John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is king of the story song. It doesn’t matter that his early recordings were done on a boom box in his basement (and sound like it). When I’m listening to his songs, I barely hear the music; it’s all lyrics. That the man can spin a story has only been affirmed by the recent release of his book Wolf in White Van.
When it comes to Darnielle and The Mountain Goats, I am a bit of an evangelist. I want everybody to see the fucking light. I want the entire population of planet Earth to understand why this man deserves a temple, to hear past the early rough guitars and into the perfection of his lyrical storytelling. A recent NPR article calls his lyrics “literary,” and that is why I’m here today. Darnielle is a song writer that book people can love. If you happen to be SFF people, you’re in extra special luck. With a love for obscure horror films, comic books, and myth, many of Darnielle’s songs could be filed under SFF. So here’s an SFF Mix Tape devoted to Darnielle’s SFFinal works. Happy listening.
The Quetzalcoatl Songs
Quetzalcoatl, a Mesoamerican deity and feathered serpent, has a song trilogy spread across two albums.
1. Quetzalcoatl Comes Through (on Protein Source of the Future…Now)
“He came spitting fire on a day like no other. Tried to hold you near to me. I heard him passing over. He made a banquet for the stray dogs of the air. He put our love in clear perspective, rising.
“Blue, red and green plumage trailing behind him now, swaddling the sky in its aftermath. The last day coming down, he made a banquet for the stray dogs of the air. He put our love in clear perspective. rising, rising, rising, rising”
2. Quetzalcoatl Eats Plums (on Zopilote Machine)
The lyrics of Quetzalcoatl Eats Plums are less obviously about Darnielle’s favorite winged serpent. If I’m interpreting it correctly, a regular guy wants to call his lady friend, but oh shit, Quetzalcoatl seems to be in the plum tree in the backyard. Now regular guy can’t seem to remember what he wanted to make that call about.
3. Quetzalcoatl is Born (on Zopilote Machine)
“It’s a strange gathering around you and the lord of the snails is born. Five minutes before you take on divinity, you hear the crackling, well you hear the snapping corn. Into the fire you go.”
Songs About the End of the World
1. The Plague
With its chorus of “lalalalalala,” this apocalyptic song feels silly, perhaps satirical.
“We will rise from our sleep. We won’t have time to choose what things we’ll keep. And rivers will all turn to blood. Frogs will fall from the sky. And the plague will rage through the countryside.”
2. Last Man on Earth (appeared on the demos for Heretic Pride, but didn’t make it onto the album)
The lyrics of this song deserve a read in their entirety, but this apocalypse seems to have something to do with “thirsting demons.” But there are also cameras…so is it a movie? Another great addition to the SF Mix Tape Loves the Apocalypse song list.
“Just when the last of the smoke subsides you’ll see my fingers hoisting my body up atop the charred debris. Who is that creature with the crazed look in his eyes? Don’t even question your senses. You can be sure that’s me. When all the pretenders to your hand lie dead across the land, I’ll be the last man on earth.”
3. The Day the Aliens Came (or: Hawaiian Feeling)
We’ve already covered The Day the Aliens Came on SF Mix Tape, but so you don’t have to go clicking around to listen to this classic alien apocalypse song, here it is again:
Songs Referencing Classic Lit and Authors
1. Lovecraft in Brooklyn (on Heretic Pride)
I don’t know enough about Lovecraft to know what exactly this song is about. A reference to Lovecraft’s stories? His life? Both? Something else entirely? A fan who has read too much Lovecraft and become paranoid and weird? Maybe some Lovecraft fans in the house can stop by the comments and let me know what they think.
“When the street lights sputter out they make this awful sizzling sound. I cast my gaze towards the pavement, too many blood stains on the ground. Rhode island drops into the ocean. No place to call home anymore. Lovecraft in Brooklyn.”
“Someday something’s coming from way out beyond the stars to kill us while we stand here. It’ll store our brains in mason jars. And then the girl behind the counter, she asks me how I feel today. I feel like Lovecraft in Brooklyn.”
2. Grendel’s Mother (on Zopilote Machine)
As in, Grendel of Beowulf’s mother.
