Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley and Shawn Biggs
John Darnielle procures pain and suffering like no other man. And what he does with it when it's all bundled up, held tight to him like squirmy prisoners is that he lets all of it play together. He introduces one to the other and watches them, taking meticulous notes, finding that when one sufferer starts mixing with another, they create another thing entirely - a red and yellow makes blue sort of thing. The right pain and the right sufferer can make a new life that might be mistaken for a version of the grass finally getting greener on their side of the fence. The characters in his hundreds and hundreds of songs sometimes find that certain pains are addictive and restorative, keeping them interested and getting them back to normality.
It can be their balm, a way to wash over some chapped part of life. Darnielle and his recording name, The Mountain Goats, is a jittery guy both in person and as he sings, giving so much of the immediate state of the mood in everything he does. His words - the ones that are obvious and the ones that are beyond cryptic - are full of every color known to man, though there is a lien on the blues and the reds. There's sorrow and extreme passion in all of the personal and completely fictitious storylines that have historically portrayed the lives of people dealing with skeletons and with each other in circumstances that are adverse in the strongest meaning of the word.
The characters are at their wits ends, they are screaming at the top of their lungs, they are tearing their hair out, they are dismayed by words and actions, they are without options - or so they believe. They are thinking out loud, just letting the pent up storm clouds build and bulk into menacing thunderheads, opening the dams so the blackened hearts can spill out like ticker tape. These people that Darnielle has created are burning. The couple that has been a mainstay in a vast number of songs probably wouldn't look it from the outside - if they were real, in fact. They would be your regular couple, going through some sour spells, but nothing that they can't handle. They've stayed together and for most people, that's the ultimate sign that things have a way of working themselves out, that those involved have everything under control. They might even be envied for sticking it out so long.
These are commendable virtues, ones that are happily passed down through the generations, just as when a boy's great-great-grandfather was a farmer, his great grandfather was a farmer, his grandfather was a farmer and his father was a farmer. He most certainly should try to be - and is encouraged - to be a farmer. It's said to be in the blood. Well, those who come from families without divorce and visible problems tend to look at anything otherwise as failure, so they wipe up the misery with super absorbance and just keep mowing the lawn and sleeping in the same bed as their hated nemesis, who used to be the sweetest lover. As Darnielle shows over and over again - with simple chords and familiar strummed and complicated words of descriptive force, as if they were made out of impossible knowledge and voltage - there is no one way to handle a relationship. There are a few right ways, perhaps, but there is an endless supply of wrong ways.
At his deepest depths, Darnielle is a romantic, if there ever was one. He cares so much for these troubled people he's manifested out of thin air. He probably even cries for them after some episodes. They ache and work and slug it out, still finding themselves there at the end of the day, every day for the one that they vowed themselves to. The Mountain Goats discography is a staggering and fascinating documentation of the difficulties that two normal, regular people can find in love and the dissolution of it.
One of the things that I wanted to ask Darnielle this week as an appendix to this piece was an absurd, random question: What passage of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking did you underline? There's a chance that he's never read it and the only reason the text even applies to the abstract thinking being done here is its gentle notions of love and marriage that the master Didion shares in her autobiographical book detailing her husband, John Gregory Dunne's 2003 death. There's one passage toward the end that seems to fit with the ways that Darnielle imagines his characters - these feuding and loving people, even if they don't have the healthy relationship that Didion and Dunne did for over 40 years. He might have underlined it, if he does that with books.
"This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to the credit sequence for a new life, a catalyst for the discovery that (a point typically introduced in such account by the precocious child of the bereaved) "you can love more than one person." Of course you can, but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory, marriage is time. "She didn't know the songs," I recall being told that a friend of a friend had said after an attempt to repeat the experience. Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John's eyes. I did not age. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I saw myself through the eyes of others."
Darnielle keeps people together for the long haul because that's when it gets harder to leave and that's also supposed to be when it gets easier to feel at home. When that doesn't happen, we have intrigue. We get people who you could look into their mouths, like a dentist would, and see roaring fires licking up over those tonsils and wisdom teeth.
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