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June 15th, 2005 Kevin Sampsell | Music Stories
 

COME HELL AND HAIKU

The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle explains himself, 17 syllables at a time.

     
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John Darnielle
John Darnielle is currently recognized by the music press as one of the premier poetic songwriters in modern music. But the 38-year-old songwriter has been engaging a devout audience with his lyrical wit and distinctive voice since he started recording under the name the Mountain Goats back in 1991. His first recordings-on cassette!-consist mainly of his clear voice, a guitar and the hiss of a boom box. It wasn't until 2002, when Darnielle released Tallahassee that the musician made the full jump from bedroom recording to a studio. Still, his music remains refreshingly simple and captivating.

In the past, Darnielle narrated his songs from the point of view of various characters-teenagers, murderers, alcoholics or tragedy victims-but his latest release, The Sunset Tree, tells more personal stories. When his abusive stepfather died in December 2003, Darnielle found himself turning inward, creating songs set in his California childhood, peppered with stinging details of squalor and torment. On an album filled with so much domestic violence, two songs-"This Year" and "Dance Music"-stand out for their hopeful messages.

The album has earned attention this spring from publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times, years after Darnielle was already hailed as a genius by fanzine authors. And in contrast to the days when Darnielle mailed out his releases individually, now he's hit the semi-big time, realeasing his last three albums on the super-sophisticated London label 4AD.

In addition to his songwriting, Darnielle also publishes poetry, comments on the music industry on his blog, lastplanetojakarta.com, and contributes to Decibel magazine and the Pitchfork website. In a nod to that literary bent, WW decided to discuss his new album through haiku, the 17-syllable poetry form. Kevin Sampsell-a co-founder of Portland's Haiku Inferno performance group-wrote haiku questions based on selected songs from the new album, and Darnielle responded (almost) in kind via email.

Here's what happened:

"you or your memory"

In the lovely opener, Darnielle's confessional and sometimes breathy vocals float above the feather-brushed drums, strummy guitar and somber piano set in a "bargain-priced room in La Sienega." The way he says "you" made me think he was in love. I guess I was wrong.

Q. WW:

Romance memories
or suicide watch? Is there
hope in sad motels?

A. Darnelle:

Romance? What romance?
It's a south-central motel,
and a mirror, and stray thoughts.

"broom people"

Set to another heart-tugging piano score, this track finds Darnielle surrounded by "friends who don't have a clue" and "well-meaning teachers." The singer seems sad until he proclaims, "Down in your arms I am a wild creature."

Q. Oppressive home life...
good reasons to freeze to death...
Where were all your friends?

A. Close by at all times!
Just the fact of having friends
can't slow the deathwish.

"this year"

By track three, Darnielle delivers a more uplifting mood. Maybe "the taste of scotch rich on my tongue" helped. Triumphant hand claps and the clear-as-day declaration of "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me" shine over the darker elements of the story.

Q. Escaping in drinks
Hand claps and affirmations
Singing to survive?

A. Singing years later:
Couldn't sing at all back then.
Old tapes back me up.

"dilaudid"

Darnielle pleads for his lover to "stay sweet," but his vision seems clouded by drugs. Maybe it's the urgent sound of the cello going solo that has him alarmed.

Q. Drugged love therapy?
Kissing with sweet mouths open
Love in her fish nets?

A. Knew a guy named Jay.
Well-connected guy, old Jay.
Doubtless better now.

"dance music"

The piano on this song sounds like a peppy riff that Schroeder may have played on a Peanuts cartoon. And that's not a bad thing. I picture Darnielle with headphones on, waiting for his mom and stepdad to stop yelling. He sings, "This is what the volume knob's for."

Q. Dodging stepdad's angst
sheltered in pop song disco
Waiting for how long?

A. "Angst" seems here to me
A very odd choice of words.
And: waiting? For what?

"dinu lipatti's bones"

An electric guitar is picked softly as Darnielle sings (in tribute?) about the classical pianist whose life ended painfully by leukemia at the age of 33.

Q. Staring at the void
Pirate radio whispers
Lo-fi nostalgia?

A. You were much warmer
Down in the amber bottles.
Nostalgia's for squares.

"up the wolves"

More folk than pop, the everything-is-going-to-be-OK sentiment of the lyrics is pushed aside at the end when Darnielle shouts: "It's going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage."

Q. Ghosts in your closet
Have you forgiven them yet?
The wolf is howling.

A. On the western plains,
Coyotes howl, while wolves breed
On snow-capped mountains.

"lion's teeth"

An electric guitar, cello and drums march militantly while Darnielle gets all metaphorical.

Q. Hold on to dear life
in the mouth of the lion
Did you pull its tooth?

A. Learned to drive stick-shift
In a weedy parking lot:
Pomona fairgrounds.

"hast thou considered the tetrapod?"

A riveting story of dread brought to a boil with the help of some subtle drum work, this is the soundtrack of a savage getting ready to attack.

Q. Sleeping on the couch
sweltering SoCal weather
escape to headphones

a. All interviewers
Seem to like this word "escape"
For this song: me, less

"magpie"

Erik Friedlander pushes this short tune along with deft mandolin work while Darnielle warns, "The magpie will come at midday and you will go down on all fours."

Q. Preparing yourself
for an ominous ending
What is the magpie?

A. Only a traitor
undresses his metaphors
As if they were whores

"song for dennis brown"

A song packed with beautiful and forlorn sentiments. When Darnielle sings, "On the day my lung collapses it's not gonna be much different," it knocks the wind out of you.

Q. The great reggae star
kills himself ever slowly
Why didn't he stop?

A. The fever caught him,
I guess, and the disconnect:
Sun, sea, sounds, too much

"love love love"

King Saul, Sonny Liston, Raskolnikov and Kurt Cobain are name-checked in this oddly tender cautionary tale.

Q. You think about love
and how people display it
Are you sensitive?

A. The ghost hard at work
We hear him plead out his case
Wind in the alley

"pale green things"

Dealing more directly with his stepfather's passing, Darnielle successfully mixes joy and sadness in this fitting closer.

Q. Reborn out of death
Remember the race track days
Weight lifted from heart?

A. Try to remember:
So many sides to all things!
Big blue California sky.


The Mountain Goats play with the Double and Sarah Dougher Monday, June 20, at Doug Fir. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.
 
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