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.