Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Song Highlight: The Mountain Goats - Lovecraft in Brooklyn

When considering prolific songwriters, John Darnielle of the folk rock band the Mountain Goats quickly comes to mind. Since the Mountain Goats’ inception in the early 90s they have 21 studio albums and countless other releases, ranging from their early recordings that were largely just Darnielle, an acoustic guitar, and a Panasonic RX-FT500 cassette deck Boombox, to more refined recordings with a full band. Darnielle has a talent for painting flawed and realistic characters in his songs, whether that is him putting his own demons on display or crafting a character to fit the story he wants to tell.

There are so many great Mountain Goats’ songs that deserve discussion, though the one I ultimately decided upon was “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” off of 2008’s Heretic’s Pride. The song is propelled by prominent baseline, clattering percussion, and strident guitarwork, all helping to display a sense of paranoia and anxiety. 

Lyrically, the song is about someone feeling alienated from society and others, feeling like an outsider and struggling to find companionship. To help sell this notion, Darnielle compares it to H.P. Lovecraft and his time living in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City. Lovecraft was an American author of supernatural horror fiction, now world-renowned for his bleak outlook on life and humanity’s insignificance in the universe. While the impact of Lovecraft’s work on the horror genre is undeniable, a discussion of his work is not complete without acknowledging his virulent racism. Lovecraft’s racism was born of his fear of immigrants, which came to a head when he left his childhood home of Providence, Rhode Island to live with his wife in New York City. He had hoped the move would inspire him, but instead he found a crippling sense of oppression and horror. When Darnielle says the character in the song feels like Lovecraft in Brooklyn, that simple description goes a long way towards describing their mental state: ostracized, alone, and terrified. As the song progresses, Darinelle’s vocal delivery becomes more anxious and unhinged. When he sings “Woke up afraid of my own shadow. Like, genuinely afraid,” you can feel an almost palpable level of distress.

Darinelle also provides some obvious nods to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, alluding to the enigmatic Mi-Go, a group of fungoid extraterrestrials who famously put human brains in jars in the story The Whispers in Darkness

“Someday something's coming
From way out beyond the stars
To kill us while we stand here
It'll store our brains in Mason jars.”

If you haven’t yet, you really owe it to yourself to give John Darnielle a listen. He has an amazing way of crafting touching, and often humorous, lyrics without resorting to trite phrases, and is not stuck continuously writing about his teenage years, but continues to grow, as we all do, this year and the next.

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