Whatever and Ever Amen
I finally got my copy of the re-issue of the incredible Ben Folds Five album Whatever and Ever Amen the other day, after watching it rot on my Amazon Wish List for years. It's so cheap now that it's insulting, for such a great album to be bargain-binned out like this.
This album exists on a tape that was so beloved that even my good buddy Nate talks about it. One side had this album, the other had the Promise Ring's Nothing Feels Good. I flipped that shit into the Ford Tempo so many times. I remember entire moves—from college to the “home” that was my mom's new apartment, back again—where all I did was throw this in my old stereo and flip it over and over. I still don't know the full lyrics to “Evaporated,” because the song always cut off during one of the “oh God, what have I doooone” lines. It always trips me up.
Whatever and Ever Amen also has “Brick,” the biggest Ben Folds song until “Landed” became an unlikely 2005 hit. I go back and forth about finding out the origins of lyrics to my favorite songs. One side of the coin is that knowing The Sunset Tree is heavily autobiographical makes it even more powerful of an album—the best of the Mountain Goats catalog, in my opinion. On the other hand, songs like “Brick” make me not want to compare the narrative to real life events; maybe I'm stupid and that's why I didn't know what he was getting at in the song, but really, I think it's more that the song can mean a lot of things and I hate singing it and thinking of what it's supposed to be about.
I remember that moment in 1997 when this album and this band was everywhere. It spread around campus so quickly, seemingly coming out of every dorm room that fall of my sophomore year of college. Musical theater majors would bring the house down by covering “Selfless, Cold, and Composed.” My closest friend would baffle me by being someone who listened to them when he was still in high school. I wonder if bands can do this anymore; are there albums that just blow up like that now, or is it all just singles and Gaga and BitTorrent on campuses now?
I'll always love this one. “Kate” will forever make me laugh about using the words “cake” or “Nate” instead; “Battle of Who Could Care Less” will always be catchy as hell; and this will always, always be one of the best albums ever to sing along to in the car. And that needs to be the barometer for more good albums: driving away, wind in your hair, friends singing along, who the hell cares where we are driving?
One album a day says it better in three words: "plonky piano pleasure"
Read part of a 1997 review of the album on my new "reviews from when they came out" tumblr
SEVEN DAYS OF THE NEW MOUNTAIN GOATS ALBUM: DAYS SIX AND SEVEN
"1 Samuel 15:23," the first track on the Life of the World to Come, exemplifies what we stand to lose in the age of digital music.
SEVEN DAYS OF THE NEW MOUNTAIN GOATS ALBUM: DAYS 4 AND 5
Avoiding listening to anything else but this album has been one of the more fun/kinda silly conventions I've set up for this week.
I mean, I probably would have done this anyway--to a certain extent--because the Mountain Goats mean that much to me. Even when they put out albums that I feel disappointed with (Get Lonely, honestly), I come back to them later and get obsessed with them, realizing that I simply missed the point the first time around (I'm looking at Get Lonely here, as you might guess) (incidentally, I love the insight-disgused-as-harsh-jerk comment that Darnielle gave Pitchfork's reviewer, over here. I'm thinking that JD wasn't so fun to be around when he was processing shit for that album).
But the thing is, for a while I had the Big Three of bands: Wilco, The Mountain Goats, and The Hold Steady. These were the bands that have held me most, through most of the aughts, in that I discovered them in a big way with one album, and began to see them every single time they played wherever I lived at the time.
Wilco's last few shows and especially their last album have been, in retrospect, a disappointment overall, and the Hold Steady's last album took a big step back. But the Mountain Goats keep moving along.
So I'm trying to just listen to this album and nothing else, and with the exception of some JJGO, it's worked. Of course, you can't live with a music lover or go to bars without hearing other things. Mostly, though, this has been an exercise in close and deep listening, and I feel like I've got a handle on this album in a way that used to be the norm, before any song was a keyboard and mouse away.
