Monday, December 10, 2007

Alpha Rats Nest

I'm so sick that I feel like Kafka. Maybe relatedly, the Mountain Goats song that I'm the most into right now is "Alpha Rats Nest." I think it's the manic quality. Like the way I would giggle to myself when I hear We do our best vampire routines if it didn't hurt my throat too much to giggle. But the effort of not giggling makes me start coughing and the song rattles on, heedless, heedless, jittered up like kids with glowsticks on E. It sounds exactly like I feel, especially when the little hitch comes before it starts over again, trapped on Repeat>1.

If I see sunlight hit you
I am sure that we'll both decompose


sing, sing, sing

sing for the damage we've done

and the worse things that we'll do

Monday, November 26, 2007

From TG&Y

This song makes me a little bit homesick, just because I suspect I know where three thousand miles away from New York is. Or well -- you all know where that is (Chino). (Well -- Claremont, more likely.)

Proper names in "From TG&Y":
- Safeway
- Indian Hill
- Folger's
- New York

Things ingested in "From TG&Y":
- spray paint (some cans)
- Folger's crystals
- hard-boiled eggs

Things egested in "From TG&Y":
- blood
(- small resentments)

Hang onto your dreams (un)til:
- someone makes you let them go
- someone beats them out of you
- there's nothing left of them

Sunday, September 30, 2007

riches and wonders

I performed this song a year ago at a schoolwide talent show with a good friend of mine, and prefaced it as follows: "This song is by the world's greatest living songwriter, John Darnielle, of the Mountain Goats." There was a bewildered silence in the audience (apparently the Mountain Goats aren't widely played on MTV?), but then we launched straight into it--my friend hunched over his guitar, staring minutely at the strings, and me, curly hair expanding with the notes, barefoot in a long white skirt, singing with the microphone in one hand and the other hand held open. We harmonized on the chorus:
And I want to go home,
but I am home --

and by the end the whole school was clapping along.

All of which epitomizes perfectly the secret of this song. At first glance it's a sweet, melodious clap-along folk song; the couple in the song has a relationship out of some perfect fantasy --

We write letters to each other, invent secrets to confess to,
I learn foreign and exotic terms of endearment by which to address you,
We feed fresh fruit to one another,
We stay up all night --

--and you think, who does that? Who are these people? I want to be there, all right, I want to be them! But... well. Well, it's a song by the Alpha Cabra. And the secret nestling in the heart of this song, the canker in the flower, is right there in that harmonic nine-word little chorus -- the lines that haunted me for a year, because in the center of the most perfect happiness lies a lonely restless selfness that cannot be overcome-
I want to go home,
but I am home.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Game Shows Touch Our Lives

I saw The Mountain Goats recently. They played a lot of Tallahassee and a lot of Sunset Tree. I am not the Tallahassee expert on this blog, but I thought I would write about "Game Shows Touch Our Lives" anyway, because they played it and I like it and it's one of those Mountain Goats songs that sounds like it could be romantic if you didn't know the Mountain Goats. Or even if you just didn't listen to the song closely enough to catch the little betrayals that signal that, whether or not I'm in the mood/the mood for you, something isn't quite right.

But apparently Mountain Goats fans all love these lines, just like I love these lines:

People say friends don't destroy one another
What do they know about friends?

Because the whole room sang them like it was the last chance they would get to sing along with a song until "No Children."

Sunday, September 9, 2007


Maybe you've realized: I'm a little obsessed with Full Force Galesburg. For that very reason, I swore I would not do another Full Force Galesburg post for a while. But you know what? I was a little obsessed with "Minnesota" even before I knew that The Mountain Goats had things like 'albums.' (I was introduced to The Mountain Goats via a 'Mountain Goats Primer,' AKA a scrupulous mix CD.) So -- at least for now -- fuck 'not always posting about the same album.' It's Minnesota time.

What you need to know: I am a child of the West Coast. Every fall, I pack my polka dot handkerchief and walk across the plains to the East Coast to go to school (we don't have our own out on the frontier, of course). On the East Coast they have buildings that are more than a quarter-century old. I pretend everything is the same but it isn't. For example, there is a total dearth of gold and grizzly bears. The feeling that I have sometimes, when I think of Chinook salmon pulsing up the Sacramento River, or of the whales known to imitate them, equals exactly the sound of A.C.'s voice in this line:

But we are not as far west as you suppose we are

Of course, in the song, we have traveled from the opposite direction. All that that means is that west is a flexible idea.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Fair reader:

Hello. I realize that our promise to post about Mountain Goats songs every day is now broken. There are reasons for this (exploding computers, changes of continent, etc.) but I do not want to give you excuses. Instead I will institute a change of policy. From now on, whenever possible, we will post about Mountain Goats songs. That way it will be a surprise.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Going to Queens

In the Bible, the traditional description of sexual encounters goes as follows:
And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain their son...

