When I listen to the Mountain Goats I always hear traveling—a ceaseless forward momentum.
I discovered them when a friend burned me a CD of bands he thought I needed to hear. That’s when “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” caterwauled out of my car speakers and punched me right in the throat.
“Hail Satan” became a rallying cry for me and my best friend in high school. We shouted it down the halls for months on end, crisscrossing the linoleum of a tired southern California high school. We yelled it like John Darnielle yelled it, like it was something bigger than just a funny sticking-our-tongue-out-to-the-fundamentalist-Christians at our high school; we yelled it like something had come unhinged and we were never going back to who we once were.
if I ever want to just drive myself insane / I’ll just sit and watch you breathing
The lines in the Mountain Goats’ songs are always cut short of a full explanation, as in the quality of pure hopelessness in watching someone you care about sleep. A splintered view of a family arguing through slats in a fence. Finding a list of aspects someone wants to change about themselves on the ground in front of a drug store. Knowing nothing will ever really change. It was not really clear to me before the The Coroner’s Gambit what a song was capable to doing.
I bought it from a record store in West Seattle. It was raining. All I can really remember is that the owner didn’t charge me sales tax because I told them I was from Oregon and that the place was really beige. A really boring memory, but the important part is that this record is so important to me I remember certain minutia of purchasing it. I was in love with the woman who came with me, which didn’t last, but that album and that rain have.
you can arm me to the teeth / but you can’t make me go to war
I forced my mom—decidedly not a Mountain Goats fan—to listen to “Family Happiness” probably 25 times on a single car ride. At one point she turned to me and said, “If there really was a war, and you got drafted, I would drive you to Canada and we would wait it out.” It was a sweet moment.
my garden will grow so high / that I will be completely hidden
John Darnielle has made a career of obfuscating himself from the interpretive pry of his listeners. Where is truth in his songs? I like to dream Darnielle into his songs, but it’s a moot exercise. Each song exists in a singular universe in which everything is at once urgent and reflective, hyper-specific and patently universal. For me, The Coroner’s Gambit is an exercise in empathy for the narrator, whomever they are.
this is a song for you / in case I never make it through / to where you are
These songs linger differently now. When I first heard them the music felt like real punk rock. The Mountain Goats seemed in direct opposition to what most people (e.g. “the establishment,” my parents) even considered music. (My father listened to a Mountain Goats song and said to me, “Someone should buy that guy singing lessons—can he hear himself?”) It maintained a real DIY aesthetic too. I mean, c’mon, Darnielle recorded his early records predominantly on a boombox!
Most of all, the Mountain Goats were, to me, the antithesis of Hot Topic. By that I mean it was the first time I heard music that didn’t seem to be an attempt to be commercially viable: this was opposite of music you heard on the radio in Kern County. It felt like music that urgently needed to be heard. Darnielle didn’t care how it was recorded or distributed, just that it was.
That’s where a lot of the urgency in those earlier recordings comes from. You hear it in the winding of tape deck as it records, behind the poorly (perfectly) tuned guitar. Singing into a boombox demands something of the listener too—although, for the sake of accuracy, some of the songs were recorded on a four-track.
Then there’s “The Shadow Song,” the saddest song I’ve ever heard. Sometimes I drink a lot of beer and just get weepy about the whole thing, worrying about how we are all going to rise up from the grave between those chords, in the crackle of a tape deck. But at the same time you know he’s never going to make through “to where you are.” It is a song that says goodbye without saying it. “Hopefulness in vain” is a phrase that always occurs to me when I listen to this album, and in particular this song. There are so many songs on The Coroner’s Gambit about returning, about coming home, always sung with that doubt caught in the back of Darnielle’s voice. And for “The Shadow Song” it’s that doubt that things will get better—doubt you will get there at all—that is what just kills me every single time.