In 1982 the film First Blood introduced moviegoers to John Rambo, a troubled loner and veteran of the war in Vietnam. Rambo was a man out of sync with a society that wouldn’t leave him alone. Post-traumatic stress disorder and “Rambo” were entering the cultural lexicon at the same time as Hollywood movies began to reflect America’s tentative forays into making meaning within an alleged post-Vietnam period. Actor Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo symbolized a traumatized culture grappling with the horror of its cruelty and its delusions of securing justice through unstoppable force. The action hero is an escapist fantasy amid overwhelming external influences, both within and outside the theater. It is comforting to think that—though bloodied and bruised—a singular hero can rectify wrongs. This myth is the engine that drives the action flick genre, a genre the Mountain Goats take up as a theme on their 20th album, Bleed Out. But as frontman John Darnielle reminds us within the album, “John Rambo never went to Vietnam.”
Like so many of us who, during the pandemic, found ourselves with unplanned solitary time at home either through the luxury of being able to quarantine or from a layoff, John Darnielle spent time in his North Carolina home cycling through streaming options. Specifically, he immersed himself in action movies, both American and the poliziotteshci Italian films of the late 1960s into the early 1980s. According to the band’s press for their new album, Darnielle found some comfort within the familiar tropes of action movies. Out of that inspiration, he began writing the songs that would form the guts of Bleed Out, a thematic album based on action movie tropes that the band intended to be “a cinematic experience unto itself”.
Darnielle’s writing takes on these cinematic tropes in musical collaboration with his bandmates Matt Douglas, Peter Hughes, and Jon Wurster, resulting in a propulsive rhythm that mimics the fast-paced action movies he binged. They are joined here by Alicia Bognanno from Bully, who contributes guitar work and background vocals. The album explores both the themes of the action film (the pure pursuit of righteous revenge) while mimicking the edge-of-your-seat intensity. Jon Wurster’s percussion work drives this record with a pulsating beat that brings to mind a heartbeat after an injection of adrenaline.
There was something beguiling for Darnielle about the action flick anti-hero, tragically doomed by the compulsion for pure revenge that never satisfies. It’s a captivating idea amid a world where the notion of justice has teetered entirely out of balance. It makes for a fascinating record that’s at the same time an homage to and a meta-commentary on the action film genre and how it soothes our unease in a world on fire.
But, as the listener quickly discovers, it is also a deconstruction of the genre and an exposure of the impossibility of its promises. “Training Montage” opens the album and is a consideration of the recurrent scenes in these films where the protagonist trains (and transforms) for the big battle. It is the scene where the rag-tag assortment of freedom fighters cohere into a formidable stealth unit. It is where Rocky Balboa catches the chicken, performs one-handed push-ups, and bounds up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is a mood-shifter in the movies and promises a satisfying payoff. As Darnielle sings, it is where “…the horns will swell, and the strings will sound” as our hero stand-in proclaims, “I’m doing this for revenge / I’m doing this to try and stay true.” It’s an alluring hope that we will prevail vicariously through the one emerging out of the training montage.
The song roars out of the gate but contains the threads of its inevitable unraveling within its frantic energy. As our expectation builds, a simple, intense guitar intro gives way to an explosion of rock. But as the song closes, the musical sounds teeter on discordance, an ominous unraveling of the myth of the pure pursuit of justice. “Training Montage” is followed by “Mark on You”, another rocker that may also be a literary double entendre. The mark is, on one level, the evidence carried bodily by the opponent of the justice meted out. But, with Darnielle’s inclusion of apocalyptic biblical imagery (No man knows / The hour or the day), we are left to wonder if the mark is something more sinister and universal, the mark of Cain or the Beast.
There is a certain formulaic repetitiveness to many of the songs here, which I think is primarily driven by the action flick trope employed musically. The rapid heart rate percussion and the single-minded focus flatten some tracks out linearly without too much disruption, and it is a necessary incarnation of the theme. But within the offerings are some interesting genre experiments, including punk (“Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome”), jazz-inflected guitar rock (“Bones Don’t Rust), sultry saxophone sounds out of a Miami Vice episode (“Guys on Every Corner”), and the countrified, Cosmic American sound (“Incandescent Ruins).
The album concludes with “Bleed Out”, a seven-minute pre-emptive requiem for the myth of inevitable conquest over chaos. It isn’t a big, dramatic reveal. Instead, the song is carried along by a fading rhythmic beat repeated over and over by acoustic guitar and drums. The adrenaline hit is fading, and reality is setting in. This time the corner man won’t revive us nor will the medivac unit intervene in time. We’re going to bleed out. Finitude remains undefeated. The rhythmic repetition personifies how these realizations come to us, in mundane reiterations, like the morse code of a leaky faucet.
There are hints of beauty in this reminder of the illusion of ultimate revenge against the forces of chaos. Life’s a mess, and we’re going to make a mess one way or another. We’re going to bleed out. But, in the repetition, there are conversational interjections by tinkling, countrypolitan piano notes a la Floyd Kramer. They interject but don’t overwhelm or change course. They are reminders of the mystery of beauty within the mess. Not the dramatic explosion where the forces of chaos get their comeuppance. By this stage in the album, that myth falls apart under its narrative weight. But, we get reminded of the beauty in the midst of it all. It’s something the action trope can’t explain. We just have to be present to it.
The Mountain Goats are an unconventional, slightly off-center rock band. John Darnielle’s lyrical storytelling is vivid and eccentric. It requires effort and attention on the part of the listener. Bleed Out may not be for everyone. But everyone should wrestle with it for a while. In a time where easy answers seem a cruel joke, deconstructing the myth of the conquering hero may be just the step we need to forge a new path.