Sunday, March 24, 2013

Destroying Angels: The Mountain Goats' Uneasy Stylistic Purity

When the new Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth, came out last fall, I wasn't in the country to buy a copy anyway, which is good, because if I did I would have had to face how conflicted I'd gotten about John Darnielle's folk-rock-for-jaded-nerds.
I'd sworn by the Goats for a long time, practically ever since I first heard "No Children" through the tinny speakers of an old girlfriend's Civic. The John Darnielle-model concept album spoke to me in ways that old-style concept albums hadn't—The Dark Side of the Moon and Tommy had never done anything for me, but I loved The Sunset Tree and All Hail West Texas with all my heart. I loved the big, flexible, voluble first-person voice that John Darnielle had found, and I loved swimming in his murky, decentered narratives of abuse, drug addiction and marital disintegration. John Darnielle, for me, expressed something pure and profound about human life in America; naturally I was pretty excited about Transcendental Youth when it was announced.
But just before it came out, I read a review of the first single, "Cry for Judas", on Pitchfork, and in the way a little pinprick can deflate any big balloon, I started to get queasy about the Goats. On Cry for Judas, a big, heartfelt song full of horns and anthemic choruses, Pitchfork, in its snide, sneering, vaguely Christgavian idiom, wrote something like, "If you're the kind of person who gets emotional about Mountain Goats songs, you'll probably get emotional about this song."

Like any kind of snide, sneering criticism, Pitchfork writing often intends to make its readers feel bad for having strong emotions. A lot of the accusations of hipsterdom that get hurled at the site are rooted in this operation—Pitchfork, even more than most criticism, tends to push both love and hate toward a highly qualified indifference. It's not any cooler to look down your nose at Springsteen than it is to deify TV on the Radio. But the painful truth of that kind of criticism is that it never works unless you already know, somewhere in your soul, that you really are deluding yourself, that you really do feel stronger about the  than you should. Otherwise it would bounce off. 
The truth is, there is a kind of person who gets emotional about Mountain Goats songs; it's the kind of self-conscious, depression-prone nerd who's too emotional for sneering, one-note indie but too smart for pop anthems. There's a constant tension between the need to feel deeply, in the Elliott Smith vein, and a deep suspicion of that very feeling because, after all, the last stop on the earnestness train is Doctor Who. The Mountain Goats succeed with this kind of person because their albums are crafted to feel rich, eclectic, incorporating irony and colloquialism as much as confessions. The tone of the albums, roughly, dresses up their content; the humor vindicates the pain.
So, reading that article, I realized that the irrational, fanlike love that I'd felt for John Darnielle's band was, indeed, irrational. Once you peel back the sardonic, writerly tone of the Mountain Goats, you're left with a band seemingly as indulgent as The Smiths. Overnight, whole swathes of the band's catalogue became unlistenable—most of All Hail West Texas, big chunks of The Sunset Tree, and every rock number on We Shall All Be Healed became artless, overstated and clunky. Where before I had loved the agonized payoff of "Up the Wolves" and the howled final line of "Broom People," suddenly they disgusted me the way that only bad poetry can disgust a person.
The other side of this, of course, is that the snide, sneering critic that Pitchfork's style evidently aims to ape waxes quite poetic about the Goats. Flipping through his Consumer Guide on a whim, I was shocked to find that Robert Christgau, dean of super-concentrated rock-critic jive talk, who had damned Kid A with barely articulated praise ("Alienated masterpiece nothing—it's dinner music. More claret?") and wearily waved Gimme Fiction aside ("I wish this was still a world where the right guitar noise and a heaping helping of hooks were sustenance enough") had actually been a perceptive and even rapt defender of Darnielle's band all along. Not all his reviews are positive, but of The Life of the World to Come, Christgau writes, "this is literary rock as it should be," and on Heretic Pride he goes as far as to compare Darnielle to Dylan.
And the strange thing about Christgau's criticism is that he hymns the very things that Pitchfork denigrates—Darnielle's brutal, cathartic emotion, his focused projection of his own pain onto the outside world. Christgau's approach to rock criticism is very much centered on songwriting; anybody who's spent quality time with the Consumer Guide knows how much he esteems "real songs"—that is, songs that are well-crafted and well-proportioned, but also free of bathos and affectation. Christgau is no formalist; he's every bit as keyed into the broader world of hype and fandom as Pitchfork. So Christgau's appraisal of Darnielle as a great songwriter concerns much more than Darnielle's formal talent; it's an apology for Darnielle's entire persona and, in turn, an apology for getting emotional over Mountain Goats songs.
So, I thought, if the Mountain Goats have been poisonous for me ever since I started thinking about them clearly, it can't just be because they're earnest at the core, because that's the point. The bad songs come not when they're earnest, but when they're honest, when they're pat. Being pat equals bending to received wisdom, after all, being artless, and nothing is more artless than an honest confession. So, I reasoned, if this were the case then the best Mountain Goats material would also be the most artificial, the most fictionalized. And sure enough, the best Mountain Goats material, by all accounts, is on Tallahassee.

