Saturday, November 14, 2009

#45. 'Twin high-maintenance machines'

The Mountain Goats "This Year"

John Darnielle is many things, not all of them good mind you, but his defining characteristic in my eyes is his keen eye for storytelling. Even in his no-fi recording days, back when consistency didn't seem to be as much of a concern as just getting as much material out as possible, he managed a few stunning little vignettes nested amongst a sea of simple bedroom recorded bits of randomness. When he took the Mountain Goats out of that style and turned them into a full-fledged studio band that side of his writing became more and more prevalent, starting on 2002's Tallahassee and culminating on the intensely personal The Sunset Tree 3 years later. Both albums are conceptual in nature, the former charting the downward spiral of a married couple and the latter detailing the domestic turmoil of Darnielle's childhood with an abusive stepfather, but in spite of the intertwined nature of the albums each spat forth one completely self-sufficient song that encapsulated the tone and subject of their parent releases.

Choosing between Tallahassee's "No Children" and The Sunset Tree's "This Year" for this list would have been the hardest decision I'd have to make, but thankfully only "This Year" was actually released as a single so the decision's out of my hands. I think it probably would have won out in the end though; as good as "No Children" is there's a certain depth to "This Year" that makes it hit on a much more visceral level. It's funny that I'm referring to it as visceral when it's one of the few truly joyous moments on The Sunset Tree, the story of Darnielle's 17 year old self getting away for a weekend with a bottle of scotch and a girl who wants to spend time with him, but like I said, there's adepth to the feeling on display there. Every syllable drips with the elation of finally getting away, even if it's just for a Saturday, and having a somewhat normal life. It's a visceral joy, and one that's forever on the verge of collapsing into reality whenever he turns around to get home which makes it that much deeper.

And really, it all comes down to that chorus, the mantraic repetition of 'I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me' that sells the song as possibly the best in Darnielle's repertoire. In twelve words you've got the essence of the song; he has a year until he can really get away for good, and in the moments he's describing he's getting a taste of it. He wants to know what he has to look forward to even with the dark cloud hanging over him because he needs it to keep himself going. This brief taste of freedom is all he has, and he knows that next year he'll be free to enjoy it for real, without any concern about the backlash when he finally gets home. In twelve words that complex web of feelings is so clearly detailed that it hurts a bit. Even when the reprieve ends and he comes home to his own little hell he comes back to those twleve words. He has something to look forward to and not amount of shit thrown at him is gonna get in the way of him reclaiming that feeling. The autobiographical nature of the song, all of The Sunset Tree really, is written all over the place, and Darnielle is clearly relishing the memory as he relives it even if it means going back to the darker places of his youth.

I remember that I first heard this song as I entered my toughest year of school and it became the sort of anthem that I never thought I'd need. Even if the situations were far removed from each other it hit on that primal need to push forward that really helped me through the worst of it. I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one who sees the song that way, and I'm willing to bet that it's gotten people through worse things than a catchup year of university. Few songwriters can instill that kind of thought in me, and that's why Darnielle would probably rank as one of the best of the last 20 years. He doesn't do it with a lot of polish, but he gets it done better than anyone I can think of off the top of my head.

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