Divorce, Drinks, and Long Drives: The Mountain Goats Experience

John Darnielle, lead singer for The Mountain Goats

Chances are, if you ask around on campus if a person listens to the Mountain Goats, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a “yes.” But at a school with people as unique as Caltech students, you’re bound to find at least a few devoted fans. Last Friday (10.6), The Mountain Goats performed live at the Belasco, with an emotionally raw, down-to-earth, and folk-rock inspired performance. Beginning the show with an audio clip setting the theme for their next album, Jenny From Thebes, lead singer John Darnielle launched into a passionate performance featuring unreleased songs, backup singers, and a packed venue with an audience nodding their heads to the music. With a folk-rock style surprisingly appealing to non-country music fans, The Mountain Goats stands out with the raw emotion embedded in the lyrics and style of the band - capturing fundamentally human experiences with their lyrics about love, loss, and life itself.

Even with the fun personality of the band, jokingly taking requests from the audience and jamming out to harmonica and sax solos, they still maintained an emotionally powerful and meaningful connection with the audience, up until they left the stage. At that point, the crowd started stomping their feet, eventually coaxing them back - now dressed in their casual clothes and free of their formal wear, peaking in a highly requested performance of their two most popular songs. Upon hearing the opening notes of No Children, the crowd screamed the loudest they did that night. In between people shouting the lyrics and The Mountain Goats putting their all into their instruments, they transitioned to their final song, This Year, and ended on an optimistic note.

Although No Children is unapologetically and unironically about divorce, its popularity can likely be attributed to its application to many relationships in a way that resonates with their massively diverse audience. In a way, No Children can be interpreted as an exploration of the self-destructive relationship with the self; underneath the surface meaning that can be gleaned from the title and lyrics of the song. It begins, “I hope that our few remaining friends, give up on trying to save us; I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot, to piss off the dumb few that forgave us…I hope the fences we mended, fall down beneath their own weight.” This is an illustration of a gradual deterioration; what was once made enjoyable by the others’ presence has now become degrading; underpinned with a desire for destruction - they want the relationship to fail, to continue in its downward spiral because they don’t know anything else other than the vitriol permeating through it. At the same time, they both want to escape, but are uncomfortable with the idea of change, stuck in this cycle.

The song then ends on its most poignant lines, seared into the minds of every Mountain Goats fan: “I am drowning, there is no sign of land, you are coming down with me; hand in unlovable hand, and I hope you die, I hope we both die.” The mental image it paints is powerful - two people, hand in hand, choosing to drown instead of swimming, seeing no hope on the horizon and doing nothing but spiraling. No Children can also be interpreted as a song about a relationship with one’s self. The artistic choice of Darnielle to sing in only one voice (his own) with two “people’’ talking to each other lends credibility to the concept of a person talking to themselves. In No Children, the idea that getting used to pain, and then becoming uncomfortable and unwilling to pursue anything outside of that, is more understandable when overlaid onto the context of a divorce between two people.

And although the song is tragic, it serves as a reminder to the audience that they are not alone, and is their most streamed song. Their second most popular is This Year, ending the concert on a more hopeful note. And for good reason - its focus on the milestones of the life of an emerging adult, growing up and leaving the house - resonates with nearly everyone; a first drink, a first love, and the quintessential first drive as markers to adulthood. Consider, for example - “I played video games in a drunken haze, I was 17 years young; hurt my knuckles punching the machines, the taste of Scotch rich on my tongue,” highlighting the the inherent rage associated with an adolescent’s transition into adulthood, in a body or environment that doesn’t align with the mind, expressed through Darnielle’s lyrics in the form of determined optimism.

Complexity is layered on with lyrics surrounding his home life - “I drove home in the California dusk…pictured the look on my stepfather’s face, ready for the bad things to come,” and about his first love - “And then Cathy showed up, and we hung out, taking swings from a bottle, all bitter and clean; Locking eyes, holding hands - twin high maintenance machines.” In his first love, he finds a kindred spirit, someone who provides an escape from the difficulties they’re both facing; just as drinking is a way to escape, so is Cathy herself, and the calming quality of a drive on the way home. Through the lyrics, Darnielle manages to express both a sense of dissatisfaction and unquenchable optimism for better things, ending on the strongest line in the song; “I am gonna make it through this year, if it kills me.”

As it turns out, The Mountain Goats, even with their fair share of sad songs, manage to invoke a sense of irreplaceable hope amongst the background of despair, no matter the listener. So, if you’re looking for emotionally powerful performances, lyrics that will hit like a truck, or even just something new, consider listening to some of their songs.

A long-time Mountain Goats fan had the following to say about the concert: “I have been baptized by the music; it tore my soul out then put it right back.” (Sulaiman Alkadi.)