One way you can get really close to God is to sin as hard as you can. Because there's only one person, in theory, who can save you from that.
A good artist in any medium is acutely aware of the human condition. Thus is the reason such a high percentage of artists are on anti-depressants or suffer some kind of emotional malady. It’s understandable, considering that an apt artist must deconstruct shanty structures built to protect society and then re-imagine them using expressions that push the boundaries of human creativity. You don’t need an artist to expose how twisted the world is, but their insight can provide a small amount of guidance through an existential mire.
As an artist, John Darnielle takes his job very seriously.
No one seems to dust more dirt off of the human soul better than The Mountain Goats (the moniker Darnielle takes for himself when he plays alongside Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster of Superchunk fame). Over an expansive catalog of 600 songs played to the steady rhythm of an acoustic guitar, Darnielle has shed light on a vast scope of human emotions via epic stories featuring broken and downcast characters. He crafts complete narratives around obscure events such as H.P. Lovecraft visiting Brooklyn (“Lovecraft in Brooklyn”) or the disenfranchisement of Ethiopians during Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign (“Gojam Province 1968”). He traces characters of his own creation during their pitiful struggles for redemption, such as the alcoholic Alpha Couple living in a decrepit house in Tallahassee or the high-school misfits who formed a death-metal band in Denton, Texas. Although these characters struggle in the pit of mediocrity, Darnielle grants them dignity by bridging the gap between us and them.
The Mountain Goat's newest album, The Life of the World to Come, tackles one of the most well-known and oldest epic narratives of all time, the Bible. He has never been shy about illuminating his narratives with Biblical light. “Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of” is borrowed right from Matthew 22. In The Life…, Darnielle titles each song with a meaningful verse. He details the death of his mother-in-law on a hospital bed acknowledging that she was “a presence full of light upon this earth/ and I am a witness to your life and to its worth.” The song bares the loving title “Matthew 26:21.” Tagged with the verse “Psalm 40:2” and delivered through Darnielle’s clenched-jaw sneer, we witness the story of a troubled man trashing a church in Missouri. Darnielle rejects the notion that he has had a spiritual awakening, but defends his Biblical subject matter as “12 hard lessons the Bible taught [him], kind of.”
Despite writing some of the most depressing lyrics this side of The Smiths, John Darnielle is the opposite of his reject characters. With a goofy smile on his face, he joyfully describes how mountain goats are the most amazing animals because they foolishly try to jump ravines and instead fall to their deaths. On his blog, The Last Plane to Jakarta, he'll emphatically rave about his favorite novel or list the things the band Interpol is comparable to (excluding Joy Division). His songwriting contains subtle bits of wit and conveys his inner joy with lines such as, “I love you because you gave me sausage and cheese when I was hungry.”
In a light-hearted interview with Stephen Cobert, John Darnielle was asked how he writes such downcast characters in such awful circumstances. With a delighted smile on his face Darnielle explained, “to me any scene tending towards that absolute absence and desolation, and this sounds like something you would say when you’re lying to someone, but can’t go anywhere else but up.”
-by Ryan Alons