Mountain Goats and the Music of Survival

Sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens, sometimes we’re caught short… Sometimes, we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over. And I have advice for all of us, I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this song, and it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem. And it’s called “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”

– Cannonball Adderley

This line comes from the opening of one of my favorite records of all time, and it sums up one musical and philosophical response to suffering – to recognize one’s own insufficiency and turn to a greater power for some kind of relief. Whether Joe Zawinul was himself a religious man is unclear, although one of his other most notable songs, “Country Preacher” (1969), was recorded in a Chicago church with the help of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to whom it was dedicated. Adderley certainly viewed the song, famed for its sultry groove, as a yearning for clemency of a divine sort.

Pain is among the major themes addressed by popular music, right up there with love, lust, and hedonism. Often enough, these concerns are linked by cause and effect, with love lost causing pain, pain leading to “the need to blow it out on a Saturday night,” as a Drive by Truckers song says. How these themes are refracted through songwriting and performance is as much a matter of temperament as genre – a punk might take the same heartbreak that would otherwise prompt a weepy steel guitar riff and turn it into an anthem of exultant rage, while blues oscillates between tales of grinding endurance and an exuberant, body-oriented celebration of pain.

Indeed, one of the most salient arguments against the idea that human beings are entirely molded by their environment lies in the ways that different people cope with trauma. One person sulks and writes a funereal dirge. The next moves on with flinty determination and, possibly, a lust for revenge. One sibling reacts to a dysfunctional home life with optimism of the most unwarranted kind, while another grows bitter, resentful, and suspicious with the passing years.

I thought of these differences upon seeing the Mountain Goats perform in Atlanta, as the band’s own recordings and concerts embody just this divergence of attitudes. When I first heard John Darnielle’s music early in the 2000s, it seemed like the kind of whiny, quasi-emo, lo-fi fiddling that would come and go as an indie fad. I did not want to hear about his awful experiences and what an impact they had had on him through a mopey guitar riff and a four-track tape recorder.

Later on several songs endeared me to the band, such as “Palmcorder Yajna” and “Going to Queens” – songs that went beyond mere confession of pain to evoke a broader scene of characters, landscapes, and struggles, whether “the ghostly sing-song of children playing Double Dutch” in Jamaica or a flophouse full of tweakers in Portland. In Poughkeepsie I had the good fortune of buying a collection of bootleg recordings called Cast Offs and Put Downs that revealed a much looser, upbeat, and colorful artist than most of the Goats’ studio recordings would suggest. The album showed a wider range of moods, from the rollicking and innocent (“Comandante”) to the sardonic and defiant (“Letter from Belgium,” “Pigs that Ran”) and even the sweet and elegiac (a cover of “Two Headed Boy” by Neutral Milk Hotel).

It was puzzling that an artist whose songwriting I generally appreciated could still appear in two such distinct guises: studio recordings that were often grating and flat, and live performances that were far more robust. Moreover, how is it that an artist could package themes of child abuse, drug addiction, and depression in a more affirmative package in some contexts, but not others? The concert in Atlanta definitely reinforced this perception, as songs that formerly seemed straitjacketed burst open in a joyous fashion that seemed incongruous with lyrics like “I hope you die. I hope we both die!” A good chunk of Darnielle’s catalog deals with the childhood abuse meted out by his stepfather; while one of my favorite Mountain Goats songs addresses the experience of hearing his mother suffer at the abuser’s hands in bitter detail (“laying close to my little record player on the floor, so this is what the volume knob’s for”), it is hard to deny that some of these compositions lean toward the maudlin.

