So, Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle, songwriter and poet laureate of the existentially anguished, identifies as a feminist and has even said that his feminist ideals conflict with his Catholic faith. When I first heard this, I was quite surprised. Why? Well, listen to one reason, a song called “Bad Priestess” (lyrics).
I heard that song played live just this year. Darnielle introduced it as a song that might, on its surface, seem anti-feminist. In fact, feminists have contacted him to express their qualms with the lyrics’ apparent slut-shaming. But Darnielle wasn’t really interested in their perspective. He just laughed it off and noted that the narrator of the song is a fictional character and not necessarily a reflection of his actual views about women.
I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Darnielle’s music. This is partly because his obsessive fan base makes me nervous, but largely because so many of his songs make me wonder if he has some unresolved issues with women. He tends to deflect this allegation by insisting that these are all fictional narrators. That’s fair enough, but it’s also a copout. And surely it doesn’t mean that feminists shouldn’t be interrogating his work anyway.
Themes of redemption and salvation run thickly throughout Darnielle’s literally hundreds of songs. In many of these, the allegedly fictional narrator is desperate for salvation at the hands of a woman. Sometimes, the narrator finds it—or imagines finding it—with an idealized woman.
And sometimes, as in “Bad Priestess,” the narrator’s redemptive journey is threatened by a bad woman. The bad woman of the Darnielle catalogue takes on a number of personifications and roles. Sometimes she’s cast as a slut and a temptress. Elsewhere, she’s a cruel abuser. Her biggest sin usually involves stirring up dangerous, ribald feelings in the narrator himself, whether lust or hatred. Often these feelings give rise to a destructive impulse in the fragile narrator, who needed someone to save him but found a cruel stopgap measure instead.
My favorite Mountain Goats album is The Sunset Tree, released in 2005. It’s one of the few albums that Darnielle has ever said was autobiographical. It’s a powerful story, too, all about a youth spent fighting for survival at the mercy of an abusive stepfather. Check out the music video for one of its best tracks, “This Year” (lyrics):
In the video—even in Darnielle’s facial expressions—you may sense the frenetic desperation that I’ve felt in so much of his other music. I resonate with that frenetic sense because I often experienced it in my own childhood and even into young adulthood. I had a visceral response to that song when I first heard it. Something about it connected me to an emotion I hadn’t felt for a long time. That rebellious look in his eyes? The one you see coupled with a forced, manic grin? Oh, man, has that angry, adrenaline-fueled expression flashed across my eyes too. That’s why I recognize it so well.
So, I’ve never been able to write off Darnielle’s work completely, in part because, damnit, it makes me feel things. Music doesn’t always do that, and frankly, I don’t think it always should. I like The Decemberists, for an example, because their music can be so disconnected. The fanciful stories and historical allusions don’t often get too close. And in my everyday music-listening life, I like that.
So, for better or worse, The Mountain Goats give me an uncomfortable, hard to contain, and very addictive rush of adrenaline and blood. Have you ever felt an immediate, visceral connection to someone whose darkness looks like yours? That pulsing intensity that you know can only lead to disaster but it pulls you anyway? And you indulge it—it suddenly feels like need—and just wind up feeling hollowed out and hungry all the time? Darnielle’s music makes me feel that.
Religious imagery has always been prominent in Darnielle’s work, but it plays a more central role in his two most recent Mountain Goats releases, The Life of the World to Come and All Eternals Deck. Both of these seem to veer away from the adrenaline-pulsing love reflections that pervade much of his earlier work. To be honest, I’m not quite as sure what to make of these.
I mean, if we didn’t already know that Darnielle seems to have a conflicted relationship with the things that compel him, “Psalm 40:2” might almost sound like it belongs in the Contemporary Christian genre. Well, I suppose those familiar frenetic vocals help save it as well:
Like much of his music, All Eternals Deck features that familiar battle for survival. But unlike some of the earlier music, the songs here are more, for lack of a better word, positive. “Damn these Vampires,” for all of its darkness, evokes some kind of hope. “Goddamn these vampires/For what they’ve done to me,” but “When the sun comes/Try not to hate the light.” Listen for yourself:
I know I’m jumping into a veritable powder keg of very devoted fans when I go public with any Mountain Goats critique. I know that many will passionately disagree with my claim that at least some of his lyrics are anti-feminist. So, please feel free to opine here. Let me know what you think. I have a reasonably good grasp of the catalogue, but unlike everyone else who attended that same show that I attended, I don’t know all the lyrics or all the songs. What do you think?
Update: I wanted to note that I just had a brief Twitter exchange with Darnielle, who was exceedingly gracious about this - and actually quite favorable about it. He said he knows that it’s important for men who identify as feminists to listen to women who call them out. He did say that he doesn’t remember saying the narrator in “Bad Priestess” was fictional, though I’m not so sure. I vaguely remember him saying something that made it clear that he shouldn’t be identified with the narrator. In any case, it’s nice when men are gracious about this sort of thing and really seem to get it about feminism.