In November last year I saw the Mountain Goats for the second time since I moved to Glasgow. John Darnielle, their lead singer, introduced a song from their new record with an explanation of the wrestling term which made up the song’s title: a heel turn, he told us, is the moment in which a good guy turns bad. Laughing, Darnielle looks out at the audience and says: I’ve been thinking, I’m gonna heel turn myself sooner or later.
The Mountain Goats are meaningful for me because they’re a band that completely understands the daily fight to try and be a Good Person amidst circumstances which make this incredibly difficult. John Darnielle epitomises this completely: he’s a survivor of many, many things, and his work reflects this in every sense. In an extremely moving interview with Marc Maron which I cannot recommend enough, Darnielle tells a horrifying story from the height of his drug addiction and reflects on the fear of contracting HIV: ‘I was gonna leave a letter […] the thing is, I was a scumbag, but the people I was with, were not scumbags.’ He discusses the death of his abuser, and when asked by Maron if he is able to forgive he pauses and says quietly, but firmly – “no.” The Mountain Goats are set apart from other lyrically-driven bands by the sheer determination and fight embedded in every song, undoubtedly stemming from Darnielle and his life: he is now married, a father of two, and has gone on to write music and books for everybody else trying to figure out what being a Good Person means. I believe him when he sings: “I hope you love your life now, like I love mine”.
The band has an enormous back catalogue, which along with Darnielle’s nasally vocals, can often be a little off-putting for new listeners – he is not a trained musician, and the Mountain Goat’s early releases are very lo-fi. Lyrics such as, “these are the same four chords I use every time / I have something on my mind / and I don’t want to squander the moment” suggest the real purpose of his music. Whilst more recent albums like 2015’s Beat the Champ are far cleaner-sounding and better produced (2012’s Transcendental Youth even featured a horn section), at both ends of the spectrum one thing remains the same: Darnielle’s unique talent for instilling the darkest of moments with cutting determination and unapologetic triumph.
Darnielle’s perception of self-destruction is, seemingly paradoxically, a healthy one. “Don’t hurt anybody on your way up to the light” he stresses in ‘Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1’, a song for Amy Winehouse. He explains it like this: “All the self-destructive stuff I did to myself when I was younger was vital, and I did it to stay alive. So therefore it was all good. The only time it’s not good is when it hurts anybody else.” After four years of listening to the Mountain Goats, I feel like Darnielle’s essential ethos is this: life will be brutal, but we will grit our teeth and fight our way through and it will be worth it. It’s a sort of ‘it gets better’ sentiment, except Darnielle acknowledges that some things never leave us and stresses the unbearable pain of waiting for ‘better’ to arrive. My favourite Mountain Goats track is ‘Never Quite Free’, a song which captures the moment of realisation that something which previously had trapped you no longer has a grip on you, but, as Darnielle puts it: “there are still the marks where the ropes were.” He sings, “You’ll breathe easier, just knowing that the worst is all behind you”: we won’t be free of everything in our pasts, but we’ll have passed through.
Darnielle genuinely comes across as thoughtful, caring and the Good Person is he trying to be. You only have to look to his twitter to find words of encouragement, selfies (sometimes with his sons, sometimes with burritos) and little videos with titles like ‘Short Song for Justin Bieber and his Paparazzi.’ His life is evidence that there is a better time waiting, and his music is the encouragement to hang on long enough to get there. “I’m a survivor of different things,” he says in a 2012 interview, “but survivors can recognise in each other that sort of cold, burning thing.’ I recognise it in Darnielle and his music, and I hope that if you can recognise it, it works for you too.
[Megan Holly Burns]
(If there’s an opportunity to include an image with this, can I suggest this one!)