The Medicinal Headphones

by Dan MacIntosh


John Darnielle, aka the man behind the Mountain Goats, is a lot like one of those rugged hill creatures he’s named his musical act after—especially when it comes to facing and digesting the troublesome events of his early life. Goats, as most people know, are omnivores, which is a big word way of saying they’ll eat almost anything. But even with such admirable survival techniques, Darnielle certainly never chose to gnaw his way through all the abuse heaped upon him by his stepfather during his teen years. His new The Sunset Tree> CD takes many of these hard-to-swallow memories, and amazingly transforms them into gripping and oddly life-affirming music.

When he sings, “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me”, you get a clear and immediate snapshot of Darnielle’s desperation at the time. Furthermore, the song “Dance Music” details how familial chaos led Darnielle to discover a more practical use for the volume knob on his record player. Obviously, this dramatic, folk-accented music isn’t nearly as lighthearted as a song title like “Dance Music” might suggest.

Naturally, Darnielle wasn’t quite sure how his fans would react to this new work.

“It’s hard not to wonder, when I’m writing, how people who already like my stuff are going to feel about what I’m working on, and this stuff felt so different, you know?” he says. “The first five or six songs I wrote were pretty rough on me, but by summer (I started writing in February ‘04) I’d taken a liking to the whole process.”

Darnielle’s gut-level honesty will no doubt have a healing affect upon empathetic listeners. Similarly, he has also been the beneficiary of music’s unique healing powers during stressful periods of his life.

“I was living and dying with the records I loved when I was in high school,” he says now. “Today, I love music a great deal, and especially when I’m on tour I still turn to the headphones in an almost patient-seeking-medicine way. But adolescence: there’s nothing quite like it and music saved my ass, I don’t doubt. Back then I was listening to Genesis, ‘til I rejected prog, at which point I turned to Lou Reed and David Bowie and later the Birthday Party, early (pre-Head on the Door) Cure, the Sisters of Mercy, and the Stockholm Monsters.”

It’s nearly impossible to explain why parents, and parental figures, abuse the ones they supposedly love the most. Nevertheless, Darnielle is bravely trying to come to grips with this difficult societal ill, especially because he’s experienced it first hand.

“Obviously, abusive people don’t wake up one morning and decide to mistreat the people they love; nor do I believe that some people are just ‘bad’—that sort of fundamentalist claptrap doesn’t help anybody,” Darnielle considers. “All behavior’s learned, right? Of course it is; my stepfather learned his behavior, probably at the hands of his father, and that broke something essential in him, and broken people do broken things. The more so if they’ve decided that getting healthy would be un-cool, which was a problem for men growing up in the ‘50s and is, I fear, a problem for young men and women in a variety of subcultures now: there’s this romanticizing of personal pain, and of being traumatized, that will probably lead to an adulthood spent wondering where the wrong turn was, exactly. Anyhow, people treat each other badly because they don’t know how to deal with their emotions; that’s the simple and true answer.”

Darnielle doesn’t have any children of his own yet. But he won’t let his dysfunctional past keep him passing down his familial name. When he pictures this future quiver, in fact, he envisions it as if it were a sports team.

“Who knows what the future holds?” he ponders. “I envision an army of mini-John Darnielles forming a non-NHL hockey league with parity between owners and players, worker-friendly ticket prices, and severe penalties for icing the puck intentionally—you buncha sissies, you!”

It’s not uncommon to discover the ‘wounded healer syndrome’ existing within various health-related jobs, where workers enter these professions in the hopes of also healing themselves. But Darnielle, who once worked as a nurse, recoils at the very thought of doctors—so to speak—attempting such self-treatment.

“No, no, heavens no, I can never understand why people would think that—what a horrible motive for helping people that would be!” he states emphatically. “I went into nursing because it seemed like something I might be good at, and because I, like most goth-leaning types, had a lifelong fascination with severe mental illness. I live in fear of health-care providers who’re working out their issues on their patients, that’s pretty much the dictionary definition of ‘unethical.’”

It should be noted that this new disc is not entirely about Darnielle. His own experiences inspired the lion’s share of its material, but he looked outside of himself for some of its lyrical inspiration. Oddly enough, one of its songs concerns a reggae artist, of all things. This is particularly strange, since there is no reggae musical content on the Mountain Goats’ CDs.

“The track ‘Song for Dennis Brown’ is explicitly about Dennis Brown the reggae singer! I don’t know that I have any special relationship to reggae—I enjoy good reggae as much as anybody, I guess,” he explains. “But the song is about the tension between the beauty of Dennis Brown’s unearthly gorgeous voice, and work, and being, vs. the ugly fact of his death—his appetite for cocaine is/was legendary.”

Darnielle never seems to give up on hope, or lose his sense of humor—no matter how bad his life may get. But he still has a little trouble with writing straightforwardly happy songs. One new song, in fact, seems to be fairly happy—at least on the surface. But this track, “Love Love Love”, is a lot more complicated then it might at first seem.

“I have been pretty shocked by how many people have described that particular song as ‘affirmative’ or ‘positive,’” he states. “The point of the song, to spell it out rather more nakedly than I’d ideally prefer to do, is that love isn’t always a benign thing. Love destroys as much as it creates. There has been a lot of nonsense talked about love over the years. Love is wild and rather less tethered to our own thoughts and fancies than we like to think. That’s sort of the point there. What happens in the song? Several people kill themselves or others; one of history’s great heavyweights tarnishes his reputation permanently; a few brothers sell their own kin into slavery. Some things you do for money. Some things you do for even darker forces. Which isn’t to say that the point of the song is “love is bad,” either—I hope that the song’s essential point, may be boilable-down as ‘love is complex.’ But how boring things are when you boil them down too much.”

Darnielle, thankfully, is never boring. With The Sunset Tree he has once again dusted off some of the sorry details of his past, yet still kept a little of his own mystique intact and come out with another recorded gem.

When asked where the CD title came from, Darnielle explains: “It’s from a 19th century hymn, and I took it specifically from Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, and I always feel like spelling out references is an act of outright cruelty to the enterprising and curious listener: all the fun is in doing the groundwork yourself.”

And you’ll need to be an especially enterprising and curious listener to figure out the implications of this obscure literary reference. In the book The Way of All Flesh, one of its characters (Ernest) chooses a hymn to sing at church, and this song choice includes the line: “Come, come, come; come to the sunset tree for the day is past and gone.”

In order to organize his lyrical and musical ideas into recorded form, Darnielle once again brought in John Vanderslice to produce this highly personal new project. “John’s just a tremendous guy, with a good, keen ear, and he really brings an invaluable amount of enthusiasm to his work,” Darnielle comments. “He loves making records, and I love records, so it’s a nice match.” Vanderslice has added a few new musical ingredients into the Mountain Goats’ stew, including aptly-placed strings on “Dilaudid”, and Erik Friedlander’s tasteful mandolin, which colors “Magpie”. But the greatest instrument of all is Darnielle’s knife-like voice, which always cuts right to the marrow on each and every track. Darnielle’s singing is not pretty. But just like the perfectly-suited tool for the job, it is always effective.

Now that Darnielle has exorcised some of his inner-demons, if you will, it’s time to move on to other things. Just don’t expect a continuation of the themes presented with The Sunset Tree.

“I think it’d be crass to just keep rooting around on a bloody floor,” he explains. “I think I’d like to tell a few stories about sad monsters now. I can’t really elaborate much further. I’m working on it.”

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