03 December 2009

house music

the new miranda lambert album and the new mountain goats album, to which i've been devoting a fair amount of extracurricular listening lately, both contain songs about going to visit an old home.

in "the house that built me" miranda politely asks the current lady of the house to let her inside (in fact, the whole song is addressed to her) whereas in "genesis 3:23" john darnielle (or his narrator, but it seems pretty straightforwardly autobiog-y) picks the lock and finds nobody home, but otherwise the situation and the sentiment seem strikingly similar – both songs set up a contrast between a remembered "familiar and warm" [jd] past and a present of "brokenness inside" [ml]. in concert last night, john spoke about his father building an extension onto his childhood home, thereby even more specifically echoing the second verse of miranda's song, where she describes her dad building the house.

[the early childhood darnielle house he discussed last night, which he told us he went to visit only a month ago (he said it's "something he can't stop himself from doing") is evidently not the one in the song – it's in san luis obispo, not in clearlake – although it was memorably mentioned in "dance music" from the sunset tree.]

it's been interesting to think about the songwriting differences between these two songs, given all their considerable similarities. darnielle's is characteristically sparse in its phrasing and elliptical with its narrative content; a pointed ecomony of language that seems to project a sort of nervous tension, as if he were afraid of giving away too much emotion (either to the listener or to himself) – and that ties in with the inherent anxiety of the (after all, criminal) situation at hand, which is stifling and constricting literally ("touch nothing, move nothing, stand still/keep my ears open for cars") as well as, seemingly, emotionally.

lambert's (which she did not write) is much more direct and personable, but it's not necessarily any less nuanced for the fact that its images are specific and immediately explicable – where darnielle gives us "the tiny furnace where the long shadows grow," "sounds of a distant storm," and "ghosts in the hallway"; she offers "hand prints on the front steps," the back bedroom where she did her homework, and a favorite dog buried under an oak. sure, maybe the song rests a little too cozily on implicit assumptions about what these details signify, letting stock associations and images of childhood carry much of the emotional weight. but the song's impact is not lessened for this – the slightly generic content, including literal, physical traces of the past standing in for more individual memories, manage to connect in a meaningful way precisely because they're familiar and concrete, much as the tidy shorthand summing-up of the (somewhat feebly clever) cliché-twisting title phrase sounds pat but is still effective and satisfying because it's easy to relate to our specific experiences.

darnielle's song does almost the opposite: although it's somewhat uncharacteristically unambiguous in a narrative sense (it's easy to tell what's "happening" the whole time – as with many of his songs, particularly those on get lonely, it's extremely little), there's something elided between its mundane, matter-of-fact observations ("pictures up on the mantel/nobody i know") and an emotional experience – the crux of the song – which is presented not as generic and relatable but wholly private and intensely internal ("stand by the door with my eyes closed when it's time to leave.") we don't get to find out what the memories are that he's reliving, or what effect they're having. we're left to fill in or imagine those details, letting the narrator's experience resonate as it will, or else to feel as though we are shut out, denied emotional access to the situation.

the song ends – after darnielle leaves and goes back to his own, current house – with him "looking up at the stars outside/like teeth in the mouth of a shark." that's a pretty potent image, for sure. but i'm not sure it tells us much more than a line in lambert's song which seems to describe a similar sensation: "i got lost in this whole world and forgot who i am"

darnielle's refrain, repeated four times to form the chorus (twelve times in the song), is "i used to live here." it's such a simple, obvious statement; if anybody else had written the song (in which case it would undoubtedly be the title), it would seem hopelessly banal. (maybe ironically, "the house that built me" is far too straightforward to be a good refrain for someone as clever as the mountain goats*, whereas "i used to live here" wouldn't be nearly clever enough for someone as straightforward as, say, miranda lambert.) the persistent repetition doesn't so much imbue the phrase with meaning as imply, insist that it must be meaningful – this is the thought that keeps cycling through our protagonist's head, so maybe it's the key to understand what he's experiencing – without actually revealing anything. it strikes me as sort of a cheap device, and i'm not really convinced.

i'm not sure if i actually like this song very much. "genesis 3:23" is one of the couple of "pop" songs on the new album, in the new-ish mold of "pop" mountain goats songs – upbeat, major key, melodic, repetitive chorus, cleanly produced, instrumental hook, etc. (see also: "woke up new," "this year," "half dead," perhaps "autoclave") the other new ones are "romans 10:9" and "psalms 40:2" (the latter is definitely angrier than the others i mentioned, and it's in minor, but it's also the most ear-grabbing thing on the album, and one of my favorites) – coincidentally or not, these are also the two songs whose refrains are lifted more or less directly from their titular bible verses. "genesis 3:23" doesn't do that, but the exegesis of the reference (it's the verse where adam and eve are banished from the garden) is pretty straightforward. (hint hint, in his banter last night jd descrived his memory of his childhood home as "edenic.") i like those songs that i listed above, but it's not the most natural look for the mountain goats, and i think this one (and its chorus in particular) seems ho-hum and formulaic.

not that there's any reason to conceive of one of the two songs as superior to the other (on the contrary, they complement each other quite nicely), but i think the comparison does darnielle's song a disservice: the immediacy and honesty of lambert's is refreshing in a way that makes his canny, crafted, incessant poetry feel somewhat tired and overdone.


but i am coming to like the album more. it took some time to get past the scriptural-song-title conceit, not because it bothers me as a conceit (it's definitely a very cool idea, and a neat and inventive way to distinguish what could otherwise be...well, just another mountain goats album), but because it made it hard to for the specific identities of the songs to stand out. (it doesn't help that a good third of them are rather samey, rather ponderous plodding piano pieces.) also, even if it's a good hook, consulting the biblical references doesn't always add much to my understanding of the songs themselves – at least on a basic, cursory level, it seems to hinder interpretation as often as it helps.

of course, seeing/hearing the songs live made a big difference in my growing familiarity and appreciation of the album. this was my ninth time seeing the mountain goats, and it was a hell of a show. john's got himself a real rock band now (four pieces) and he is obviously having tons of fun rocking out, much as pat promised. i like how the first three 4ad albums seem to be becoming established as the basic mgs canon – they played several from each, most notably a riveting, grandstanding "against pollution." a handful of excellent oldies as well (two from zopilote machine ?) but the new songs really were wonderful to hear, and especially as he told some very revealing and intriguing backstories before playing many of them.

still, i think my favorites are the ones which require little explanation. the specific narrative behind "genesis 30:3" would probably make more sense if i went and read the chapter in question, but its central sentiment is unmistakable and beautiful ("i will do what you ask me to do/because of how I feel about you.") "deuteronomy 2:10," a tremendously touching song about the death of a loved one which might be the closest he's come since to the marvelously effective parallel structure approach of "song for dennis brown", marshals its somewhat unorthodox imagery (reminiscent of "international small arms traffic blues") in a brilliantly transparent fashion. and "matthew 25:21", with each verse told calmly from the perspective of a different animal faced with extinction, is simply devasting in its simplicity and impact.

*although it's not too far off from the sublimated cleverness of "i am gonna make it through this year if it kills me" – no wonder that song was his big dumb pop moment.

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