by carl wilson

Fate Healers: The Mountain Goats' 12 Steps into the Valley of Death (and 13 Steps Back)

A drug, all romanticism aside, is nothing but a delivery system for a chemical. Just as cigarettes have been engineered by the tobacco industry into burning arrows that carry nicotine to your brain with the greatest possible speed and intensity, crystal meth is a ruthlessly efficient system that slams d-methamphetamine into your cells, ripping raw bleeding chunks out of your metabolism, reasoning, life expectancy and heart's desires along the way without a whisper of apology.

John Darnielle, the man who is The Mountain Goats, produces music on much the same principle - as simply the most brutally effective delivery system yet devised for what he really wants to propagate: Poetry. [...]

Like David Berman, Dan Bejar or Chuck D (or, yeah, that obvious big D), in another time and place Darnielle might have written epic verse. But now it's 700 years after Dante, and almost nobody including me has eyes big enough for The Inferno or The Divine Comedy, much less to take in any new verse epic not yet validated by the mossy aroma of old books and defanged devils.

And so these latterday bards are led to ask why anybody would deal plain old drugstore pharmaceuticals, once the crystal meth of literature had been synthesized and imperfected by rock and its successors.

The Mountain Goats began their plummet from the heights of Olympian obscurity in the early-nineties L.A.-area hometaping scene: Blahblahblah "lo-fi" blahblahblah "4-track," but Darnielle actually went further, preferring to make do with a shopping-mall boombox, because he is an extremist. He is an extremist of small things and an extremist of the beautiful, an extremist of esotericism and populism in equal measure and, as his new album makes just short of graphically plain - because he is also an extremist of the sidelong, an extremist of the subtle, a paradox that contains the whole point of John Darnielle - he has been an extremist of the just plain extreme as well.

Some people don't understand why this trafficker in acoustic-guitar, solo-voice epiphanies is also the number-one dealer of death metal to the intelligentsia, in his guise as one of the best music critics alive. Those people should have a close listen to We Shall All Be Healed, an album that could be remixed to the music of Slayer and sound perfectly natural. (Maybe we could take this one up with DangerMouse). Not because WSABH's lyrics are about blood and demons - not literally - but because as its action proceeds, all its voices and characters are probably listening to Slayer, bickering about Slayer, having sex and passing out to Slayer and then having sex to Slayer again...

... presuming they still can have sex, which seems improbable. These are the kinds of people who don't wake up, they come to.

The vocals aren't death-metal vocals, either, but they are shouted as much as they are sung, as they have been on the hundreds and hundreds of songs Darnielle has released under The Mountain Goats banner, mostly on cassette, in the past 12 years. I'm not sure Slayer can be credited for the shouts, considering that (according to legend) Darnielle took the Goats' name from the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song Big Yellow Coat while he was working as a nurse in a California state hospital.

Nurse? Yes, besides being a classicist who often sprinkles Greek and Roman (and, since he is from California, Aztec) allusions through his lyrics, he has been a mental-health-care worker, until recently at a home for abused youth in Iowa: Darnielle and his wife Lalitree just moved to North Carolina, leaving that day job and perhaps all day jobs behind him, as seems plausible since he is now on a lengthy tour and has the support of 4AD, an unlikely Mountain Goats label given its lush-mellow reputation but there you are.

I bring up the mysteries of his occupation(s) only because: 1. Information accumulated in that group home may well have helped inform the content of this album; in my imagination, it may in some sense be his farewell note to those kids. (Recent shows have reportedly included tearful dedications to his former wards.) 2. Whatever his official accreditation, the term "lay practitioner" describes John Darnielle's persona in every way, from the spiritual to the clinical to the carnal.

Darnielle has now released two albums on 4AD, though in his compulsive way he has put out other stuff under other auspices and monickers in the same period. The 4AD discs are distinguished, most obviously, by the production: Full-band arrangements, more careful dynamic tweaking, the indicators never going wildly over into the red or dropping off into the inaudible. This produced the predictable kneejerk outcry, which seems finally to have passed. (If you, dear reader, are still crying, then go to your baby crib with the other babies and leave us grownups to talk. We'll bring your pablum and Kill Rock Stars vinyl in later.)

The other mark of the 4AD discs is that they are concept records: Mountain Goats albums often revolve around a geographical centre or theme, but both 2002's Tallahassee and this year's WSABH feature cycles of songs with consistent characters enacting particular dynamics in a consistent setting, or at least as consistent as Darnielle's sidelong-extremist sensibility permits.

On Tallahassee the characters were Darnielle's well-known "Alpha Couple," the boozing, battling, arson-prone marrieds whose misfortunes already had been chronicled in such songs as Alpha Double Negative, Alpha Incipiens, Alpha Desperation March, Spilling Toward Alpha and Going to Dade County.

The album was, and maybe remains, Darnielle's opus; it closes out the cycle with a portrait of betrayal, dependence and fatal rationalization in bitten-tongue-in-cheek acid, yet fully in the round, in some of his most remarkable melodies and sharpest verse: "I am drowning, there is no sign of land/ You are coming down with me, hand in unlovable hand/ And I hope you die/ I hope we both die" - No Children, a title which, after that, seems like an imperative understatement.