So, back to No Children. No Children is the Platonic Mountain Goats song—at first blush it almost sounds like Simon and Garfunkel, from the spartan arrangement to the close harmonies in the chorus to the military regularity of the verse-chorus pattern, but once you drill deeper into the song it morphs before your eyes into something very different. Darnielle's lyrics are rigidly ordered, wrapped tightly around a dactylic meter and a series of metaphors, each set up and then completed economically. In No Children, the relationship is a teetering fence for two lines, then a missed exit for two, then a junkyard for four; a shaving injury for two, then a dark night for four; then, finally, asphyxiation for six, with a few tangential lines inserted here and there to let the listener breathe. Darnielle's songwriting on Tallahassee is all like this, if not always as relentlessly metric—tight, ferocious lines that imbue the Florida landscape and everything it contains with the character of the collapsing marriage. In "Old College Try," the protagonist says that the light in his lover's eyes is "like a trash can fire in a prison cell / like the searchlights in the parking lots of Hell"; in "First Few Desperate Hours," the Alpha Couple's spirits "drop like flies" and "lean like towers / on a hillside." 
This stream of metaphors is what gives Tallahassee its resonance. We know next to nothing about the couple in question, beyond the fact that they live in a decaying house and drink like sailors; the power of the album comes from the way, on songs like "Game Shows Touch Our Lives," that Darnielle's first-person narration leaps from reportage ("dug up a fifth of Hood River gin") to aphorisms ("They say friends don't destroy one another / what do they know about friends") to the pathetic fallacy ("thunder clouds forming, cream white moon / everything's gonna be okay soon"), culminating in verses that juxtapose these elements:

Carried you up the stairs that night
All of this could be yours if the price is right.
I heard cars headed down to oblivion
Up on the expressway.

Songs like this give us a view of the couple's isolated, hopeless optimism, and the way the outside world reflects it—the suffocating Florida summer and the ecosystem of Greyhound buses, overripe plums, gravel roads and junkyards. It's a romanticism worthy of Friedrich or Byron, and it has the same bipolar structure. 
In the manic songs, like "Game Shows Touch Our Lives" we get a sense that the couple's optimism masks an obvious fear that neither of them is allowed to express; more impressively, in the depressive songs like "No Children", the protagonist's bitter sarcasm masks an undimmed belief in transcendence, which is all the more heartbreaking as we appreciate the hopelessness of his situation. That hope for transcendence, usually via annihilation, is the center of the album, and it's best articulated through one verse in "No Children":

I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here 
Someday burns down
And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away
And I never come back to this town again in my life.

The image of purgative fire is ubiquitous on the second half of the album, from "Have to Explode" to "International Small Arms Traffic Blues" to "Oceanographer's Choice" ("we're throwing off sparks"), and, oddly enough, it's beautifully articulated on "Alpha Rats' Nest," a mere bonus track, which includes the line "sing for the flames that will rip through here / and the smoke that will carry us away." The sentiment here could be a manifesto for the Mountain Goats' whole project—flying away to a better, higher world on the smoke of your own failures. And, notably, it recurs on the cover and on the final track of Transcendental Youth.

The cover of Transcendental Youth shows three ragged figures rising among the faces of demons in the night sky, trailing plumes of smoke. With the album's peripheral materials in mind (evidently it's loosely organized around a group of kids living in Washington), we can surmise that these are the eponymous Youth, and that the album is making explicit the themes that were implicit in Tallahassee—the possibility to rise above your problems simply by wallowing in them.
And the album bears that out. From song to song—from the opener "Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1," which kicks off with "Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive," to the Frankie Lymon elegy "Harlem Roulette," which declares that "even awful dreams are good dreams / if you're doing it right" to the eponymous closer, which restates the rising-smoke image two separate times, modified slightly with "soar ever upwards on air gone black with flies" and then played straight with "sing high while the fire climbs"—the album gradually builds up the sense that Darnielle has just decided to dispense with all of the dancing around he did on earlier albums—the trappings of autobiography in The Sunset Tree, the psalms on The Shape of the World to Come—and cut straight to the heart.
Many of the songs, in fact, feel like crystallizations of the rapid-fire metaphor technique I identified above, particularly "Spent Gladiator 2," whose verses consist of nothing but a series of similes that gradually grow in frequency. There are innumerable lines, like the one from "Alpha Rats' Nest," that could be manifestos for the band. But the essentialization of the lyrics—the loss of real fictional storylines, irony, and the gradual buildup of nature symbolism that gives Tallahassee its power—impoverishes Transcendental Youth even as it focuses it. Concentrating his songs to focus on their healing mission, Darnielle has also sterilized them.
The fact is that the tight, concentrated aphorisms and sustained, cathartic mood on Transcendental Youth, powerful as they might be, don't have the richness of Tallahassee. Meandering and discursive, Tallahassee creates a much deeper space in which to act out the ritual at the heart of the album. And that depth in many ways comes from its very distance, its very artifice.
I'd like to stress that I don't mean this to sound vulgar. It's easy to say that fiction has resonance because of the "magic of the story" or some similar claptrap, but that is manifestly bullshit; what fiction does, at least for Tallahassee, is open the piece up to different tones, different rhetorical maneuvers, and therein lies its depth. When we hymn "focus" or "purity" in art, I think it often bespeaks a deep discomfort with complexity, with internal contradictions. It might be well-intentioned, and in many cases it's brilliant, but as a facet of artistic development it tends toward the reductive. 
That, I think, is the real flaw in Transcendental Youth. Some of the individual songs are staggeringly beautiful, the instrumentation has never sounded better, and the horn charts are integrated perfectly. It's a superb album, to be clear. But if John Darnielle wants to top Tallahassee, he's going to have to disavow Transcendental Youth's laser focus. "Liminal comprehensibility," as Christgau puts it, might not be such a great thing after all.

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