard-issue Mountain Goats love song, i.e., a song about people who currently hate each other). I started to wonder what happens to Mountain Goats fans who internalize all this, who appropriate the Alpha couple’s trajectory as their own. And then it happened: I fell in love with a good-humored physicist and insisted on contaminating his optimism about our future with my gloomy cribbings from Tallahassee. It seemed as if, having been conditioned to expect fragile, malicious love, I was unable to focus on the real thing once I had it.
I suspect that the only thing more melodramatic than thinking your heart’s an autoclave is thinking that the reason your heart’s an autoclave is because you’ve listened to a bunch of songs. But honestly I’m not sure. I left the physicist, after two years, to take a job in another country. I imposed an indefinite separation at a time when we were still dizzy with love, and I took no steps to protect our relationship during my absence. It seemed like the only decision I was capable of making at the time, but I don’t know. “O yes, I loved you once,” say the liner notes for Tallahassee; “O yes, you loved me more.” It’s possible that I would have tried harder if I hadn’t started in the past tense.
I think, though, that the people who love the Mountain Goats were always going to be sad. They were always going to indulge in pessimism and torture themselves with doubt and poke holes in all the things that might threaten to make them happy. It comes with the territory. It’s why we love the songs in the first place, and why we keep loving them long after the pain that endeared them to us is over. After I left the physicist, during the embarrassingly quick and yet somehow interminable demise of our relationship, I spent a great deal of time listening to “Woke Up New” and “Dutch Orchestra Blues” and trying to reconcile how hugely we had loved each other with how easily we had given each other up, and I discovered that if Mountain Goats songs teach you anything, it’s not pessimism or bitterness or melodrama; it’s loyalty. Not to the people you’ve loved, exactly, but to the fact that you did love them. Maybe you don’t anymore, but that doesn’t invalidate the choices you made when you did. If you listen to enough Mountain Goats songs you learn that there is a kind of dignity in honoring feelings you no longer have. John Darnielle’s people fall out of love, yes, but they never forget that they were in it.
Which is, I suppose, why people love the Mountain Goats so shamelessly. That’s a feeling, after all, and we honor it, along with the sadness that made it possible. If we are very lucky, we grow out of that sadness eventually. But the songs remain, along with our Pavlovian responses to them, as relics of former selves that—as John Darnielle is constantly reminding us—we need to respect.
Here is a perfect Mountain Goats song:
Listen, you can tell your lawyer
That he can go to hell
Because I can take whatever you are offering up
And if four long years come to nothing
It’s all right
But it’s your birthday
It’s your birthday tonight
And I went to buy you something
But I caught myself in time
And nothing makes any sense anymore
But everything rhymes
Die hard, die kicking
Old habit of mine
Die hard, die kicking
Old habit of mine
Die hard, die hard, die kicking
“I don’t know what to tell you about this song,” JD says, in one of the few live recordings I have of it. “It’s another song.” Then he stops, as if he knows this is taking humility a bit far. “No, it’s a song off of Nothing for Juice, and it’s about resignation, and I’m pretty fond of it, personally.” He expanded on the resignation thing once in an interview, saying that the narrator “calls it habit, what he’s feeling, but it’s love. It’s always been love.”
It’s always been love: the love we feel for the man with the beady eyes and the gleeful wail and the fingers pressed to the pulse of our sadness, and the love we feel for the stupid, desperate, pure-hearted people we were when we needed him.