Thursday, June 21, 2007

What it is with the Mountain Goats

For a moment let's forget about musical style completely. I'm going to talk about lyrics.

The 'Goats write lots of songs about doomed love (in fact, this has been a typical theme in songwriting for many years). They do it in a way that's unusual for songwriters. I've been listening to the Arcade Fire a lot lately. Some lyrics from a song of theirs on that very topic, Ocean of Noise:

Left in the morning
While you were fast asleep
To an ocean of violence
A world of empty streets
You got your reasons
Me I got mine
But all the reasons I gave were just lies
To buy myself some time

It's sort of introspective and self-deprecating, and you probably wouldn't say those words exactly to your (doomed) lover, but even so, the words could be re-arranged into something that could be a communication to said (doomed) lover. The details of the events that took place aren't really set out, because the (doomed) lover knows all them, it's an explanation of the speaker's feelings, and one with at least a bit of a motive.

The Mountain Goats, on the other hand (Tallahassee):

Twin-prop airplanes passing loudly overhead
Road to the airport: two lanes clear
Half the whole town gone for the summer
A terrible silence, coming down here
And you... you.

And from Oceanographer's Choice

But then you came in and we locked eyes
You kicked the ashtray over as we came toward eachother
Stubbed my cigarette out against the west wall
Quickly lit another

In the first he's establishing setting. In the second giving action. The mood and emotion are not just pounded in like a guy trying to earnestly plead his case to someone, they're embedded in the setting and in the events, like someone writing a novel. Although the speaker addresses his (doomed) lover with "you", he's telling a story to the audience more than anything else. It creates a distance between Darnielle and the speaker that lets the audience get much closer to the speaker. The songs are free to be more honest about the speaker's character. His first-person portrayals show all the flaws and warts of the characters, show their actions for what they are. He's not fishing for sympathy like so many songwriters; that's the honesty that makes his songs powerful. The feelings follow from the events and are free to be contradictory or ugly. This is why I don't agree with classifying the songs as earnest. Earnestness is (according to Wiktionary) "ardent in the pursuit of an object; eager to obtain or do; zealous with sincerity...", and I think only part of that definition is met by the Mountain Goats' songs. They're really more honest than they are earnest, as the speakers don't really have an objective but to tell the story.


heatrose said...

earnest was a random feeling in the dark that i tried out for mountain goats that worked better than any other one word bit.

but given the definition, i Think it works too!

i first encountered the mountain goats as john darnielle entreating "i hope you die! i hope we both die!"

to use one of the more dramatic lines, and with the bassist grooving out like most bassists don't these days.

they're stories, the lyrics are great great great, but its also, perhaps equally importantly, that they are insisting "you are going to FEEL this. We are going to get it across." and they do, and every time i listen to mountain goats i'm hearing them live, as gorgeous, gorgeous (, tragic, gorgeous) people. and so much people-ness! in the lyrics, and the instrumentals with the lack lack lack of production, and john darnielle's voice and facial expressions, and the bassist groovin' on.

so earnestness: ardent, and the listener is the object. eager-- to tell the story. and zealous with sincerity i don't need to go into.

so i don't think they create a distance with the lyrics. i think its a closer-ing that occurs generally.

but maybe it's cause of how i first encountered them...

Al Dimond said...

If you were the first person I heard call the Mountain Goats earnest I probably wouldn't have noticed... but I hear that about them all the time and have always sort of disagreed. I've never heard it explained exactly and I think your explanation fits, it's closer to earnest literature than lots of songs that I consider earnest.

I haven't had a chance to get really up close to them in concert (since I was at the back in the one concert I saw) and have mostly got acquainted through albums. And the two albums I really know well of theirs, Talahassee and We Shall All Be Healed, are both very produced as far as Mountain Goats albums go, and both have subject matter that feels more fiction-like than what I've heard of the other ones. That's my bias.

Sometimes I perceive a disconnect between the words in Mountain Goats songs and what they're saying, and I have this really cynical feeling about the compositional process. Alpha Rats' Nest is one. That song should just disappear, it's a bad Elvis Costello song, a stream of summarizing clich├ęs (some borrowed from other songs) tacked on to the end of an album with as many potentially closing numbers as OK Computer (end the album on Oceanographer's Choice! That's a fitting ending!). But if I don't jab off the CD player before that song starts the cynicism I feel about it creeps into the album and injects doubt into the best parts of the other songs. What was the look on his face when he came up with, I am not gonna lose you / we are gonna stay married / in this house like a Louisiana graveyard / where nothing stays buried? Where does a line like that come from?

It's kind of perverse to smile at how great a line like that is, no? I feel really weird when I do.

John Dimond said...

The Louisiana graveyard thing is a reference to burying corpses in the soft ground near a body of water (like the Gulf of Mexico). Ground like that moves so much more than dry ground that graves won't stay buried in it. So the line is saying that they try to bury their conflict, and problems, but the ground is wet and they always come back.