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  • Daniel Messé

In Praise of John Darnielle (aka The Mountain Goats)

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

John Darnielle is one of those songwriters with such a specific and singular lyrical voice that his songs are unmistakable even without his specific and singular actual voice singing them. No other songwriter has captured the destructive power of love in more detail. Imagine Raymond Carver writing songs instead of short stories and you’d be in the right ballpark. Now imagine that these songs exist in a universe where cupid wasn’t some benign angel baby but some Lovecraftian abomination. These songs are bristling with an uncanny sense of cosmic danger – the stakes could not be any higher – and yet the absurdity of our predicament is on full display. The irony might threaten to overwhelm were it not for how achingly beautiful it all is.

The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton: Okay, imagine the assignment was to write a song that culminated in a coda wherein “Hail Satan” was shouted repeatedly. Now imagine that the song also had to be a closely observed ode to friendship and broken dreams, full of details that are both personally specific and recognizably universal. And catchy – it all has to be catchy. If that was the assignment, then John Darnielle gets an A+. This song breaks my heart.

Oceanographer’s Choice:

“Well guy in a skeleton costume

Comes up to the guy in a superman suit

Runs through him with a broadsword.”

This lyric could have easily fit in my blog about favorite opening lines. It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke, and in a way it is. This is a song about violence – emotional violence in particular – and the depicted scene plays out in a stylized dance of resentment:

“Then you came in and we locked eyes

You kicked the ashtray over as we came toward each other

Stubbed my cigarette out against the west wall…”

This really is one of the most cinematically engaging songs I know. It’s hard not to see this song when each line feels like a jump cut.

This Year:

Lest you think there are no hopeful songs on this list, this hookfest is here to gird your spirits. The chorus is a straight-up positive affirmation:

“I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.”

It’s only after hearing the line repeated throughout the course of the song that it may start to sound more like a threat. In any case, I must’ve sang this song a million times to myself when I was going through my divorce and I survived. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.

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