As a wrap up to this section, an actual conversation from yesterday:
My girlfriend: Can you put on "The Only Answer" (Mike Doughty) for me?
Me: I can listen if you put it on, but if I'm putting it on, it has to be the Mountain Goats.
Girlfriend exits the room, shaking her head with smirking disbelief
As I was listening to "Matthew 25:21" today, I began to realize the songs similarity to The Sunset Tree's "Pale Green Things," both in the subject matter (as it seems to deal with the same stepfather's death)(and lets be clear, Darnielle made no bones about how autobiographical The Sunset Tree was) and just the sound/structure of the song. "Matthew" seems to sit somewhere in the timeline between the second and third verses of "Pale Green Things," detailing (presumably) the narrator's last visit to the dying father figure. In "Matthew," Darnielle mentions "getting the call," and in the last verse of "PGT," we hear about a call he got at 3am, "you'd died at last, at last."
Timeline aside, what an amazing song. "Tried to brace myself/but you can't brace yourself, when the time comes/you just have to roll with the blast."
Failed brakes on eighteen wheelers, planes crashing, trying not to hurt others in the process, all of the metaphors Darnielle uses are tragic, and frightening, and about a loss of control. And it makes sense, really; fans of the Sunset Tree and the Mountain Goats know about the abuse Darnielle had suffered, and that kind of abuse feels out of control, so even in the grieving process, that must have come back.
By the way, Matthew 25:12?
"But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'" (NIV)
SEVEN DAYS OF THE NEW MOUNTAIN GOATS ALBUM: DAY 3
There's a lot about home on The Life of the World to Come.
I spent about a year in grad school working on a thesis show that became a look at place and location-based identity. This was a show that definitely owed something to being written primarily in January 2002, as pointed a time in history as any during my young life. I wrote songs about being oblivious to my surroundings and about white American privilege that had been recently shattered/redefined (though I didn't know that the latter was what I was doing until, perhaps, today). I got pretty obsessed with the idea that where you come from, geographically, can often be a defining characteristic. And also, that the disintegration of traditional neighborhoods means that so many of my peers pick new apartments about as often as purchasing a new winter coat, and using the same coach-shopping criteria (what's the cheapest thing I can get that also looks cool?). Home as identity seems to be, in my opinion, a disappearing notion. And it's also something that I long for.
So on this album, Darnielle writes songs about creating homes for those who need them. He instructs, "tell them no one's going to hurt them here." Here's a guy who has made no secret (at least since The Sunset Tree, if not before) of his abusive childhood brought on by his stepfather, and it would be easy to connect the dots from a broken sense of home and family to writing songs about, well, inventing a new family, if needed. "I used to live. Here."
I do think that this kind of reliance on biography, while useful, doesn't dig deeper. I think that there's more going on here, because no writer as talented as Darnielle takes the easy way out (or if they do, it's in small doses, not an entire album's worth). And I've spent only three days with this album, so I won't claim that I've got it all figured out.
But here's the thing: JD is tricksy. Pumping this album full of Christianity and daring a listener to deal with bible-verses-as-titles subverts the norm in today's indie rock culture in a similar way that "Like a Prayer" shook the mainstream twenty years ago. In the late 80's, Madonna caused quite the stir; but in the late aughts, the rock fan equivalent of being up in arms is simply crossed arms and a raised eyebrow, Stephen Colbert calling Darnielle out on his Comedy Central show.
We get the biblical stuff easily, because it's right there. But you've got this stuff about place and home as well, below the surface. And in "Genesis 3:23," when he tells the story of breaking in to a former home, moving room to room, and punctuating the song with "I used to live. Here," perhaps we've got the key to the whole thing. It's the first single, and the easiest to sing along to--and maybe it completes this circle. Maybe what he's telling us is, "look, I used to live here, in this religion, in these beliefs, in this line of thinking," a song that subverts the overall theme of the record and then simultaneously serves as a metaphor for the entire thing.