Songwriter’s Portrait: John Darnielle
February 6, 2013
With today’s ever improving technology, it has become increasingly easy to make music with the click of a button. However, one thing that can’t yet be replaced by technology is the art of lyricism. Great lyricists are few and far between these days, so it’s important to recognize them before record companies start building love song writing robots (see: Bieber, Justin). WSN’s first installment of this column focuses on John Darnielle, the frontman of the Mountain Goats, and his five best lines.
5.) “I wandered through the house like a little boy lost at the mall / and an astronaut could’ve seen the hunger in my eyes from space”
— “Woke Up New”
When the narrator in “Woke Up New” breaks up with his girlfriend, his empty stomach can be seen from the heavenly bodies. Not even the Great Wall of China can achieve that feat. By cleverly replacing heartbreak with hunger, Darnielle avoids cliché and instead illustrates a man utterly lost in his newfound state of life. The fact that the narrator is wandering aimlessly around the suburban monstrosity that is the mall is the icing on the world’s saddest cake.
4.) “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream / Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you / The best ever death metal band out of Denton / Will in time both outpace and outlive you / Hail Satan!”
— “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”
Telling someone to “follow your dream” isn’t exactly the most original thought, but Darnielle’s eloquent and exact wording make the idea seem revelatory. The foreboding threats are perfectly punctuated by a positively playful “Hail Satan!” that is so gleeful, it has to be meant solely as a means to panic the backward-thinking masses.
3.) “I hope you die / I hope we both die”
— “No Children”
Note to the editors of Webster’s Dictionary: you can replace whate-ver definition you have for the word “bitterness” with this acidic gem.
2.) “Held under these smothering waves / By your strong and thick-veined hand / But one of these days / I’m gonna wriggle up on dry land”
— “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod”
This line refers to Darnielle’s plan for escaping his abusive stepfather, and it represents the songwriter at his most devastating. What makes it so affecting is that it’s just so yearningly hopeful. The line’s buoyant attitude is absolutely heartbreaking, and never before has a drowning metaphor been used so impeccably. The fact that it’s the last line of the song makes it even more of a gut-punch. Plus, it makes titling a song “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” justifiable, which is a miracle in and of itself.
1.) “The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it’s you / And that you’re standing in the doorway”
— “Going to Georgia”
Not only is this line from “Going to Georgia” the best line Darnielle has written, it’s one of the best lines ever written by anyone. The beauty of this line lies in its simplicity – Darnielle flawlessly encapsulates the ever elusive feeling of “love” without using a word more complicated than “doorway.” He simply has a way with words that few people on this planet can match.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 6 print edition. Josh Johnson is arts editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.