ROSE QUARTER DRIFTING: the Spiritual Principle of the Mountain Goats

PREFACE

Before I begin: if you don’t care about the Mountain Goats, you are a beloved child of God, and I wish you many blessings, and hope you don’t get too lost here. This piece is a draft which may never be updated, which somehow (to me at least) fits the subject material I’m about to discuss. For context’s sake: We Shall All Be Healed (the album) entered this world in 2004, carrying an unusually wide spread of apocrypha in its wake, much of it recorded in-studio:

  • the singles Palmcorder Yajna (2003) and Letter From Begium (2004) offer two b-sides apiece — “Butter Teeth,” “Snakeheads,” “Nova Scotia,” and “Attention All Pickpockets”;
  • the UK label compilation Comes With A Smile Vol. 11 (2004) carries “Beat The Devil”;
  • John has released, through his ever-generous internet presence, “Deserters” (2005, mountain-goats.com), “New World Emerging Blues” (2008, mountain-goats.com), “All Devils Here Now” (2012, twitter), as well as the debatably-relevant “You & Me & A High Balcony” (2013, twitter);
  • a never released title track sometimes circulated in half-formed live-performances, but never quite real, never quite gone: “We Shall All Be Healed.” (the song)

ROSE QUARTER DRIFTING

When We Shall All Be Healed (the album) came out in 2004, it traced a state of spiritual entrapment between crooked optimism and fatalistic despair. Silent yet central lay an entirely unperformed and unreleased title track: “We Shall All Be Healed” (the song), which began to surface in fragments between 2010 and 2015. Then, on May 22nd, 2017, “We Shall All Be Hailed” (the song) gained the closest it will get to a canonical release: a radio session out of London, featuring voice, piano, and saxophone. That day meant a whole lot to me and I wanna tell you about it, but we require some history to get there.

From 1991 to 2004, the Mountain Goats wrote and performed ceaselessly energetic études. The project drew ceaselessly and voraciously from classical, historical, and pop-cultural sources, organizing them into an unending and still-not-quite-totally-mapped landscape of vaguely conceptual albums, inter-album series, and throwaway songs unearthed on decaying cassette . Ironically, the stereotypical tMG characteristics — whether instrumental (solo guy with a boombox), titular (songs marked “Going To [place],” “Alpha [clever joke],” “Pure [noun]”), or content (the tireless dream of a young man who believes he can tell the range of human emotion through thelong doomed love between a man and a woman) — mostly died out 15 years ago. (Fans keep the old times alive with ravenous demand for a dusty glut of experiments primarily from 1991 to 1996, i.e. all over 20 years ago.) In 1999, three hulking compilation albums summed up eight years of creativity; in 2002, Tallahassee ended the Alpha Couple while All Hail West Texas consummated the “lo-fi” sound.

Then came We Shall All Be Healed (2004), which was an autobigraphical record about hard things; then came The Sunset Tree (2005), which was an good autobiographical record about hard things. But one of them is, simply, a good record; the other became (in John’s own words) “the record I was put here on this earth to make” and “truly the first Mountain Goats record.” The difference between these two records is a knife-edge between the present and the past, that get to the core of what the Mountain Goats, as a project, do.

All tMG songs are, as commented by John on the outro to “Down to the Dark” (NPR, 2005) are “not really about my feelings, or very rarely,” are “formal exercises,” are “little emotional psycho-dramas.” The Sunset Tree has an intellectual and formal strength honed by 14 years of craft, and all those preceding years had bits of John in it, but in my view, The Sunset Tree marks the first time that the Mountain Goats took that unending stream of storytelling and energy and turned it back on itself wholly and totally. John put his body on the line; he put his stakes in the game. The resulting electric connection, felt in short-circuits and sparks in John’s overwhelming live performances over the years, has created a wave of LPs in the last twelve years, all wholly transcending the previous years’ of brilliant, clever, and yearning void — a spiritual lack.

The Sunset Tree’s elder sibling, We Shall All Be Healed (the album), consummates that lack. It’s autobiographical, but it’s not about the body. It’s a work of great skill and great dissociation — or, at best, an unformed spiritual principle. This liner notes pull-quote, which certainly resonates with me as a child of an addict, also sums up the record’s relationship to itself:

I’m sorry I brought you into this mess but I’m sorrier still that I’m not dumb enough to sink my arms in past the elbows. I have this sick feeling there’s something really great past the point of no return. Stupid, huh?

Everything about this record has found home elsewhere in the Mountain Goats canon — as if attempting to wrestle with the lack it has circumscribed. The autobiographical instinct began here, but perfected itself as embodied spiritual drama in The Sunset Tree, and has wormed its way into every subsequent tMG release. (This can be felt most palpably in the religious The Life of the World to Come (2009) and occult All Eternals Deck (2011), but also charges the scenario/concepts of Beat The Champ (2015) and Goths (2017) with pop culture important to the author’s upbringing, as well as the exhaustion and desolation of being a traveling performer.) The scenario of a desparate collective of addicts began here, but appears later in Transcendental Youth (2012) set in the truer-to-life American Pacific Northwest instead of Garden Grove, CA. And when a supposed title track for WSABH (the album) appeared as lyrics in a notebook, it never materialized as sound — instead, its conceit appeared later as “Genesis 3:23” (TLOTWTC, 2009), and the line “stared down demons / come back breathing” appeared in the life-affirming, live-only anthem “You Were Cool.” (unreleased, c. 2010). Despite its sprawling display of thirteen album tracks, four b-sides, and three to four other outtakes, WSABH (the album) circles vulture-like around itself, never quite arriving.

