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 here...giving 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.