Hand in Unlovable Hand: The literature of The Mountain Goats

The Mountain Goats, or John Darnielle and revolving company, make an art of doing whatever they want. Their music is incongruous, defying categorization. It’s urgent and driven and unceasing. Almost exhausting. Darnielle’s high, reedy voice sits atop strummed guitar with all the comfort of a bareback donkey ride. In early albums, the songs spit with static, a hallmark of being recorded on a cassette deck boombox, and make mincemeat out of Darnielle’s already irreverent singing style. The result should be horrendous, utterly unlistenable.

And yet.

The thing to understand is that John Darnielle, at his core, is a canny artist. His voice is grating enough to be instantly distinguishable, but never so much as to destroy the music. The sharp, sarcastic intensity of his voice somehow never sacrifices sincerity. When he’s emotional, it’s poignant without being either heavy-handed or callous. His lyrics are idiosyncratic and raw, yet somehow meticulously paced. How many musicians could lament that “no one broke D.B. Cooper’s fall” without sounding like an idiot?

Few people commit themselves so entirely to the literature of lyricism as John Darnielle. He does it frequently, almost flippantly. In “Family Happiness,” he mentions Tolstoy, a nod to the Russian writer’s short story by the same name. In “Spent Gladiator 2,” he references Stalin’s practice of collectivization in service of a simile and alludes to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five in the same thirty seconds.

This isn’t pretense. This is Darnielle truly and genuinely in love with writing. He is currently on a book tour promoting his third novel, Devil House; his first, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for the National Book Award in Fiction. But distinctions such as “author” and “musician” seem too limiting when applied to Darnielle. They aren’t separate spheres; in fact, they intersect, almost overlap, with aspects of one constantly informing the other. Darnielle’s writing comes out in aching, purposeful lyricism, and his musicality reflects itself in the rhythm and pace of his fiction.

In arguably his most famous song, “No Children,” Darnielle combines witty apathy and innate poeticism to explore a failing marriage. In keeping with the urgent, almost careless strumming and singing, the lyrics are selfish, dismissive. There is no such thing as “being the bigger man” here; Darnielle wishes misery upon himself, his wife, and everything that has witnessed their descent. He scorns cliches: “Our friends say it's darkest before the sun rises/ We're pretty sure they're all wrong.” And yet there is a sense of camaraderie between Darnielle and his wife even as they orchestrate this destruction, a “we” that crops up throughout the song. The husband will not go through this misery alone; there is a sort of sick enjoyment between himself and his wife as they engage in it. This is, in a way, a similar covenant to marriage. Then Darnielle utters his most famous lines: “You are coming down with me/ Hand in unlovable hand.” It is simultaneously a perversion of wedding vows as well as its most pure representation. He wishes fervently that the two of them will die, and his voice ends high, almost a question, the note never resolving even as the guitar persists. Till Death do us part.