On WSABH, the players are less figures in a Greek tragedy than those kids in the prefab round the corner, where Don Delillo's the landlord. They have no name and little precedent in Darnielle's corpus, though I think inevitably they will be referred to as "the tweakers," thanks to one of the album's most memorable choruses, in first single Palmcorder Yajna: "And I dreamt of a house/ Haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out/ And the headstones climbed up the hills."

The dream in question arrives while the group (better described as a "pack")sleeps off a binge in a Travelodge, after unnamed but clearly chemical rituals. "Tweakers," for the uninitiated, is not a cute endearment but a term for crystal-meth users. They're caught in a more passive suicidal struggle of their own; indeed, they might be the Alphas' non-existent children. In the middle-8 of Palmcorder Yajna, Darnielle echoes the Tallahassee lyric quoted above, but with teen bravado: "If anybody comes to see me/ Tell 'em they just missed me by a minute/ If anybody comes in to our room while we're asleep/ I hope they incinerate everybody in it."

That's the second song, and past that gate all the aces of spades are on the table. The preceding opener, Slow West Vultures, strikes me as a kind of overture. Darnielle has acknowledged that this album is his first real foray into autobiography, and in the first song he seems to be hesitating on the threshold and pondering the ethics of this kind of entertainment: "We do what we do all for you/ All dressed up, black hat and white cane/ Slowly circling the drain," he drawls across textures, even sound effects, to rile the purists - breaking the Goats' sonic mould as much as it will be broken here, severing some ties with the old style for the sake of a voice at once more artfully distanced and closer to home (which is not a contradiction but the same thing).

Then Palmcorder Yajna zooms in on the scene: "Holt Boulevard between Gary and White," the Travelodge, the tweakers with "reflective tape on our sweatpants" who "comb through the carpet for clues," the group fever interrupted only by the paranoid dreams. On this album you will seldom if ever get out of this room; the cussedly cheerful major chords rush ahead of you up ramping high notes, blurring and taunting the way the days do when you fall off the calendar and out of time.

Then we slump back in the couch to watch The Exorcist, in one of the album's weaker songs but best titles, Linda Blair Was Born Innocent. By the time the movie's over neither the actress nor us slackjawed children are innocent anymore.

Letter from Belgium marks the first of two mysterious allusions to Belgium on this disc, but mainly it's part 2 of Palmcorder Yajna: We snap out of our video nod and flinch at the light leaking in through the tinfoil-covered windows. One reviewer snarked that the opening lines - "Martin calls to say he's sending old electrical equipment/ That's good, we can always use some more electrical equipment" - are a lame imitation of past Darnielle lyrics like Going to Georgia's, "The most amazing thing about you standing in the doorway/ Is that its you and youre standing in the doorway."

But the tautological device here operates utterly differently: I get what that old lovelorn line's about, but I have no idea what the "electrical equipment" is or why, and would frankly rather not know. It's not a lyrical loop but a lyrical trainwreck, a conspiracy writ crooked, a theory of incoherent desire and a full-stop refusal to explain, as much an avoidance as the key lines in this song: "When we walk out in the sunlight we tell everyone we know it hurts our eyes/ When the real reason we don't like it is that it makes us wonder if we're dying." The program is to make sure everyone we know is down there with us so there'll be no inconvenient questions.

In the next song, The Young Thousands, barges are pulling into the bay, "bearing real suspicious cargo" - the electrical equipment? Shit, is this happening? The song can't tell you, or is blackmailed into secrecy, but for diversion it musters up the cadences of a communal anthem, the enchanting sound of deluded stoned radicalism, Bertolucci's sleepers, pleasure as revolution - and is that so deluded? "There must be diamonds somewhere in a place that stinks this bad." Like Billy Joe Shaver, they're just young lumps of coal who are gonna be diamonds someday, or so they pray, glimpsing the distant gleam of eventual escape.

But then someone does escape, and the diamonds do not sparkle, only glare: Your Belgian Things, the most lilting, Gallic, romantic song here, sounds like a traditional lover-moving-out song, except that the men who come for the departing one's possessions wear "biohazard suits." Soon it becomes clear that the leaver has left or tried to leave not just a house and lover but "the bruised earth." The piano hammers nails in the coffin block chord by block chord, mocking anyone who thinks that the piano somehow renders the Mountain Goats less honest, less ready to walk the plank of a song. Really they've just made the risks bigger by stepping into a less cozy and cozened community; but Darnielle understands the sense of abandonment; we all yearn for our imaginary friends. "I wish you had a number where you are/ It's hard with no one here to help me through it," the survivor sings, wishing there were phone lines in the grave, and maybe that he could get his own extension.