The Hebrew word 'knew', ידע, used in this context, is the same word used to describe intellectual knowledge, which is why 'knew' is such an apt translation. And while Going to Queens is far from a Biblical text it is certainly concerned with the same dichotomy.

In short: Going to Queens is a song about sex. It is also a song about the impossibility of knowing one's lover.

The song's speaker wants to know his love in all senses of the word: not only is he concerned with her body, dripping hair, clean skin and all, he is also seeking a more desperate and futile knowledge. Going to Queens is situated at the perfect and terrible moment when everything surrounding you and your lover disappears, when the recognition of their body and its closeness seems to swallow the world, and when the only desire left in you is to consume them entirely, body, soul, brain, whole--it isn't coincidence that violent terms, eating terms, often are used to describe the act of coitus. Sexual love can be gentle but more often it is fierce, and Going to Queens shows us its most intimate brutality: sex brings us as close, physically, to another person as it is possible to be, but it cannot merge spirits. Sexual love can assuage our loneliness more totally than any other act but ultimately every man and woman is still alone. But despite the fullness of their act, its consummation, the disappearance of the urban landscape into it, the protagonist of Going to Queens is still seeking that final merge, the intersection of 'to know' and 'to know':

The air was heavy your body was heavy on mine
I will know who you are yet
I will know who you are yet

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Original Air-Blue Gown

Sometimes Mountain Goats song titles are like words in a language you don't know. No, that's not right. They're like English words that you don't know yet, so you go to your dictionary, but then there's no entry for "Original Air-Blue" (you're pretty clear on the "gown" part -- or are you?), because your little brother scribbled "BAD" all over that page with ink. This does not seem fair. "Original Air-Blue" cannot possibly mean "BAD."

So you invent your own meaning. This is my meaning:

There's a girl I've had a crush on since I was fifteen. At that time it was a fierce and lonely crush, because she spent a lot of time eating Chinese food and making out with her boyfriend against my locker. It was also a confusing crush, because I didn't really understand why I liked her. Well, OK: I liked her because she was cute and tallish and awkward and lanky and a little nervous. But she was also the kind of girl who, if she had been an indie boy, would have had natural indie rock bedhead (in fact she did have natural indie rock bedhead) and spent hours writing emo-indie lyrics in a Moleskine with ballpoint about Girls. (Indie boys are very capital letters about Girls.) That isn't usually my type. Perhaps for this reason, I've never really been able to explain why I liked her so desperately. Now it's even harder because I haven't seen her in who knows how long, but whenever I think about her, I have a gentle sweet powerful feeling of loving her just as she is, wherever she is and whoever she's with, whatever she's doing. And of wishing her all the happiness possible.

Sometimes I still dream about her. When I wake up in the morning after those dreams and try to capture them in chalk pictures, the color I use for her eyes is "Original Air-Blue."

Friday, August 10, 2007

Idylls of the King

I can't get over these lines:

Your face like a vision straight out of Holly Hobby
Late light drizzling through your hair
Your eyes twin volcanoes
Bad ideas dancing around in there

Because all I can think of is a possessed, maybe even life-sized Raggedy Ann doll as (would have been) seen in The Omen. I mean, it's either that or the Patchwork Girl of Oz. Which is a lot less frightening, because Scraps, as we all know, was great. This interpretation also (awesomely, to my way of thinking) turns the "I" of this song into the Scarecrow, who is my favorite Oz character.

I know, I know -- this is Tallahassee, not a whimsical romp through the magical Land of Oz. All the same, suddenly it all fits: huge crows, the shrieking of innumerable gibbons, possibly also the vultures, and, best of all, our shared paths unraveling behind us like ribbons. It also means that the Scarecrow is having weird, probably portentous dreams about armies/armies of ghosts, which is not un-Oz-like, and can only mean one thing: invasion.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

I love you. Let's light ourselves on fire.

I never thought double suicide was romantic. But this song is pretty romantic, don't you think?

What's keeping me up at night?
The streetlight.
What's finally gonna let me sleep all right?
You might.

Which is not at all the kind of extremely fucked-up, twisted relationship that I expected from a song called "I love you. Let's light ourselves on fire." I don't know what I was expecting -- other than something out of Norman Mailer and/or Meiji Era Japan -- but this surprisingly, perhaps misleadingly tender little song was not it. It has very few lyrics for an Alpha Cabra song, so it's all in the sweet, earnest delivery: You might.

The end, like the static electricity and (the electricity-using, one imagines) streetlight, is completely incomprehensible to me. But in this incredibly fascinating way. What was everyone doing? What (or whom) were you waiting for by the mailbox? What was the mailman doing? How did "I" see them? Why are the neighbours such potential voyeurs?