I experience this disconnect most intensely within the above-mentioned outtake “Deserters.” Most of WSABH (the album) refers to drug use in clever turns-of phrase, poetic abstraction, or completely impenetrable personal references: “shooting the sequel / before the treatment’s even finished / sanding numbers off the monojects / as our slight returns diminish” (“Slow West Vultures”), “I heap the sugar high and white on everything I eat” (“All Up The Seething Coast”), “there’s someone waiting out there with a mouthful of surprises” (“The Young Thousands”). In contrast, “Deserters” is direct:

The neighbors are cloning themselves
I found their cocoons in the garbage 
And we’ll either stay high forever or crash 
In and hour or two 
Sleeping the sleep of the blessed 
Picking through trash cans with you

The song drags through four such stanzas in four-and-a-quarter clever and chorusless minutes, longer than any other track on the album. Every time I listen, I’m astonished by how little it says. If this song states the core of the record so plainly — delusions, drugs, spiritual and personal failure, doomed optimism — shouldn’t it radiate truth? Its failure is the failure of the record: the unceasing energy to stab out towards the void; the unceasing entrapment in a dissociated, voidful form.

As I mentioned above, the Mountain Goats canon after 2004 is marked by a great spiritual development, which involved repurposing elements from WSABH (the album) into more spiritually mature forms. (A survey of those LPs is beyond my current energy.) Throughout the subsequent decade, John also released the above-mentioned outtakes via the internet, as if continuing to chew on the source material. Starting in 2010, a song bearing the name “We Shall All Be Healed” began appearing at a few live shows; at a show in 2015, John remarked after a performance, “that song doesn’t actually really exist, I found the lyrics to it in a notebook about a month ago.” Despite the bandleader’s consistent request for no video and photography, some fragments appeared; I kept my distance. I come to the Mountain Goats out of voracious, self-destructive energy and an incessant hope for spiritual transcendence (or spiritual immanence, I can’t ever quite be sure). I have to constantly dodge my own urges, charged by the exploitative relationship capitalism has to art, to call everything someone makes as “mine,” and scoop up every bit of “truth” the artist supposedly has to offer me. I have been on an exhausting spiritual journey through dissociation, addiction, and embodiment — it never felt right to steal a piece of a prayer, presented by a human with a body for other humans and their bodies, and call it “mine” in my unlit bedroom.

This situation didn’t change catastrophically on May 22nd, 2017 — but it changed enough. We didn’t break through into finally having access to a morally undubious recording of an unreleased song — the song simply slid into existence over 13 years. When a snippet of the radio session appeared on the fansite, I sought it out. It isn’t mine, but I am unendingly grateful for it — “We Shall All Be Healed” (the song) did not break the boundaries which contained it, but simply transcended them, as if coming down from a higher plane.

The piano arrangement lies in a soulful, plain-white-key A minor / C major, with a “tonic” chord of Am7, all torn apart and reformed by an impossibly expressive bridge, barely tethered to the song’s key: D Maj7, A, Cm C, Bb G. The saxophone takes its runs freely, apeing or embellishing a simple piano melody between stanzas. The recording quality is its own broken miracle. The saxophone sings with beauty and resonance; the piano shifts in and out of focus under some sort of auto-ducking limiter; John sings with a close-mic’ed breathy basefulness that swallows up the mix whenever it arrives; the mix appears to be that of an extremely quiet performance amplified to the point of near-peaking, recorded second-hand through a phone. The lyrics ring with the honesty and clarity of prayer as they follow their narrator through the detritus of a past life and the names of dead friends: “you are gone now and I am free.” Its choruses veer toward mourning without melancholia, reverence without obsession. Its hopes for healing fall, as heros in theatrical tragedy, to the reality of desolation around it. Then, just when the name of the album finally found home in the name of the song, and the name of the song finally found home in the final lyric, the sweeping instrumental conclusion is cut short by a radio DJ needing to move on with his schedule. In this moment I would like to publicly thank God for that DJ, and for the person who ripped this session from the radio, for an extramusical demonstration, embedded in the song’s long-awaited reveal, that everything, everything, everything slips away from us.

To be clear: the song I describe above never existed until this year. Its long-dormant lyrics form its explicit message, certainly, but the Mountain Goats have always been undervalued (perhaps until recently) for their arrangements. The long instrumental sections on the past few LPs speak to a search for truth beyond words, and the presence of piano has widened tonal language of Mountain Goats songs to an expressionistic vista. So “We Shall All Be Healed” (the song) exists in both 2004 and 2017 simutaneously — the song feels so much like a prayer and a gift precisely because of the artists’ willingness to bridge such a gap.

I have no particular conclusion to give in a rambling piece about nothingness, save for my gratitude to God, the Mountain Goats, and Kyle Barbour, and my hope that all our beings and becomings will find themselves freed from their bonds on some glorious day. If you want to listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YG2CvsUzT-U