The Mountain Goats are a band famous for inspiring people. They are, for a certain section of the internet, a guide through dark times. In his profile of front-man John Darnielle, Rolling Stone’s Christian Hoard talks about how he listened to the mountain goats to get through the brutal come-downs after 48 hours of cocaine. One of the eponymous Vlogbrothers, John Green, frequently quotes the mountain goats and cites his favourite song as ‘Up the wolves’; a track described by Darnielle as about, ‘victory over the adversary’. The band has a podcast dedicated to them, I only Listen to the Mountain Goats, which examines the cult classic album All Hail West Texas. In short then, The Mountain Goats seem a band of hoppe and uplift.
Alongside this positivity sits an undervalued element of the groups art; their ability to describe and invoke powerful feelings of dread, fear and doom. Darnielle is a lyricist of unusual power, and many of his most striking turns of phrase describe a deep sense of foreboding. Some of the groups most effective work builds environments of unease, with frightening images and clever melodic compositions.
A example of this is the first track on the 2017 album Goths, Rain in Soho. The song is a five minute long build up of tension and dread. This is achieved by the gradually building bass of drums and long piano chords, as well as a string of unsettling imagery. The first chorus opens with the cryptic statement, ‘No one knows where the lone wolf sleeps’ before proceeding to a sequence of other unnerving allusions. By the time Darnielle returns to the lone wolf in the final verse, the music has built to a crescendo of urgent pounding notes, and while his voice is close to a yell, he manages to maintain perfect diction as he cries out, ‘No one knows where the lone wolf’s gone/No one sees it camped out right there on the front lawn!’ This tingle inducing climax is the reward for five minutes of ingenious construction.
Other images are not so striking, but rather unsettling subversions of normality. The 2002 classic album Tallahassee is an hour long dissection of a break-up. The marriage between what fans have taken to calling the ‘Alpha couple’ is not so much sinking as plunging to the bottom of the marinara trench. The album delights in twisting domestic coupledom into a reflection of the increasingly toxic relationship. The, ‘Sun peaks in/ Like a killer through the curtain’, and their street is a place,
Where the dead will walk again
Put on their Sunday best
And mingle with unsuspecting Christian men
By the time the album fizzes out in the musical equivalent of regret, the listener has been astonished as well as drained. Darnielle’s dread-filled images are so sapping because they correspond so closely to real life. They have the unmistakable mark of the authentic.
This authenticity was earnt bitterly by Darnielle. His childhood and adolescence were marred by parental abuse, drug addiction and a general hopelessness. 2005’s seminal album The Sunset Tree is an autobiographical exploration of these ideas, and within the lyrics we can find the origin of Darnielle’s capacity for dark imagery. The scene described in the opening of Dance Music can be taken as representative;
I’m in the living room watching the watergate hearings
while my step father yells at my mother.
launches a glass across the room, straight at her head
and I dash upstairs to take cover.
lean in close to my little record player on the floor.
so this is what the volume knobs for.
Throughout, the song maintains a surprisingly upbeat, chirpy tune; a desperately affecting recreation of a child’s attempt to first block out, and then suppress, the trauma of abuse. Darnielle has no recourse here to the flights of fantasy that populate some of his imagery. He is recalling a past he barely survived. The horror was real and his ability to express it through art is clearly a form of deep catharsis
Far from turning the band into a depressing or dispiriting collective, this capacity to represent darkness and fear is, I think, the real reason why so many fans take hope from their songs. When a mountain goats song suggests that things will get better and that hope is worthwhile, it has earnt this positivity, not just on the level of the author’s life, but also through the design of the songs.
The best example is the band’s anthem, This Year. An early track from The Sunset Tree, this song describes one of the youthful Darnielle’s failed attempts at rebelling against his horrifying stepfather. The song has the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus structure and major chord chirpiness that is typical of an upbeat pop-rock record. This conventionality is constantly undercut both by the domestic terror that Darnielle recounts, as well as by some moody piano chords mixed into an otherwise conventional tune.
Despite all this darkness, This Year is a record of survival. The chorus’ ironic refrain, I am going to make it through this year/If it kills me, is the youthful Darnielle’s truest act of rebellion. He will survive and keep going, no matter what. He will fight his way out of his quiet suburban hell and become the artist he believes he can be. He will go and twist pop orthodoxies into unconventional and subversive forms. He will become one of the internet’s most uplifting poets of dread. This hope, projected back by the lyrics onto the youthful Darnielle, is something that the present lyricist shares with the listener. This is a most precious, and hard won, gift.