Experiments in Sincerity
“Isn’t there enough irreverence in the world?”
I was twenty-five or so at a mid-nineties Nashville Christmas party with my peers. This is Nashville we’re talking about. So when it comes to people who’ve moved into town with big ideas or even a casually asserted “When the Lord called me here…” to pursue something or other (music, ministry, performance, a heart for people in show business), it’s a throw-a-rock-and-you’ll-hit-one type of situation. Otherwise you’re a native who has been raised hearing this sort of thing. That particular crowd, though, was so over it. Many first arrived in the city under the vague promise of association with the Next Big Thing (e.g., an intimate-feeling conversation with a well-heeled “professional” in the business—probably male—an exchange that involved whispered words like “passion” and “vision”) and now found themselves in a state of bemused disillusionment. They’d been chomped up or generally betrayed by the very hopes that had once proven awfully energizing. They’d recently begun to wonder if perhaps the voice they thought was God was really just a voice in their heads. And the charismatic personalities who’d conjured such cozy feelings of welcome in the worlds of churches, record labels, and management companies had come to look like they’d felt; powerless partakers of a common desperation; a long assembly line of suckers on the vine. If any among us were still occasionally attending church services, we’d would only say as much with all the careful qualifiers of people who, these days, didn’t want to get caught believing too intensely in anything. Mention of particular congregations and/or leadership gurus would often provoke a kind, smiling skepticism or some not-quite-rude equivalent of “Oh yeah, I did that for awhile…”
The alcohol was flowing (a sure sign, for some, that everyone present had decidedly turned over a new leaf), and one particularly boisterous fellow in a corner started singing Christmas songs. He wasn’t trying to take over or anything, but his powers of projection were amusing and impressive and had people laughing as they joined in. It began as a bit of a joke (a necessarily unspoken “Wouldn’t it be funny if we started singing Christmas songs?”), and the louder we got, the more people broke loose in an un-self-conscious display of their suspiciously impressive harmonizing abilities. Nobody felt compelled to put on the earnest expressions such material might have demanded mere months ago. We’d had to shoot directly past seriousness to even start, but now, after a song or two, the tone had somehow gone beyond burlesque as well. It was as if we could feel it, because we were no longer asking ourselves if we were feeling it. We’d now broken out of orbit into a place of simply giving and lifting voice for its own sweet sake. One could intone “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight” without looking around to see who looked like they really believed or meant it. A kind of open-handedness, a negative capability, was struck, and the authentic exchange one goes to these parties hoping for was there, alive and signaling.
It is in the hope of such moments that I, for one, reach for the iPod, gaze curiously upon vinyl collections, and stand in crowded corners listening to people perform music. We live in hope of space-making happenings and the breathing room that such space affords. As I see and hear it, this is the deeply subversive, beautifully unironic space in which the music of the Mountain Goats lives, moves, and has its being. Consider the conversation-generating possibilities of their 2004 album title, We Shall All Be Healed, or a song called “Linda Blair Was Born Innocent” and how its very existence evokes amusing and disturbing questions concerning our dysfunctional, pop culture inheritance: what it does to us, what it’s still doing—rendering the whole embarrassing mess a little more talk-about-able. Make no mistake, songwriter and lead vocalist John Darnielle is a very funny man, inspiringly candid and downright evangelical concerning his enthusiasms (H.P. Lovecraft, Amy Grant, Dostoevsky, Joan Didion, Rich Mullins, Baby Dee, Odin’s Sphere), exhaustively self-deprecating on the subject of his lyrical ambitions, and all smiles and giggles when Stephen Colbert cracks jokes and professes fanboy adoration in his presence (“You named your band after an animal that has suicidal pride!”).
But the scenes evoked in his songs (usually first-person narratives) afford us details both heartbreaking and hilarious without any indication as to how we’re to distinguish the two. His characters are usually in deep trouble, militantly sincere, and, on occasion, impervious to reason. All the while, Darnielle’s authorial presence (that seems to advise us, “This part’s funny. That part’s sad”) dissolves at every turn; a seamlessness of the serious and the silly with no hint of an implied, knowing aside. The former liquor store clerk in “Against Pollution” is praying the rosary as he recalls the day he pulled a gun from under the counter and shot a raging, armed attacker in the face even as he confesses his faith that a universal, person-to-person, mutual recognition awaits us all in the last days. Whether it’s the song of a condemned-to-be-burned-alive heretic memorizing the faces of his executioner in anticipation of a reckoning-to-come (“Heretic Pride”) or the articulate, resolute hopefulness of a head-phoned, young man anticipating another beating by his father (“Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?), it’s as if Darnielle loves them too much to analyze them or to draw a clear line between their voices and his own. To channel these voices directly, without any distancing qualifiers, is the way the work of these lyrics get done.