“The cave mouth shines by pure force of will. I look down on the world from the top of this lonesome hill, and you can run, and run some more from here all the way to singapore, but I will carry you home in my teeth.”
3. Idylls of the King (on Tallahassee)
And now how about a little Arthurian legend? Except this song might not actually be about that. You be the judge.
Songs for Horror Fans
1. The House that Dripped Blood (on Tallahassee)
Classic haunted house horror right here.
“Look past the kitchen cabinets, go through the chest of drawers, scrutinize the casements, rip the varnish off the doors, dig up the laughing photographs: they’re here somewhere or other. Take what you can carry, but let me tell you brother still waters go stagnant, bodies bloat, and the cellar door is an open throat.”
Much of the album Tallahassee is a horror story–a couple buys a house, the devil shows up, the dead walk, and their relationship slowly falls apart. In The First Few Desperate Hours, the devil’s footprints show up in the garden. In Southwood Plantation Road we learn that the dead are walking, “in this house like a Louisiana graveyard where nothing stays buried.” The songs that aren’t about the horror of this house are about the horror of this marriage. The couple is one you will recognize, if you’re a fan, from many of Darnielle’s songs: narcissistic drunks whose story he’s been “writing about forever.”
2. Star Dusting (on Transmissions to Horace)
Darnielle himself has said that this song is a horror story. From what I gather, the song’s two protagonists are being changed. One’s face becomes brighter before she/he starts ” mumbling unintelligibly,” then it gets really creepy:
“I no longer knew what bells sounded like. I thought we’d maybe strike up a conversation, ’til bad luck cruised by on his ten-speed bike. I got real cold and I grabbed my coat, and I saw that the ringing was coming from your throat.”
All I can think is that this is probably how many of the characters from Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy felt as they were slowly colonized by Area X.
3. Malevolent Cityscape X (on Infidelity 7″)
Werner Herzog meets horror meets the apocalypse? Maybe?
“The street’s alive. We’re not alone. Our legs move like well-oiled gears, and I know we’re never going home. There is a dwarf on the corner with a cup in his hand a black hat on his big head. He sings a little song and then the sky turns red.”
This song isn’t available on youtube, so read the rest of the lyrics here if you’re interested in the whole story.
4. Mummy’s Hand (unreleased)
A story told from a mummy’s perspective. Darnielle really knows how to get you inside the head of the “bad guy.”
“I spent several thousand years down here all alone. no way to stand the lonely old ache in my bones. Say the spell three times, crank up the special effects, I’m gonna cast off all my bandages and see what happens next.
“I will rise fully formed like an infant freshly born.
“I’ve been trapped too long, underneath the ground in the hollow darkness ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down. I will push my hand up through the earth and I will rise like the cry of an infant at it’s birth.”
Songs for Fantasy Fans
1. Billy the Kid’s Dream of Magic Shoes
This story is short and simple. Somebody wants to kill Billy the Kid, and he doesn’t care because he has magic shoes. You know. As you do.
2. How to Embrace a Swamp Creature
This is another song we’ve already featured on SF Mix Tape. But it belongs on any SFF comp of Mountain Goats songs (story narrated by a swamp creature trying to visit someone outside of the swamp), so here you go:
3. Wizard Buys a Hat (on Satanic Messiah EP)
This song is about exactly what you think it is about. A wizard (maybe) buying a hat. More interesting, perhaps, is the story that the entirety of the Satanic Messiah EP tells about, yup, a satanic messiah’s rise to power.
4. Damn These Vampires
“Feast like pagans, never get enough. Sleep like dead men. Wake up like dead men, and when the sun comes try not to hate the light. Someday we’ll try to walk upright.”
The narrator has been turned into a vampire, and he’s not happy about it (“god damn these bite marks! damn these vampires”). This is his story.
Songs for Nintendo Lovers
I’ve already analyzed this song in detail on another episode of SF Mix Tape. Best Mario tribute song ever.
If you’d like to go further down the Darnielle rabbit hole, this fan site has an index of (almost) all of his songs, with lyrics and information about where they have been played and realeased.