Goats in Seven

John Darnielle's Mountain Goats turn bruising personal trauma into joyful public triumph.

Were it not for the infamous meddling of disgraced Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman, Mountain Goats mastermind John Darnielle might have finally reconciled with his long-lost love. Mr. Bartman, as you may recall, deflected a foul ball that cost the Cubs an out — and the game, and the playoff matchup — that would’ve sent ’em to the 2003 World Series. Had Sammy Sosa and the boys triumphed therein, the prophecy set forth by Mr. Darnielle in his 1995 tune “Cubs in Five” would’ve finally come to pass:

They’re gonna find intelligent life up there on the moon

And The Canterbury Tales will shoot up to the top of the best-seller list and stay there for 27 weeks

And the Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league

And the Tampa Bay Bucs will make it all the way to January

And I will love you again

I will love you like I used to

The astute amongst you will note that in 2002, the once-hapless Tampa Bay Bucs actually made it all the way to January’s Super Bowl. (Let’s just avoid the issue of who the Bucs beat once they got there.) But The Da Vinci Code has valiantly held Chaucer down on the charts, while the Cubs, thanks to myriad injuries and the douchebag incompetence of fantasy bust Aramis Ramirez, remain history’s perpetual underachievers.

Meanwhile, Darnielle isn’t so big on “Cubs in Five” these days. “I’m a Cubs fan, but the song is something of an albatross around my neck now,” he e-mails. “When Tampa Bay was a great team a couple of years ago, I wished I’d never written it.”

So stop requesting it at Mountain Goats shows. Especially when Darnielle has since written so many witty and cathartic tunes, even if the subject matter has darkened considerably.

John first christened his often-one-man band in the early ’90s, recording four hundred or so Dude with an Acoustic tunes primarily straight to tape on a Panasonic boombox, a crude sonic implement as famous in certain circles as Peter Frampton’s voicebox. But as he racked up a confusing double-digit discography, his exposure and sonic palette both have widened. He began seriously flirting with full-band arrangements on 2003’s Tallahassee, while still retaining the literate wordplay that made him a cult icon in the first place — Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania, croons the narrator of “International Small Arms Traffic Blues.”

This year’s The Sunset Tree is even more ambitious, throwing string sections and full-bore rockers behind Darnielle’s most autobiographical — and harrowing — set of tunes yet. It begins with the light acoustic folk ballad “You or Your Memory,” showcasing his penchant for shopping-list imagery (St. Joseph’s baby aspirin/Bartles & James/And you or your memory). But it darkens almost immediately thereafter: “This Year” initially seems like innocent childhood nostalgia (I played video games in a drunken haze/I was seventeen years young/Hurt my knuckles punching the machines/The taste of scotch rich on my tongue), but violently dead-ends with the introduction of Sunset Tree‘s main character: I drove home in the California dusk/I could feel the alcohol inside of me hum/Pictured the look on my stepfather’s face/Ready for the bad things to come.

Chorus: I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me. The album is dedicated to “Young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them.”

From there, tunes like “Lion’s Teeth” and “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” chronicle domestic violence with painful honesty and, oddly enough, sing-along buoyancy, especially on the intricately detailed “Dance Music”:

I’m in the living room watching the Watergate hearings while my stepfather yells at my mother

Launches a glass across the room straight at her head

And I dash upstairs to take cover

Leaning close to my little record player on the floor

So this is what the volume knob is for

I play dance music

Darnielle turns that last line into Sunset‘s catchiest chorus, an odd emotional shift he insists isn’t quite that odd. “To me the disparity isn’t so pronounced,” he says. “There’s some contrast, but at the same time, the whole album’s about contrast, how things aren’t unilaterally one way or the other. For all the fear it induced, for example, there was a white-knuckle thrill to watching a glass full of milk break against the wall of the Johnson Ave. apartment just before I ran upstairs.”

As the guy The New Yorker has crowned “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist,” John easily avoids turning these tunes into weepy, manipulative therapy sessions, and indeed resists the notion that Sunset‘s darker moments are therapeutic at all. “I did all the emotional work around this stuff years ago,” he says. “I’ve been getting asked this question a lot, and I have to be honest, I don’t really understand it. I did my therapy work in therapy; these songs are more of a way of making something for others to use if they like.”

Sunset‘s PR does point out that after literally hundreds of literary character sketches, these are among the first Mountain Goats tunes to sketch Darnielle’s personal experience. That’s a smart idea — practice your songwriting craft on fictional characters’ problems before you turn to the trickier task of writing about your own. But he insists it wasn’t that calculated: “It’s not like the rest of the stuff I was writing was me warming up or anything. I do think it’s best to practice one’s craft for some time, though — doing ‘studies’ like painters do, I guess — but I wasn’t working up to anything. These ideas just happened along one morning when I was jet-lagged in Paris.”

Whatever the motive, Sunset pulsates with pathos, but an equal amount of joy — a celebrated songwriter reaching an artistic high by revisiting his personal lows. Anything is possible for him now, however unlikely his ascendance might’ve once seemed. Perhaps Aramis Ramirez will be so kind as to emulate his example.

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