A favorite moment of mine occurs in “San Bernadino.” A young couple tells about giving birth to their son in a hotel bathroom (“It was hard but you were brave, you are splendid/and we will never be alone in this world/no matter what they say/we’re gonna be okay”). When the man recalls pulling flower petals out of his pocket after helping his lover into a warm bathtub, Darnielle quietly asserts, “I loved you so much just then.” As it strikes my ear, this isn’t simply the fellow within the song recalling a tender moment; it’s Darnielle catching himself crushing on the people within the very scene he’s singing; noting how moved he is, exulting in it, registering this shock of recognition, and finding himself, for one sweet moment, delivered from the myth of critical detachment.
This emancipating vibe informs every bit of the Mountain Goats’ latest, The Life of the World to Come. The album (but also, in some sense, the life) serves, to my mind, as a signal flare concerning what we might call—if we feel compelled to employ a little trendspeak—a long, already-underway Post-Irony Age. I have in mind here the distinction between liking a song (or a text, an image, a poem) and receiving it. Here’s how I do my own bit of signaling in regard to the post-ironic. “Do you like Radiohead?” I’m asked. “Not only do I like Radiohead. I believe Radiohead.” Radiohead changes things for me. I want to be what I believe they’re up to; with my life. There is a time and a place for irony, we understand, but it isn’t a big enough place to live in. There’s not enough air there. You can’t say “I love you” ironically. The Life of the World to Come understands this. It indicates and insinuates. It says.
With the usual suspects of death and illness and rumors of post-mortem vindication, the title of each song is a scripture reference (“Deuteronomy 2:10,” “1 Samuel 15:23,” “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace”), and, as we’ve come to expect, Darnielle introduces the concept with the disarming earnestness we know and love: “It’s twelve new songs: twelve hard lessons the Bible taught me, kind of.” Not a religious awakening exactly, but the listener won’t be let off the hook any more than Darnielle believes himself to be. Are we open to the possibility of being moved, of discerning a summons? Such are the demands of indie folk in the most traditional, historically thick sense. I’m reminded of the ways album reviewers (Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, et al.) often wriggle uncomfortably around the unavoidably religious visions of Judee Sill, Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bazan, or Sufjan Stevens. I pity the poor reviewer whose vocabularies are strained to the point of incoherence in their attempts to give an account of what these figures are up to in sufficiently secular-sounding phrases. How to talk about it without sounding sold on it the least little bit? The critical posture that believes one can poignantly speak of a “spiritual component” or an odd, little, isolatable spot on the cultural map called “religious concerns,” for instance, simply won’t do justice to its subject when it comes to an artist’s saturation by and within the life of sacred traditions—organic subcultures always more complicated, mobile, and lively than what a caricatured reductionistic account of religiosity will allow. Darnielle is too literate and gleefully immersed in these matters to believe he can goof around with religious texts, too socially curious to even want to proceed uninvested. He’s engaged by them. He has been addressed, and he’s saying so. In what clearly appears to be his own voice, and in his lifting of the voices of others, he is testifying to the fact that he is actively receiving their counsel. Were we hoping for passivity? I suspect not.
An Amy Grant boxed set, a William Blake image, or a Bible verse are often more—but should probably never be construed as anything less—than an ethical summons, and as Darnielle’s comprehensive wit would have it, remaining attentive to these summons is the name of the game. In “Psalm 40:2,” he strikes a note of prayerful receptivity: “In the burning fuselage/of my days/let my mouth/be ever fresh with praise.” This praise is never a matter of strained positivity, uplifting spin, or mental assent to certain doctrines. It is a fixing of redeeming attentiveness; a feat of attentiveness worth repeating, handing down, writing down, and recasting. The poet, prophet, or scribe feels compelled to call it like they see it, to say what they witness. This is the job.
The title of “Phillipians 3:20-21,” for instance, refers to the New Testament’s affirmation that humiliated human bodies will be transformed into bodies bearing the living God’s glory. But while the narrator recalls the words of visitors to a dying friend’s bedside who affirm this (“Nice people said he was with God now/safe in his arms”), Darnielle also notes what appear to be the facts on the ground (“But the voices of the angels that he heard on his last days with us…Smoke alarms”). Drawing upon the fact of such tragedy and trauma, we understand, isn’t a step away from the biblical witness but a further engagement of it, the very kind of dialectic that sacred texts themselves record. Paradox, doubt, and emotional upheaval don’t signal the end of sacredness game. It means things are getting started. Or as Darnielle puts it: “The path to the palace of wisdom/that the mystics walk/is lined with neuroleptics/and electric shock.”