These questions, like the question of where the titular fire-setting will take place (and when, and how, and why), trouble me. They trouble me so much that every time I decide, you know, fuck it, I'll never know, and I might as well stop listening, I just put "I love you. Let's light ourselves on fire." back on again. The song itself has become the song's "you" to me, even though I am not sure who that "you" is.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

An Inscription At Salonae

I imagine this song being sparked by seeing a picture of a relief--a pitcher of wine, a laughing girl cast in stone. I imagine the Alpha Cabra caught her stone gaze and decided she deserved to be brought to life in a song, just as much as any angsty Midwestern traveler does. And so she became the next of his 'yous', those ephemeral love-objects that flit through his songs, sometimes described, more often not. In An Inscription At Salonae, as in so many of his songs, the geography surrounding the protagonists is thrown into hyperfocus, while the protagonists themselves remain enigmatic.

The guitar sound is fuller than usual, with a firm, joyous beat, filling out the description of brightly colored ancient Roman pageantry. I can clearly see some thin, toga-wearing figure staring with fevered eyes at a dancing girl with long hair in the valley below him, altar smoking, purple cloths draped all around, the clouds languorously curling. It's uncanny, it's unfair, how Mountain Goats songs can create lovers anywhere; it calls up the question of the binding forces of history. The man who longs for his woman in Rome, who inscribes her name on some monument and wishes he could catch her by the bangles and scoop her into his soul, isn't much different from any other man who longs, no matter the era.

But the moment of pure longing, still and hot against a riotous backdrop, that's captured in this song can't possibly sustain itself: like any other human emotion, it pales and retreats into the faded tapestry of memory. Though the picture is inscribed with fierce clarity somewhere in Salonae, the feelings in the lover's breast, the image in his mind, leaches, brittles and breaks, like a flower caught in the overgrowth/ falling, falling to pieces.


Do you remember the story of the chocolate palace that Willy Wonka built for the spoiled Indian prince Pondicherry? Only Pondicherry won't eat it, so it just melts, and one day he wakes up swimming in land mines and sand and hot chocolate? And all the jewels have slipped out of the cotton candy walls and are sliding around in the chocolate with him. And the jazz on the radio reminds him of better times, times that may not even have happened yet, times when he and his Bonnie will go driving right under the Indian Ocean and pluck pieces of coral reef out of the sticky sweet air.

Well, that or they'll rob banks; the radio station is not very clear on this point.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

There Will Be No Divorce.5

And at 5 A.M., I turned the radio on
& an old man's voice sang a short, sweet song

GRANDFATHER: What'd we sell the radio for?
VIRGINIA: The war effort, Grandpa.
GRANDFATHER: Then where's our radio?
VIRGINIA: We sold it --
GRANDFATHER: -- because of the war, you just said that. I'm deaf, not stupid.
VIRGINIA: You don't understand. There's no war.
GRANDFATHER: How do you have a war effort without a war?
VIRGINIA: The war effort's because there isn't any war. It's to keep war from happening.

Something is coming to get this couple, or else they are coming to get something. I have never been in a hurricane but I imagine that there would be rain falling from the rain spout down, down into the sweet wet mud and that the wind would begin to wail and that it would be a very bad idea to go punch out all the windows. But it would be exciting, wouldn't it? And it's already over, isn't it? There isn't going to be blood for the static, is there?

I have the sense that, sleeping on the floor, this house does not belong to them. They are on borrowed time. Where they go when the storm comes does not matter. The divorce has already come through, and the war is over. What are they doing together?

Friday, August 3, 2007

there will be no divorce

The thing that sticks out to me most about this song is that my ex-boyfriend loved to use two lines from it as his away message:
"and if i ever want to drive myself insane,
all i have to do is watch you breathing."

and for all I know that's still his away message all the time, but who's he watching now? It's unfair that this song has an automatic association with heartbreak for me, and it's even more unfair that the particular association is so ridiculous... but what can I say? Living in the digital age has made the scale of interactions smaller and stranger, but the human passions underlying those interactions haven't changed at all. So I see these lines from a song and imagine my ex-boyfriend's stupid white thick-knuckled hand selecting that particular message from a list; I imagine him driving away in his silver Toyota Avalon to god-knows-where, his stupid tremulous lips pursed, ready to watch god-knows-who breathe.
I don't think the Alpha Cabra would object particularly to the sudden abject hopelessness that the first half of this song stirs up in me; given certain other songs of his, he seems pretty familiar with lovelorn despair. But no matter what my treacherous lump-filled throat might say, this isn't a song about heartbreak. It certainly starts out with all the portents of it: the song's protagonist is lonely and sleepless in the rain at night, being driven mad by longing. The radio becomes his company; then it is drowned by a conflagration of rage on the part of the lover, who gathers her hair into the most metaphysically significant ponytail I've ever heard of ("and you gathered your hair behind your head/ like god was gonna catch you by the pony tail"); and then the old man on the radio returns and the lovers are reconciled, rising from their deathlike states of isolation. The A.C. is remarkable at creating loneliness; the despair clutching at the protagonist at the beginning of the song is only matched by the feeling of triumph in companionship at the end. Comfort, the song seems to say, can be as powerful as despair when it follows on the heels of awful loneliness.
When the end of this song rolls around, I can close my eyes and imagine myself running back across my lawn to that silver Toyota Avalon, the power of this song in my voice and my hands enough to stop him from driving away. The ineffable logic of this song is too compelling to drive away from, after all: companionship dispels despair, the breathing and hair of a loved one is enough to drive away static and death; perhaps if I'd just sung this song loud enough for him to hear his engine would have stalled in front of my house and we would still be singing badly with the radio together. There would have been no divorce. There will never be any divorce.

