Tuesday, June 8, 2010

2. San Bernardino

The mystery of the map, and of going somewhere is by now so much a part of The Mountain Goats' consciousness that it is practically a joke. "Going to San Diego," "Going to Jamaica," Going to Georgia," Going to Marrakesh," and the 41 other songs that fall into the Going to... category of Mountain Goats songs have helped to shape a large part of the band's identity to this point. And so how does the "Going to..." absent "San Bernardino" begin?

We got in your car and we hit the highway

Like at least 45 other Mountain Goats songs, it begins with the concept of "going" somewhere.

As the second track on Heretic Pride "San Bernardino" exists both to carry on the feelings begun in "Sax Rohmer #1," and to abate those feelings somewhat. Like the previous character, the hero of "San Bernardino" has a purpose and a direction. But unlike his chronologically older brother, this one also has an object of his anxiety: he is almost a father.

I am not a father. I still drink Four Loko much too often to be ready to be any kind of father figure. But there is something in this notion of giving birth which seems to exist so deeply within the human conscious that it is practically a given of our thrownness in life. Just hearing about people becoming mothers or fathers seems to arouse an overwhelming sense of wonder. It just seems...impossible. Or at the very least implausible. We are so used to being completely out of control that the thought of physically creating something real and living seems absolutely baffling. I think that this experience must be even more baffling for us guys, since the mother has an intense physical connection to her baby for nine months. For us, suddenly it just exists.

These feelings of becoming (and specifically of becoming a father), however implausible, seem to be embedded within "San Bernardino." Like The Sunset Tree's "Dilaudid," the music accompanying Darnielle is almost entirely strings. Frenzied pizzicato plucks describe the nervous energy of the moment, while warm long strokes belie the calm underneath, as the character finds a motel where his wife can give birth to their soon-to-be son. Unlike "Dilaudid," which gives in to the tension and ends frantically, "San Bernardino" finds a very sincere care in the husband's attempts to help orchestrate the event. As he (somewhat cartoonishly) fills the bathtub with flower petals for his water-birthing wife, he guilelessly admits, "I loved you so much just then." It is a rare occurrence for a Mountain Goats song: a moment of tenderness that isn't delicately intertwined with cruelty.

The universality of how fresh this moment is for everyone who experiences it comes through in the unnamed protagonists' experiences. Darnielle refers to the guard at the gates to the Garden of Eden, then states, "but we consulted maps from earlier days," implying a history before history, like something arcane and eternal. Dead languages. Nearly quantum truths. Like every other song on the album, the lyrics evoke great mystery. And as if to mediate on these mysterious thoughts, after the final lyric has been sung the strings continue for almost a full minute of its taut 3:15 running time.

Like all the album's stories, these characters deal with things which are much larger than themselves. However, none of the others do so with such a peaceable wonder as is felt on this song. The fears in "San Bernardino" arise from genuine concern, and give way to an earnest calm, and the music reflects this beautifully. They may not be Going To San Bernardino specifically, but it welcomes them.

Darnielle has always been a mature lyricist, but I really think that these lyrics bespeak a new maturity, putting some of the youthful frenzy aside and edging closer to something which is universally Human. For once we see a couple struggling for each other, instead of constantly struggling with each other.

1. Sax Rohmer #1

However quietly, the shadow that has been cast by the full-bandedness of the Mountain Goats' previous four albums (Tallahassee, We Shall All be Healed, The Sunset Tree, and Get Lonely) finally emerges into the fullness of the day at the beginning of Heretic Pride's first track:

The album starts with a four count of drumsticks.

This is no small statement from a band whose previous 15 albums(!!!!!!!!) were almost entirely lowest-fi acoustic affairs, with Darnielle belting his particularly genial brand of human misery over it all. It almost slips by you, too, which is the first indication of the strength of the arrangements on the album. On Heretic Pride, The Mountain Goats appear to have actually turned into a band, and what's more notable is the fact that it works so naturally that it actually takes a few listens to even notice.

From the first lyrics that follow those four clicks, "Sax Rohmer #1" is an enormous, nightmarishly anxious song. Everything is distorted to inhuman proportions--from the threat of Imperial spies, to colossal machinery miserably decaying; from chalk marks that seem to imply some deeply paranoidal dead drop, to nature taking its course as predators swoop in on their tiny, helpless prey. The classic story of coming home ("if it's the last thing that I do") culminates in what is one of the most strangely powerful visuals that the strangely powerful band has ever written: "All roads lead toward the same blocked intersection." As unreal and untrue as the events are, they nonetheless feel remarkably real, terribly true, tangible and frightening.

One of the most striking themes both in "Sax Rohmer," as well as the rest of the album, is the futility of violence and how this stands in for a futility of larger action. There is no mistaking the violence and struggle at the heart of the song, but there is simply never a winner. "Every battle heads towards surrender on both sides," Darnielle insists, hideously. Even as he returns to whoever is waiting for him at home, he has his "own blood" in his mouth--implying more a shocked sucker-punch than a successful fight of any kind. But there is also no "enemy" of the song. It is the story of battles, wars, spies, and blood, all without a knowable opponent. The mystery and horror of this feeling implies the later track "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" (also about a xenophobic genre author), and is best evidenced by the fact that "Sax Rohmer #1" is bookended by the lyrics: "an agent crests the shadows." Somewhere out there something has power, something has agency, but all we can see is the movement of shadows in distant alleys.

For anyone else this would be all that is needed to shake at least a few sturdy listeners, but, oddly enough, this is all territory that Darnielle has been pacing around in for some time. What makes it different this time is how boiled down the lyrics feel, and how tight and propulsive the arrangement is. All of the groaners are gone (no horribly twee lines like: "our love is like the border between Greece and and Albania;" no half-thoughts like: "I wanna say I'm sorry / for stuff I haven't done yet") leaving almost nothing but choking terror. And instead of pick-on-crappy-strings percussion (something I do quite like), we are surrounded by the huge crashing of cymbals in the song's post-chorus, hammering home the desperation of Darnielle's fever dream. The Ennio Morricone guitar riff in the second verse lends the whole thing a sense that there really is danger lurking around the corner--while still pushing the song's heart-thumping melodicism--and the tinkling-down-the-major-scale riff builds that ball in the throat as we struggle through the scenery.

"Sax Rohmer" manages to lay the foundation for all the coming themes of the album: alienation, hopelessness, the futility of violence, the creation of monsters, and the results of creating such monsters. And to top it all off, the song fucking rips.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How to Embrace a Swamp Creature

Today is my birthday. As a treat to myself, I am going to begin a new project here. From the first listen, The Mountain Goats' album Heretic Pride quickly reserved a very special place in my heart, but whenever I mention this to people I inevitably get one of three responses: 1) "Really?" 2) "Have you heard Tallahassee?" or 3) "There's a couple good songs on it." Respectively, I would like to respond, "Yes," "Yes," and "Keep listening to it."

So, as Darnielle himself once did for Radiohead's fantastic Amnesiac, I would like to embark on a track by track exploration of this album that I think is fantastic, rewarding, and (in my opinion) the best Mountain Goats album there is. This will begin shortly, starting chronologically with the instantly canonical "Sax Rohmer #1." Soon we will all be perched atop a throne of human skulls.