An Open Letter to My Friend Chris Regarding The Mountain Goats' "We Shall All Be Healed"
I'm on the subway, trying to listen to The Mountain Goats' We Shall All Be Healed on a disintegrating Discman (it stutters inexplicably, plus it slathers everything in a this weird static) through a pair of headphones with a right channel that's constantly cutting in and out. It's kind of fitting for what John Darnielle's up to here.
5 February 2004
I'm on the subway, trying to listen to The Mountain Goats' We Shall All Be Healed on a disintegrating Discman (it stutters inexplicably, plus it slathers everything in a this weird static) through a pair of headphones with a right channel that's constantly cutting in and out. It's kind of fitting for what John Darnielle's up to here. AllMusic.com called All Hail West Texas "lush", which may first seem incongruous, given that -- like all dozen of Darnielle's efforts through his decade-long career deep in the lo-fi underground -- it was recorded on an analog cassette on a home stereo, but I can't say that I disagree. The pure analog hiss and barely perceptible warble bathes Darnielle's voice in a rich whooooosh.
The side effect is that one really has to listen to hear the lyrics. And, given that that's all there really is most of the time (besides that teeth-gnashingly aggressive acoustic guitar), it's sort of the point to listen through to the vocals. Now, of course, Darnielle's in a real studio, with a full coterie of musicians at his disposal. His sounds are expanding. Hearing them through a crappy Discman underscores that. I realize that I'm (totally unconsciously) not listening for the lyrics anymore. My ears are pulled into the pianos and violins and double-tracked vocals. But the lyrics are still there, and they're still important.
I have to admit, WSABH is not what I was expecting. I loved the last album, Tallahassee, 'cause it was a concept record (to speak frankly, if cheesily), but it was the good kind. It wasn't trying to imitate Wagner or even The Who, but people like Raymond Carver or John Cheever or one of those other cool, austere short story writers. The bar was raised high. And that's partially my doing (my perception of Tallahassee), but it's at least as much Darnielle's doing (he was ambitious going into a real studio more or less for the first time and making a unified album). In terms of the medium, it was meant to be a grand statement.
[Waiting for the next train.] Darnielle'd been telling stories for his whole decade-long career, but they were always in the form of single songs (which occasionally crossed in plot and characters from album to album). They were vignettes. [And, by God, the batteries are dying and the dude with an acoustic guitar on the other platform is singing m'fucking "Every Breath You Take" and it's echoing 'round the tiled room. I've got more batteries somewhere. Or not. These'll have to last....]
Tallahassee is, if not a novel, then at least a short story of robust length, about the imploding marriage of Darnielle's so-called "alpha couple." There are scenes and sub-stories, but no linear plot. Nonetheless, a sequence is implied, because [next train] there are events in time and space. The liner notes begin as a story: "We came into town under cover of night, because we were pretty sure the people here were going to hate us once they really got to know us." The first song, "Tallahassee", introduces the setting (a dilapidated house in Florida where the couple is moving to work out their problems). The second song, "First Few Desperate Hours", presents the arrival of the moving van. Beyond that, events happen more or less at Darnielle's discretion, which is effective for what it is, but sort of hints that it could be more cohesive.
So, when Darnielle announced that WSABH would be about a group of speed freaks in Portland, Oregon, well, I was understandably excited. And I was expecting, I think, a novel, or -- at the very least -- a real step in that direction. But that wasn't the step Darnielle was taking. Instead, he expanded his production, moving onwards from the first steps taken on Tallahassee. Here, he not only adds other instruments, but employs sound effects right thar on the very first track, "Slow West Vultures" -- a shattering glass, which might be a little melodramatic, except that there's no direct, literal connection to the lyrics ("we are sleek and beautiful, we are cursed"... smash).
[On the train, after the gig.] Where Tallahassee had two characters, WSABH seems to have at least a half-dozen. Darnielle plays them all, occasionally switching suddenly from the first person singular to the first person plural on the choruses, replete with double-tracked vocals to indicate the presence of -- literally -- a chorus, in the dramatic sense. In addition to the title of the record, the word "we" appears in more than half the tracks. The characters have names, too, though are rarely mentioned in the songs themselves. They are listed, however, in the liner notes, though only in the form of an oblique list, under the heading, "Persons Thought to Have Disappeared Into the Cavalcade of Monsters" (a reference, perhaps, to a line from "Letter From Belgium": "In the cold clear light of day down here / Everyone's a monster.") [Waiting for next train] There are also a bundle of cryptic prose segments, written in an unidentified first person.
And then there's the matter of the auxiliary web installation, a reprise of a gesture also offered with the release of Tallahassee, where Darnielle offers up images of artifacts related to the story of the album, accompanying them with little bits of flash fiction (or, given the web-art factor, Macromedia Flash fiction). [Oh, bother, the batteries are dead for good now. I'll just have to wait 'til home to listen to the rest and see if this all makes any sense or not.] Clearly, Darnielle has something in mind, the objects depicted on the site having more to do with the unexplained creepiness of the computer game Myst than the usual soulless promotions that artists are sometimes seemingly forced to participate in. Instead of an afterthought, the site seems like an integral part of understanding the album.
