May 9, 2020


How the Mountain Goats Accidentally Made the Ultimate Social-Isolation Album: When he wrote lyrics about "bucking the curve," John Darnielle was thinking only of ancient history. (SPENCER KORNHABER, May 2020, The Atlantic)

Many of his songs have depicted reclusiveness as a survival technique, in terms sometimes romanticized and sometimes nightmarish. On 2004's "Dance Music," he tenderly reminisced about using the radio in childhood to drown out his abusive stepfather's eruptions. On 2008's scorching "Lovecraft in Brooklyn," he voiced a mentally unstable person's revulsion at the sight of humans congregating on the streets. Now Pierre Chuvin conjures communities of late antiquity attempting to thrive in hiding. On the rollicking "Until Olympius Returns," pagans forced into servitude reassure themselves, "This is just a momentary ripple in the stream." On "January 31, 438," whose title refers to the date when the Eastern Roman empire outlawed Jews and Samaritans from public office, he delivers this vision of lonesome rebellion:

I dance in the dark, all alone
I dance for the God on the throne
If they come catch me and arrest me, mid step
Let me go down dancing, let me be the last one left

If the listener hears the album's tyrants, seeking and destroying pockets of huddled human warmth, as akin to a deadly virus, that's okay with Darnielle. The pandemic may well have subconsciously shaped his work. "In group therapy, people will say something, and then you notice they were actually saying something else," he said. "Then you say, 'It seemed like this thing you said was actually coming from another place.' You gain insight into your behavior that way, right?  For me, I tell stories, and then I go, Why is that your take on the story?"

But he rejects the notion that these songs were written as allegory. "A good story is so useful and so polydisseminative that you can apply it to your own situation," he said with a chuckle at his own use of academic terminology. "That's the poet's ideal ... When I'm writing about the fall of a civilization, well, especially given our present political moment, there's a 50/50 chance on any given day that it's going to sound like I'm writing about the present. I notice all of those things in the writing, and if I see one that feels cool, then I leave it in. I'm singing songs about doomed people, and that was what I was already doing."

Darnielle is not only describing his songwriting ethos--he's describing a process of connection-making that occurs within his own lyrics and in the reception to them. On 2005's "This Year," his most widely beloved single, Darnielle blended his own troubled teenage memories with imagery of a feast in Jerusalem. That song's chorus, "I am going to make it through this year if it kills me!," has been a mantra for many during the coronavirus pandemic; the Mountain Goats retweeted an image of those words posted outside a closed concert venue. Of having coined such an enduring slogan, he said, "I imagine it's what it must feel like to have come up with a really great recipe. Food is nourishing, so if you write a recipe and people are serving it to their families, then you've done a great thing. You don't get to take that much credit. The people who are doing the cooking are the ones who get the lion's share."

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Posted by at May 9, 2020 9:08 AM