Going to Alaska.5

When I first heard "Going to Alaska," I had to look up the word jacaranda. This is what Wikipedia has to say about jacaranda:

Jacaranda (pronounced [ʒa.ka.ˈran.da], [ha.ka.ˈran.da], or [ˌdʒæk.ə.ˈran.də]) is a genus of 49 species of flowering plants in the family Bignoniaceae, native to tropical and subtropical regions of South and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The genus name is also used as the common name.

Which reminds me, as does "Going to Alaska," of Joan Didion's novel A Book of Common Prayer. This is what Wikipedia has to say about A Book of Common Prayer:

A Book of Common Prayer is a 1977 novel by Joan Didion. It is a story of both personal and political tragedy in the imaginary Central American country of "Boca Grande." In 1983 Didion would publish Salvador, a book of essays on corruption and violence in El Salvador; the fiction and non-fiction reflect a similar perspective of rage and despair.

Run with me here. You are the deposed dictator (AKA president) of Boca Grande. Although your successor is your brother, you might like to get out of the country for a while. You might like to go somewhere quite different. In Alaska, you hear, there's snow to suck the sound out from the air -- whether or not this will also remove the sound of bullets remains to be seen.

Where you are now, the soil is soaked through with old blood and with relatives who were buried here, or close to here, and they are giving rise to what is happening. Alaska will not be like Boca Grande. The purple blossoms will have emptied out into the blinding snow, and there will be no politics, no fratricide, no under-the-table bribes. Nor will you have to get your foot in the door all over again; there will be no door to get it in, and the silence will clothe an entirely new kind of murder. It will be a vacation. You feel refreshed already.

first post! Going To Alaska.

It's hard to write about "Going to Alaska" without feeling hopelessly inadequate--it's one of John Darnielle (henceforth referred to as Alpha Cabra, for "head goat" in Greek and Spanish)'s most overtly poetic songs (and that's saying something). It's a big, raw, bold and many-layered type of statement. I wanted this to be the first song I wrote about because it was one of the songs that made me woozy and tingly by the end, filled with strange and fearsome feelings, and this blog would give me the opportunity to analyze that alien fearsomeness ("alien electricity," anyone?).

This song uses the "Going to..." format to great effect: while the Going To songs are nearly always stellar, and nearly always reflect on the geographical reality of the song-protagonist's surroundings, Going to Alaska is more intimate than usual with physical details of place. The song creates an extremely sharp dichotomy, vivid as an hallucination, between the protagonist's origin and his destination. The place he's "Going From" is lush and tropical (jacaranda only grow in tropical or subtropical regions), watched over by a hearty and almost violent sun. It's a hypersensual place; there is an obverabundance of sun, of color, of physical experience. There, sense passes to synaesthesia: the heat makes things "wet with color"; the plants, instead of merely thriving, are "thick and alive with alien electricity"; and the protagonist, overwhelmed by sensual intimacy with his surroundings, lets his febrile imagination move to a spiritual plane, where the ground is "soaked through with old blood and with relatives that were buried rise to what is happening."

The contrast with his imagined Alaska is stark: there, the environment is so bleak that it deprives its inhabitants of their senses. Snow "sucks the sound out of the air"; you can "go blind just by looking at the ground"; and even the animals kill "in silence." Existence is a struggle; instead of bursting with vivid life, your average freezing Alaskan must eat fat by itself "just to keep the body warm." In this song, neither of the protagonist's options are particularly heartening: he is fleeing from a strangling and overpowering richness into a brutal void. What I see in "Going to Alaska" is the story of someone who wants to flee sensuality gone depraved, and who sees unforgiving asceticism as his only option--and, because it's the Alpha Cabra, that story is laced with the kind of images that make you sit up straight in your bed and wait for the night to pass, your only companion his thin, earnest voice and tinny guitar.