[Last train.] But it's physically impossible to listen to the album and read the liner notes and peruse the web site simultaneously, so the experience is necessarily non-linear. It matches quite well, then, with the lyrics. On Last Plane to Jakarta, his (usually) weekly webzine of music criticism, Darnielle often speaks of his own serendipitous listening experiences, so it's as if he's providing modules for that exact kind of listening.
So, right, that's where Darnielle seems to be pointing. What we do really have here?
Darnielle's strongest lyrical trait has long been his precision, which exists in bursts here ("Laugh lines in our faces / Scale maps of the ocean floor" -- "Palmcorder Yajna"), but elsewhere he falls victim to puzzling non-specifics (such as the catalog of vague activities that makes up "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent"). .There are rarely outright bad lines on WSABH, but there are ones that jump out as ineffective. Tallahassee began with a perfectly concrete statement of setting ("Window facing an ill-kept frontyard, plums on the trees heavy with nectar..."). WSABH begins more obliquely ("Breaking the signal so it's totally unreadable / Drinking the dregs, eating the utterly inedible") and one can't help but think that it's deliberate.
Place -- specifically, the house-as-character -- was important in Tallahassee, and it worked to such powerful effect in tying together the non-linear threads that I sort of expected it to play as large a role on WSABH. There's a lot of it. Darnielle tosses out all sorts of places: "Holt Boulevard, between Gary and White..." "Travelodge" ("Palmcorder Yajna"), "You drive east from the ocean with both hands tied on the wheel / And you go past Garden Grove" ("The Young Thousands," not to mention "Home Again Garden Grove"), "I came to see you there in intensive care" ("Mole"), and so on. But, where Tallahassee yielded easily ("heavy with nectar"?), WSABH is a little tougher ("totally unreadable"?). The geography is much broader this time around, and not as easily pierced (though the website goes a long way towards context).
In short, WSABH is a puzzle. But that puzzle is its own form. In its ambition, it has become much less like a novel (which is what I expected the next step to be) and has become more a form of its own (which is what the next step turned out to be), closer to an opera or a theatrical piece that relies on a unity of effect (which here includes, but is not limited to: the music, the lyrics, the liner notes, and the web site). Whatever it is, it's somethin', and there's no way Darnielle can turn back to his old ways now (well, he can, but he'll have a hard time convincing me it wasn't a cop-out).
All these weighty claims, but is it any good? Fucking hell, man, I don't know yet. For all of its non-linearity -- coupled with the whole death-of-the-album uproar that Darnielle has professed a perfectly understandable interest in via his Jakarta postings -- it's almost ironic that this is the kind of album that will last, or at least makes the promise that it will do so -- very convincingly, at that, which is all one can really hope for at the beginning of any relationship: that it will reward and grow in time. [Almost home now.]
PS. Well, Gardner, it's almost two months later, and WSABH still hasn't yielded its precious fruit to me. Maybe I'm trying too hard. Every week or two, I get it out and bat at it, hoping to pierce its teasing soft skin, but I still have no idea what's going on most of the time. Instead, I find myself getting behind specific lines, for no real reason, other than that Darnielle sings them with urgency:("Martin called to say that he's sending more electrical equipment / That's good, we could always use more electrical equipment") and that they seem like moments of clarity in a totally out-of-focus world where everyday is a fresh start and you're trying to get your head together but something (like being chained to a hospital bed) always seems to get in the way.
That's sort of how I feel about the album. Every time I pop it on, it's a fresh start -- track 1, side 1, give or take -- and, every time, it's just as tangled as I remembered, and I only get flashes of these characters. In the sense that this basically what seems to be happening to the people Darnielle is singing about ("Jesus, what a mess / One way in and no way out" -- "Your Belgian Things"), he's achieved what my creative writing prof drilled into us: show, don't tell. He's more than shown, though, he's conveyed, and it just makes me want to escape (he's got that covered, too: "out in the desert, we'll live care free" -- "Mole") from all these people.
Because while he's conveyed, there just doesn't seem to be any occasion for it, no single event that everything is building to or away from, and it feels like it could go on forever and ever. I mean, that's okay and all, that's sort of who these people are. Besides, it's an album, not some Biblical epic. I just, y'know, demand satisfaction. Darnielle's given it to me before, and I'm sure he'll give it to me again, and soon, maybe even with this album. Maybe I'm the one who needs an occasion to listen, to understand, and it just hasn't come yet. Until then, I'll be here, labeling files with increasingly frightening specifics and occasionally making recordings of the ice cream truck outside. I remain your correspondent in Bushwick.