Yet his best songs react to this deeply traumatic experience with a roaring resistance, all driving acoustic rhythms and acidic lyrics. By the end of the show, watching this performer chronicle suffering in a vivacious tone of voice, I realized that the anger, resentment, and invective in the songs not only drives the performance but ameliorates the grief. For the artist, and perhaps for much of the audience, it is an affirmation of self in the face of suffering – a token of survival, like so much of R&B and the historical legacy of gospel, with its roots in the Biblical narratives of slavery and redemption as well as the continuing struggles of the poor and people of color. As one of the most rousing numbers declared, with a brio not present on the recorded version, “I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me!” The paradox is an existential one, a commitment to persevere even if perseverance might not be possible. Generations of people who have encountered violence, oppression, and the foreclosing of opportunity would likely recognize this stubborn refusal.

Music shows us how people cope, drawing on resources both spiritual and secular. I was reminded of a traditional song recorded by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch for the 2009 Dark Was the Night compilation, “Another Saturday.” The song has deep Christian overtones, averring that “He [God] won’t ask us to shoulder a weight too much to carry.” On first listen, the song seems to deny the great misery of the world, where so many face unmanageable burdens. (One thinks of Tupac’s Brenda and her baby in the garbage.) The God of the lyrics has clearly let evil run amok in a world where belief in providence is a luxury of the fortunate. Yet on further reflection the song seems to lay the emphasis not on God but on the shoulders of the individual believer – whatever burden is asked, it won’t be too much to carry, due to the faith and inner strength of the person who bears it. It recalls the Qur’anic promise that “On no soul Allah places a burden greater than it can bear.”

This is clearly a religious frame of mind, but it finds its complement in secular music that takes pride in survival. A critic once noted that many of Pearl Jam’s most successful songs dealt with survivor’s guilt, notably “Last Kiss” and “Alive.” The most memorable moment from the latter song may be the poignant question posed in a verse (“I’m still alive, but do I deserve to be?”), yet the takeaway remains the simpler assertion of the chorus: “I’m still alive!” Songwriters like John Darnielle, who evince no sympathy for theism, find joy in the simple fact of surviving and the possibilities that remain, rejecting an attitude of pure fatalism. Even in a song as dark as “Going to Georgia,” a sense of wonder can be found:

the most remarkable thing about coming home to you
is the feeling of being in motion again
it’s the most extraordinary thing in the world
i have two big hands and a heart pumping blood
and a 1967 colt .45 with a busted safety catch
the world shines as i cross the macon county line

Though the lyrics are menacing, even homicidal, in performance the emphasis seems to lie on the world shining. A certain community of spirit was never so clear as in the final encore of the show, when the Mountain Goats and openers Megafaun performed a svelte cover of “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” Here the tie between soul and angsty 21st century folk was most explicit. “I got joy, joy, joy in my soul,” Darnielle sang. “Although you treat me badly, I love you madly. You really got a hold on me…”

Darnielle captured the emotional thrust of the Mountain Goats well on a Colbert Show appearance not long ago. The host noted that many of the band’s songs juxtapose a driving, upbeat rhythm with lyrics that were dark, to put it mildly. Colbert also asked why he didn’t name the band after a cooler animal, like, say, mountain lions. Darnielle explained that mountain goats were actually the coolest animals, because of their ability to climb sheer, vertical surfaces with ease. They become so cocky, he said, that they think they can cross steep ravines between ridges safely, which results in the inadvertent deaths of many goats each year. So the Mountain Goats, as a band, celebrate the animals’ “suicidal pride?” Colbert quipped. Yes, the singer agreed. The music is all about taking “it all the way down to the bottom,” in order to say, “What can you do to me now?” – a sort of defiance, a faith in oneself, which declares “I made it, I survived this, I will persist in the face of anything and everything.” It is a kind of determination that one finds in both secular and spiritual music, although for a skeptic like Darnielle the source of strength lies squarely in the self.  It is also a fine symbol of the music’s existential promise: the goats take a literal “leap of faith” that comes with no guarantee of success.  The band’s music, Colbert suggested, was all about “cheerful desolation,” and rarely have two words so aptly captured a recording artist’s animating spirit.

Alex Sayf Cummings