Recent conversations over coffee with Deane and the beginnings of a new research project (on science fiction genre convention across cultures and Christian imagery in the Japanese anime film Neon Genesis Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone) has me thinking a good deal about metaphor and other figures of speech.
This has coincided with a mild (and growing) obsession with the great indie rock band The Mountain Goats, the pen name of the singer and songwriter John Darnielle and whoever he happens to be working with. Darnielle’s massive output has included such masterpieces as Tallahassee (a 2003 concept album about divorce), The Sunset Tree (2005), and the recent The Life Of The World To Come (2009), a fascinating slice of reception history that features 12 songs inspired by individual verses from the canonical Bible (The Mountain Goats website can be found here).
One of the things that makes The Mountain Goats such a pleasure to listen to is the fact that, not unlike writers like the philosopher/cultural critic Jean Baudrillard, the novelist Chuck Palahniuk, and the great theologian/existentialist/madman Søren Kierkegaard, Darnielle relies almost exclusively on indirect forms of communication, approaching and constructing his worlds of meaning from every conceivable angle, no matter how oblique. For your pleasure, pondering, and perhaps confusion, a few of The Mountain Goats’ greatest (or most evocative) leaps in both language and logic.
From ‘Old College Try’ (Tallahassee), Darnielle manages to weave an oddly romantic metaphor out of a series of random images that would not be out of place in a Murakami Haruki novel:
… From the entrance to the exit/ Is longer than it looks from where we stand
I want to say I’m sorry for stuff I haven’t done yet/ Things will shortly get completely out of hand
I can feel it in the rotten air tonight/ In the tips of my fingers
In the skin on my face/ In the weak last gasp of the evening’s dying light
In the way those eyes I’ve always loved illuminate this place
Like a trashcan fire in a prison cell
Like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell
I will walk down to the end with you/ If you will come all the way down with me
Again, in ‘Broom People’ (The Sunset Tree), Darnielle builds a love song out what T. S. Eliot so memorably called (in The Waste Land) ‘a heap of broken images’, though Eliot would never have used such charmingly domestic visuals:
’36 Hudson in the garage/ All sorts of junk in the unattached spare room,
Dishes in the kitchen sink/ New straw for the old broom,
Friends who don’t have a clue/ Well-meaning teachers,
But down in your arms,
In your arms, I am a wild creature.
Floor two foot high with newspapers/ White carpet thick with pet hair,
Half-eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer/ Fresh fuel for the sodium flares,
I write down good reasons to freeze to death/ In my spiral ring notebook,
But in the long tresses of your hair
I am a babbling brook.
From Heretic Pride (2008), we have ‘Sax Rohmer #1’, which is about something lovely, though I have no idea what that might be. (any suggestions from our readers would be welcome here). The final figure/image is a keeper, something J. G. Ballard does half as well with ten times as many words in his novel Crash:
Fog lifts from the harbour/ Dawn goes down today
An agent crests the shadows/ Of a nearby alleyway
Piles of broken bricks/ Signposts on the path
Every moment points toward/ The aftermath
Sailors straggle back/ From their nights out on the town
Hopeless urchins from the city/ Gather around
Spies from imperial China/ Wash in with the tide
Every battle heads toward/ Surrender on both sides
And I am coming home to you/ With my own blood in my mouth
And I am coming home to you/ If it’s the last thing that I do
Bells ring in the tower/ Wolves howl in the hills
Chalk marks show up/ On a few high windowsills
And a rabbit gives up somewhere/ And a dozen hawks descend
Every moment leads toward/ Its own sad end
Ships loosed from their moorings/ Capsize and then they’re gone
Sailors with no captains watch a while/ And then move on
And an agent crests the shadows/ And I head in her direction
All roads lead toward/ The same blocked intersection …
‘Up the Wolves’ (The Sunset Tree) features one of the strangest, and most oddly stirring, calls to arms I’ve ever heard:
… Were going to commandeer the local airwaves/ To tell the neighbours what’s been going on.
And they will shake their heads and wag their bony fingers/ In all the wrong directions,
And by daybreak we’ll be gone/ I’m going to get myself in fighting trim,
Scope out every angle of unfair advantage.
I’m going to bribe the officials.
I’m going to kill all the judges.
It’s going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage.
Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome/ But there’s going to be a party when the wolf comes home.
And finally, from the immortal ‘No Children’ (Tallahassee), simply one of the finest and most frankly brutal break-up songs in recent memory, one which uses a descriptive language that is so oddly naked that it seems to hide its meaning in plain sight:
I hope that our few remaining friends/ Give up on trying to save us
I hope we come up with a failsafe plot/ To piss off the dumb few who forgave us
I hope the fences we mended/ Fall down beneath their own weight
And I hope we hang on past the last exit/ I hope it’s already too late
And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here/ Someday burns down
And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away
And I never come back to this town …
I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow/ I hope it bleeds all day long
Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises/ We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong
I hope it stays dark forever/ I hope the worst isn’t over
And I hope you blink before I do/ I hope I never get sober
And I hope when you think of me years down the line/ You can’t find one good thing to say
And I’d hope that if I found the strength to walk out/ You’d stay the hell out of my way
I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand
And I hope you die/ I hope we both die …
(Thanks to the exhaustive fansite/archive themountaingoats.net for help on some of the more obscure passages).