In Mole we discover that the "Belgian" girl isn't dead but handcuffed to a bed in intensive care. The protagonist (whom I am trying to stop calling "Darnielle") comes crawling up out of his bunker, begging her to run away with him to the desert and "live carefree." Sweet impossibility. The guitar is sarcastically sympathetic, barely deigning to offer enough backup sound to get through the song. The piano is a nurse, looking in, checking up, smiling in pity, then suddenly demanding "information."

Then the backslide into Home Again Garden Grove - an old-school style MGs guitar-pounding rant in which the protagonist is heading somewhere and is constantly revising where, ranting of how his high-school fantasies of becoming "fugitive warlords" are now reduced to "shoving our heads straight into the guts of the stove." He's reached the end of his line.

In the delicate All Up the Seething Coast we seem to be in a rehab idyll, bluesy low guitar riffs under a recitative about grapefruits piled with sugar, and the sounds of chirping birds. (An important clue: back in the motel or basement apartment or wherever this album used to be, there'd be no birds, and certainly no open window to hear them through). Our hero's getting out "and a thousand dead friends can't stop me."

To my ears the rest is denouement: Quito, a 12-stepper's hymn to ice-cold water, in which Gilgamesh meets haiku and the New Age, a fiddle on board to sound more ancient doubts; and two strong, ruefully loving looks back over the shoulder, Cotton and Against Pollution.

You might begin to think Darnielle's just toeing the recovery-movement line, but then he comes out with, "This song is for the people/ Who tell their families that they're sorry/ For things they can't and won't feel sorry for," and you know that his compassion has limits, the limits of an extremist who knows the sharp edged gap between truthfulness and any claim to a given truth, who knows Death Valley from the Valley of Death. On the precipice of mawkishness, the healer heals himself, veers back from the waiting arms of Oprah at the hairpin curve.

Finally comes song (or step?) 13, characteristically reconditely titled Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of: The survivor is metamorphosed back into criminal - is he a free man dreaming he's a convict or a convict dreaming he's a free man? Either way he makes his rhetorical breakout even as the bars clank shut in front of his pockmarked face, concluding that while judges and dead friends both "send your dark messengers to tempt me/ I come from Chino so all your threats are empty."

I could say a bit about Chino, Calif., here, but I'll refer you to various Richard Buckner tunes instead. This perversely blank marching song is here to forbid us any smug intimacy with the tweakers as they indulge in their last-minute rock-out, as if to say: "44 minutes and you think you understand, you know what's happened here? You don't know shit." It's a Trojan Horse of epiphany, a sunburst with nothing inside.

So what to make of all this? A feral gang of crystal heads in a motor inn does not sound nearly as universal a subject as a couple in a hellish marriage, and it isn't: WSABH won't affect most people as direly and directly as its predecessor did, and it will take longer for listeners to find their place in it, to settle in around the fire (which Darnielle just happens to have built with books from your library and a few sticks of furniture while you were out, didn't think you'd mind) and take in the tale.

First: Its craft is the equal of any Mountain Goats project. With contributions from Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue, Jenny Toomey, Extra Glenns) on many instruments, as well as producer John Vanderslice, frequent MGs bassist Peter Hughes, violinist Nora Danielson and others, the music is more nuanced and varied, a better needle for the drug.

Listen again.

Second: The story works as horror movie and farce, as Tallahassee did, but this time for anyone who has struggled with addiction, with friends' addictions, even with addictions to friends. From what I can see (checks around room) those are goddamn common experiences. And WSABH addresses drugs with and without all romanticism aside: Glad it's over and glad it happened, glad for the deeper foundations it built on to the self, the storage lockers of experience - even if you never go down there again, nevermore push the last button on the elevator, and give thanks in every syllable for every day you don't - still unable to regard it with regret.

Listen again.

Third: At another level it addresses the lost eras within our lives, the times and people that disappear behind us as we go, the "what the hell was that all about" with which we look back from the relative safety of later years. In this it is as universal as a chapter of the Odyssey.

And again.

Fourth: We Shall All Be Healed is an inspirational-sounding title but the album it names ain't buying the message. Some of us healed, maybe. But we're not all getting out alive. And those of us who do heal will never henceforth be whole, never unscarred, no matter what, never.

Fifth: I wonder what happened to ____. And what about _____. I hated that asshole. I hope he's not dead.

And by that fifth thematic subbasement you've got this album and it's got you, and the poetry is in your veins, spiking and peaking and hooking you forever. Now, you filthy tweaker, go make amends to everyone you've ever wronged.

(Or first go here, Darnielle's extraordinary Web project to supplement the album. I would have mentioned it earlier, but I knew you might never get back.)

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 17 at 4:24 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)




Posted by James Tayler on November 3, 2004 9:13 PM



Nice review. I spent this morning commute fighting back (and eventually giving in to) tears, while listening to this album. Hadn't thought through what the lyrics meant, so much as what they meant to me. Did a google on "Holt Boulevard, between Gary and White", and found your review. Definitely gave me something to think about.

Posted by Eric on April 13, 2004 6:59 PM



what a wonderful feature/review/article, many thanks!

Posted by deedee on February 23, 2004 8:45 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson