You either die a hero or you live long enough to become a Mountain Goats guy. I was personally a hero for almost 39 years before the right playlist delivered me to John Darnielle's door, bruised and annoyed. That was true, but this is also true: I first heard Tallahassee in 2005, in the back room of the Portland thrift shop where I worked – almost certainly, in retrospect, a front for something – and I loved about half of it enough to see the band in what I suppose was their pomp, though Darnielle doesn't care that he's in his fifties and supposed to stop writing magna opera. 2021's Dark In Here is a snaky, cagey, menacing album which touches on mad science, mad engineering, mad literature, and mad religion. It is magnificent, and tonally it's the least likely marriage of Aimee Mann and Jonathan Coulton since Coulton cowrote Mann's late masterpiece "Patient Zero."
So the Mountain Goats and I go back, and yet I'm also, as of a few months ago, a new fan – new to Dark In Here, new to We Shall All Be Healed, new even to most of The Sunset Tree. I don't claim cred from being familiar with them sooner, as it would be hard for a person of my generation not to be. I did, however, feel fragile and old when I read that Vox explainer about the new TikTok thing of melodramatically reenacting the lyrics to the band's second most iconic track, "No Children," which appears to have begun when someone took "No Children" literally and said it sounded "way too depressing," like "a middle aged man crying over a girl he met in high school. Like get over it dude."
I say appears because irony is a weird fucking thing, and in my experience, especially impossible to decipher from a person of another generation. This is true for the usual reason – most people harbor a touch of bigotry towards the young, the middle-aged, or the old – but also because the ways people express irony tend to shift rapidly, to mutate and elide, even before you consider the delicate layers of which irony is made. I've met younger people who sound like that TikTok guy when they're being obtuse for comedic effect, the same specifically Gen-Z deadpan that gives the "if I were X [i.e. the Trojans], I would simply Y [i.e. leave the horse where it was]" meme its grating pleasure. I could also understand why the guy could have genuinely missed Darnielle's vocal irony on a line like "I hope you die/I hope we both die," which is an older kind of deadpan, a snarly Gen-X werewolf deadpan, founded not in deliberate obtuseness but in deliberate cringe. It is always ridiculous to make observations on how "generations" do things, so in the spirit of absurdity, let me suggest that Gen X has a more complicated relationship with the idea of sincerity, while Gen Z has a more complicated relationship with the idea of innocence and ignorance.
Anyway, the song does sound like a middle-aged man crying over someone he met in high school, because that's more or less what it's about. The hideous triumph of middle age is the recognition that time does not dignify us. When Hamlet tells his mother that she can't be in love, "for at your age/the hey-day in the blood is tame," he's saying that she shouldn't act like a young person, but Gertrude knows we never stop ugly-crying. We never stop sobbing I hope you die/I hope we both die when we're trapped by a love that can neither end nor go on– if the Queen had cried out that sentiment to her murderous son in this moment, the only reason it would stand out would be the modern language.
This doesn't mean "No Children" isn't laden with irony, as Darnielle's narrator cheerfully describes all the ways he'd like to fuck his life (he hopes he cuts himself shaving tomorrow and it bleeds all day; he hopes he never gets sober; iconically, he hopes he and his partner both die). An end to self-destruction and bad luck would mean an end to his ruined marriage, and he'll resort to anything to stay in denial about that, and he knows it, which is why the song is so fucking danceable.
Darnielle may write about self-destruction, but he does so in a mode of self-deconstruction. His songs tend to pull themselves apart, through paradoxical juxtaposition ("Love Love Love," which lists stories of violence and suicide alongside thoughts on the meaning of human connection) or through a refusal to state the central point ("Cotton," which consists of a series of dedications – to rats, soil, and old furniture – and cumulates an otherwise very literal album about Darnielle's period of meth addiction and the friends he lost to it). "Dark in Here" spends three minutes setting up dominoes – telling the story of a violent person's self-mythologizing in a series of verses which all end with "it's dark in here" – before snapping them down with the punchline "I live in the darkness/it's dark in here," which is delivered with the vaguest of laughs: the song's conceit consumes itself. That laugh sounds like a person recognizing that they've taken up all the air in the conversation for so long, they're about to asphyxiate.
Like I said, self-deconstruction isn't the same thing as destroying yourself. These songs put themselves together and then take themselves apart, so that the listener can hold the pieces in their hands, see how they're made. If Darnielle's persona were less humble, it would feel like a flex: see what I can do, and how simple I make it look, and yet how you can't do it? But it doesn't feel like that. It feels like an offer of an instrument that you might want to play – as if each song is an instrument that Darnielle has built. He always seems confident enough to hand it over without worrying that anyone will play it better than him. Flexing and humility are both just attitudes, and neither is better than the other, but humility is always rarer, and that's part of the reason his work ages so well. An artist with humility is less of a type of guy, and therefore more resistant to cliché.
This is also part of the reason the TikTok meme annoys me so much. There is just not that much about the Mountain Goats to puncture. Their fans are another thing – I have spent enough time looking up their lyrics on Genius, hoping for light biblical exegesis and some different ways to get high, to develop a healthy dislike of their fandom's pompous edge. But in themselves, they're a band that I find devastatingly mature, which sometimes means glorying in childish feelings, and sometimes means acknowledging the reasons some people are worth the hideousness of those feelings. If someone hands you a bass guitar, you can smash it if you like – it's freely given – and sometimes the results are pretty interesting, but often not.