John Darnielle, the man behind The Mountain Goats, has a new book coming out, Wolf in White Van. For longtime fans of Darnielle’s work, his writing a book will come as no surprise.
In a blog post from Darnielle’s publisher, the book is described as involving an “interplay of real and imagined worlds, which is both complex and heartbreaking” and describes the storytelling structure as “audacious, brilliant, and never anything but convincing and unreasonably suspenseful.” The post also points out that there was a campaign to nominate Darnielle for poet laureate.
Here are just a few Mountain Goats songs with great storytelling:
1. “Then the Letting Go” from Nothing for Juice
This short, earlier track is essentially a great work of flash fiction. The initial sense of yearning the narrator turns to bitterness and anger. You’d be hard-pressed to find a song that clocks in at less than two minutes that contains this range of emotion.
2. “Going to Georgia” from Zopilote Machine
Though Darnielle has publicly dismissed this song for expressing, to paraphrase, “angst through the specter of gun violence,” it’s difficult to ignore the bubbling passion rippling through this story of a convict making his/her way back to the arms of their beloved, a love so powerful it literally disarms them.
3. “The Mess Inside” from All Hail West Texas
If ever anything deserved the adjective “heartbreaking” it’s this ode to slowly decaying relationships. The song follows the characters as they wander about from different locations, examining their waning love with the refrain “I wanted you to love me like you used to do,” cutting through the listener with a knife as sharp as any wielded by even the most devastating fiction.
4. “Dance Music” from The Sunset Tree
This entire album is as beautiful, jarring, and inspiring as any novel written about childhood abuse, but this song is especially representative. The details ground you solidly in history (“I’m in the living room watching the Watergate hearings / While my stepfather yells at my mother”). The rush of solace the narrator finds in music hits hard against the painful realities of daily life.
5. “Game Shows Touch Our Lives” from Tallahassee
This song, on another Mountain Goats album that could rival any novel in terms of complexity and emotional depth, sets a scene so riddled with tension that you can hear it cracking. You can almost see the nameless game show blaring from the TV as two people in a relationship rooted in alcohol abuse and poisonous feelings begin the slow descent into the annihilation of their relationship.
6. “Woke Up New” from Get Lonely
I don’t think you can find anything — song, short story, novel, poem — that expresses the detached feeling that comes after the ending of a relationship better than this song. With lines like “the first time I made coffee for just myself I made too much of it / but I drank it all just ‘cause you hate it when I let things go to waste” illuminate that feeling of empty wandering after unmooring from the person you were probably attached to for far too long.
7. “San Bernardino” from Heretic Pride
The whole thing swells the point of near collapse from the very beginning — for a place, a person, a child. It’s essentially a short story about that specific feeling of being in love with the world but with a soundtrack, though it also doesn’t ignore the “this feeling is fleeting, everything can and will change” knowingness that tinges its borders.
8. “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” from Transcendental Youth
Drug abuse is a concern of Darnielle’s that he’s returned to throughout his career and one he writes incredibly well about. This tale in particular is truly haunting. I dare you not to tear up at the line “one whole life recorded in disappearing ink.”
9. “Against Pollution” from We Shall All Be Healed
Here is the tale of a man who shoots someone in self-defense and would do it again. It’s also about a lot more than that. You could write an entire novel about the complex emotions explored in this song, but Darnielle says everything in less than four minutes.