Review | The Mountain Goats - In League With Dragons
The Mountain Goats get old on In League With Dragons.
Every song on the new Mountain Goats album “In League With Dragons,” is about an old person – old wizards, old scientists, even a song from the point of view of an aging possum. The fact that the album includes a song from the point of view of a possum is, strangely, less surprising than how the young rebels the Mountain Goats usually sing about have grown old.
A little less than a decade ago, The Mountain Goats wrote “Transcendental Youth,” an album explicitly created for and dedicated to young outcasts everywhere. Earlier Mountain Goats albums told spare, dream-like stories full of cryptic details (one of my favorite lines reads, “I heard the loud loud buzzing of our son’s go cart/and the ice cream was blacker than the devil’s heart”). The songs off “Transcendental Youth” were much more direct and less open to interpretation (sample lyrics: “do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away, and stay alive, just stay alive”). The album felt like John Darnielle’s concern, and love, for his young fans breaking through the textured poeticism like the Kool Aid Man jumping through a wall. It’s a powerful, unsubtle celebration of all the messed up young people in the world who just need to hang in there and survive.
“Transcendental Youth” profiled a variety of fucked up young people: a newly famous musician who ODs on heroin, teenage delinquents who find ways to survive broken homes, mentally ill punks. These characters’ emotions cannot not be easily managed or hidden. The narrator of “Cry for Judas” bases his identity on a lack of control, sing-screaming that “we are the the ones who can’t slow down at all, and there’s, nobody there, to catch us when we fall.” In song after song, uncontrolled anger, confusion and sadness take the wheel and drive people to near-misses or early graves. For the characters in “Transcendental Youth,” it’s easy to self-destruct in a moment of miscalculation. The opening track’s refrain of “just stay alive” is powerful because, for the album’s characters, staying alive isn’t easy or natural.
“In League With Dragons” honors those who slow down before crashing, the people who grow up and manage to turn self-destructive impulses into a calculated career. What doesn’t kill you…well, it doesn’t make you stronger, but it can give you a way to live. On “Passaic 1975,” JD sings from the point of view of an aging Ozzy Osbourne. “Tell your mother, tell the cops/I want everyone to get high,” Ozzy proclaims in a mellow, drugged-out voice. The drugs are no longer a way for him to erase himself, but a way for him to live, to keep his identity and persona alive. The mad scientist narrator of “An Antidote to Strychnine” spends months holed up trying to find a cure for a slow-acting poison. The song gives the impression that the scientist is also suffering from strychnine poisoning himself, and the slow, obsessive search is the antidote that keeps him alive.
If John Darnielle has one lyrical crutch, it’s inserting command statements into song lyrics: “Map out your coordinates,” “Drench a rag in heretics’ blood,” “Go blind, grow old and be content.” Almost every song includes the narrator stating commands to an imaginary audience that sound like instructions to a very strange and very detailed role playing game. I like to think of these asides as instructions for survival. While the characters of “Transcendental Youth” seem unmoored from anything or anyone in the world, the characters of “In League With Dragons” dedicate themselves to habits, rituals, obsessions (for example: plotting revenge on the townspeople, finding an antidote to a poison, getting high in your hotel room).
Maybe the only difference between the older, wiser characters of “In League With Dragons” and the reckless and tragic narrators of “Transcendental Youth” is coping strategies. The narrators of “In League With Dragons” aren’t necessarily smart or moral – one of them is literally a villain from Magic: The Gathering – but each has time-tested rituals that keep them grounded. In a way, living’s easy: you just need to find your thing and do it over and over.
That’s why the track “Possum By Night,” a song told from the point of view of a scavenging possum with lines like “try not to get stuck in the intake vent/grow fat and old and blind and be content,” doesn’t come off as a joke. All the characters of “In League with Dragons” act like animals who’ve found a few specific ways to live, a few places to hide, a few friends to confide in. Like the possum, they understand the dangers and rewards of a specific way of life. And, like the possum, they’re content to stick with that way of life, regardless of what others think. “Half of you will never understand, and it doesn’t really matter,” JD sings on “Younger,” turning a complaint into a frantic, driven motto.
Initially, “In League With Dragons” seemed like a less tragic record than “Transcendental Youth”; it shows that even people who mostly feel alienated by the world can find a purpose, make a living, and stay alive, just stay alive. John Darnielle sympathizes with rebels. On previous albums, he’s sung the praises of Soviet dissidents, shoplifting teenage punks, swamp monsters in disguise, and even horror movie villains. The characters of “In League With Dragons” also reject society, but the songs no longer celebrate that. Instead, the lyrics acknowledge, in small ways, that alienated people survive by blocking out the larger world and cultivating a much smaller one.
The last song, “Sicilian Crest,” triumphantly predicts the return of a savior, a man who will strip away the falseness of society and reveal the truth. The narrator performs rituals each day, preparing for his arrival. John Darnielle’s voice rises in awe when he pleads for us to “Look to the West/To the man bearing the Sicilian crest.” But there’s implied violence, even implied hate crimes, in the images – rags dipped in heretics’ blood, sacrificial victims – and something rotten at the heart of the melody. John Darnielle has since gone on the record saying that the visual similarities between the Sicilian crest and Nazi swastika are not a coincidence, and that the song can be read as a commentary on and criticism of fascism. It’s an acknowledgment that some of the wayward punks on “Transcendental Youth,” the ones who reject and are rejected by society, will survive by looking down on others. That constructing your own culture can mean creating something exclusive, or discriminatory, or hateful. That one of the things people do to “just stay alive” is push other people down.
Best song: Going Invisible 2
Worst song: Cadaver Sniffing Dog