Darnielle’s work of witness, the lifting of the voices of others, is occasioned by the discerning of a call, a vocational pinch that demands that one go public with one’s powers of awareness, to try to incarnate, in one way or another, a poetic logic of solidarity that can be testified to but never exactly proven—only proffered, only shared. This is the way the gift of song helps, heals, complexifies, lightens, darkens, and generally gets passed around. In what appears to be a return to the relationships of “Phillipians 3:20-21,” “Matthew 25:21” directly lyricizes the scene: “We all stood there around you/happy to hear you speak/the last of something bright burning, still burning/beyond the cancer and the chemotherapy.” This process of exchange and transmission, of saying what we’ve seen and experienced of each other and passing life and loveliness on, is evident in Darniele’s statement of lyrical resolve : “You were a presence full of light upon this earth/and I am a witness to your life and to its worth.”
By the time we reach “Isaiah 45:23,” the distance between the speaker and the spoken for has been collapsed in a circle of song. The experience of the bedridden beloved is reasserted. Fits of pain are only interrupted by the changing of sheets, the reading of magazines, waiting, wondering, and prayer: “Let me praise You for the good times. Let me hold Your banner high/until the hills are flattened, and the rivers all run dry.” And here, the resolve is reciprocated from one song (one voice) to the other: “And I won’t get better, but some day I’ll be free/I am not this body that imprisons me.”
On a recent evening in Nashville, I had the pleasure of bearing witness to Darnielle’s visions at a Mountain Goats performance, and the tactful framing of what we were given to behold is worth noting. Darnielle took the stage from the get-go to introduce Larkin Grimm. He insisted upon the devastating coolness of this “new face” to everyone present but added that it is personally opportune for him to do so as our awareness of his coolness would now intensify as we paid heed knowing that he knew about her first. This trajectory was sustained when Owen Pallett (AKA Final Fantasy) made mention of Darnielle’s public championing of his work even as a critical mass complained about his singing voice. In reference to his breathtakingly excellent violin-playing skills and his mesmerizing use of looping technology, he quietly asserted, “I have other assets.” So when Darnielle and his bandmates took the stage, we had the sense of a community-forming movement, a giving-and-borrowing-and-extending of credibility; of making believe. He performed barefoot in homage to Amy Grant while noting what a pleasure it was to play her hometown. Darnielle followed “Romans 10:9” (“If you will believe in your heart/and confess with your lips/surely you will be saved one day”) with a contrary song called “Cotton” which, according to him, tells the tale of the character-type who sincerely tried the Romans 10:9 principle only to wake up one day feeling decidedly unsaved as an angry drug dealer knocks on the door demanding his due. No testimony came without a countertestimony; all of this he undertook in a knowing mode of call and response. The expression on Darnielle’s face when the crowd took over the singing on “Love, Love, Love” evoked, to my mind, Michel de Certeau’s words on the way these things work, “The call cannot be known outside of the response which it receives. It has no expression of its own.”
A packed-in crowd of many shapes, sizes, and subcultures had congregated to take in the creative and contagious freedom enacted before them, and they got what they came for. The opening strains of “1 Samuel 15:23” laid out the situation, and from where I stood, the assembled appeared to receive the summons down to a person: “My house will be for all people who have nowhere to go/My supply of shining crystals a shield against the snow.” An event was underway. And I felt myself to be in the thick of an old, emerging-again-for-the-zillionth time tradition. “There’s more like me where I came from, so mark our shapes/Go down to the netherworld…Plant grapes.” With this admonition (“Plant grapes,” whispered at the beginning and shouted at the end), I watched a woman nearby move her hand from her heart toward the stage with a satisfied smile which was neither the look of someone watching a stand-up routine nor that of an maniacally devoted fan. It was one person’s voice being lifted by the voice of another. Poetic possibilities were being reasserted and consciousness was being raised. Not exclusively by way of the performers on stage, but by way of a communal exercise, by a feat of attentiveness which we’d all signed up for in the hope of words ringing true. People were depending on one another. Whatever strains of deafening dysfunction we’d had foisted upon us, we were traditioning our way out of them in this moment. Everyone was a little less alone. Sweetness followed.
David Dark's latest book is The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. He is also the author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons, and The Gospel According To America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Sarah Masen, with whom he blogs at Peer Pressure is Forever.