If there is a definition of a crap time of year it would be November, more precisely late November, cold and grey, when you start with looking over what you’ve done (and not done) last year and existential despair starts sinking in. And if there was a definition of the crap time of the week, it would be Sunday afternoon, when you’ve already celebrated the capitulation of your ambitions for the passing week at lunch, and are awaiting Monday’s grind, anxious, bloated and dazed.
It was on such a Sunday afternoon last November that I discovered the Mountain Goats. I was working on some excel sheet, with some dull Spotify indie playlist in the background, dread in the back of my mind.
After yet another numbing twee electro-indie number, feverish guitar strumming began. Then, “I hope that our few remaining friends stop trying to save us…”, shouted nasally. Then it climaxed with “I hope you die. I hope we both die”, sung in chorus, breathlessly. This was something I could relate to, I thought, gleefully. Instantly, I realised what sort of thing I feel I can relate to.
I was never into angry music, (Libertines and Morrissey ere the angriest things on my playlists), but this song, though, tore through the daze of my maudlin state of mind and tapped into something that crap months, weeks and days produce a-plenty: anger. “No Children”, drilled into it beautifully, accurately and with a lot of writerly circumspection. It was bleak, angry, honest and fitting.
Soon it was on repeat, as I was dreading that it was their only good song. After researching the Mountain Goats (or rather John Darnielle – the guy who is the Mountain Goats), I realised that there was also an acclaimed autobiographical album about the anguish of growing up with an abusive alcoholic step-father and slipping into drug-abuse. I was intrigued: although my quarter-life crisis probably could not compare to Darnielle’s experience, somehow I thought I could relate to that too, much like someone with a strong flu, can relate to the most brutal symptoms of Hodgkin Lymphoma described on WebMD.
Of course, I got hooked. “The Sunset Tree” quickly became the soundtrack of the next few bleak months: while I was slogging away at work, while I was wandering alone around deserted Christmas-day London, while I was snuggling in my bed. Although the album is thematically pretty consistent it also had a song for every shade of my generally melancholy landscape: “This Year” and “Up the Wolves” for hopeful highs; “Dance Music” (probably my favourite) for anxious choppy waters; and “Song for Dennis Brown”, “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” and “Love Love Love” for the lows. And if there is any point in describing its point, at least its point for me is that basically shit times are shit (no point pretending and putting up a brave face and going for positive non-sense), and that in shit times it is not love, nor hope, nor higher ideals, but your animalistic survival instincts and anger that make you wade forwards, not uncommonly into even deeper shit, but that hopefully with them, and some circumspection, you will wade out.
This point can probably be expanded to the whole of Darnielle’s impressive opus, which mostly covers the experiences of the down at heel – their lives, dreams and mistakes – with equal measures of brain and heart, usually set to happy-sounding guitar music.
So in case you are wading, may the words of John Darnielle, the patron Saint of waders help you find your path, if not to happiness, then away from shit. If you are not, then I hope you can find beauty in their sharp turns of phrase and emotional delivery.
As a taster, here are a few notable ones: