I'm late to the party on The Mountain Goats. I first heard them in the car on a road trip to a Tom Waits show in Detroit in 2006, and in the years since I've lost count of how many times I've sat in the cafe, listening to the radio, and said "who's this? this sounds good" and found out it was The Mountain Goats. But when I look up a band and see they have over a dozen records already, I get a bit overwhelmed. I don't know where to start. I put off buying a Springsteen album for years because of this.
I finally bought a couple of Mountain Goats records late last year, and I've listened to little else since. John Darnielle (who, for all practical purposes, IS The Mountain Goats) is a fantastic songwriter. He's done enough "on the verge of breaking up while riding in a car" and "ecstatic love while riding in a car" songs that I almost think he has too many, but, like Tom Waits ballads about rural weirdos and Bob Dylan 12-bar blues songs, it's hard to imagine we could ever have enough.
But what interests me most, and gets my fist pumping, is his obsession with salvation through making mistakes and wrecking his life.
Lots of writers are obsessed with salvation or redemption in one form or another. Springsteen, for instance, preaches redemption through driving out of the factory town with the radio blasting and a girl in the passenger seat (The Mountain Goats' "This Year" differs from this genre mainly in that the guy in that song has to go back home at the end). Bob Dylan has preached about salvation through truth, women, Jesus, walking, and any number of other things. The Hold Steady often sing of redemption through partying less and cutting back on booze (trust me, it's there). The Gaslight Anthem preaches salvation through living out Springsteen songs.
But Darnielle has a fascinating Huckleberry Finn thing going. Sure, you could say that "This Year" (and all of the other songs about Darnielle's relationship with his late stepfather) are reminiscent of Huck's relationship with his own messed-up dad, but it goes deeper than that. Huckleberry Finn is a character who considers himself to be wicked and beyond any hope of redemption - even when he's risking his neck to do the right thing. He fully believes that he's going to Hell for helping Jim escape slavery. He KNOWS it's wrong. But it feels right, so he does it anyway. And by breaking the rules, he improves his lot in life.
You see a lot of this same stuff in The Mountain Goats. Darnielle always comes off as a very normal guy - maybe because of all the very sensitive songs about love. You'd hire this guy. You'd let him teach your kid's third grade class. You'd go into business with him on a handshake. You'd be a little surprised to see him in a bar. You would glady watch his bags for him at the airport - you might even help him get them through security.
How closely this describes the real Darnielle, I have no idea. But it's the vibe I get, despite the fact that song after song is about being screwed up. Drunk, stoned, in a bad relationship, and unsure of what to do with the nine day old baby. You might laugh along with the break-up songs, or envy the guy in the love songs (if you're single), but the characters you root for the most in Darnielle's songs are the ones who are out to break the rules. The ones who shout "a pirate's life for me" and "hail Satan" and plot revenge on those who've wronged them. These sort of guys come up a lot in the Mountain Goats canon.
Trying to speak FOR Darnielle is a weird thing to do, since he does it so well myself. In this case, I can't do better than to quote a thing he wrote about the characters in "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton:" "I try not to excuse the destructive things adolescents sometimes do to express their pain, but in my gut, when I write a song in which a couple of teenagers vow to take revenge on the grownups... well, I cast my lot with the teenagers. They may do wrong sometimes, but their hearts aren't rotten yet, and the light is strong within them. "
THere are plenty of bands out there singing about breaking the rules. But none have such an inherent "aw shucks," Richie Cunningham sort of nice guy quality behind them. And that's the quality that makes breaking the rules sound so much more exciting and liberating in a Mountain Goats song than it sounds in Metallica song. You expect Metallica to break the rules. They're a hard rock band. Breaking rules is what they do (unless they're, say, Stryper). But when John Darnielle breaks a rule, he's turning over a new leaf. Over and over and over again. And his life will be better for it in the long run.