524. Hostages

The end is inevitable in “Hostages,” indeed, it’s baked into the concept of hostages itself.

Track: “Hostages”
Album: Bleed Out (2022)

My favorite line on Bleed Out is in “Hostages.” In the third verse, the narrator tells us “there’s a team up on the rooftop” and follows up with “good luck to the team.” Out of context it’s uninteresting, but from someone taking hostages it has multiple potential reads. Is this a sneering, sarcastic nod to your enemy or a boastful brag about your own plan? It’s neither, you see, because the verse follows with “when you know you’ll never make it out alive // you kinda get to live out your dream.”

The snipers are going to get you if they don’t rush the doors. You are going to surrender or kill the hostages, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. “Hostages” isn’t about any one movie, but it calls to mind a million of them. You may picture Dog Day Afternoon, but I think of Wanda, if only because I just saw it a few weeks ago. Taking hostages buys you time, but that’s generally all it does.

The narrator in “Hostages” is clearly in charge and clearly not going to make it, but they seem to have faith that some of their crew will. That works better as a larger metaphor, but I love it literally, as well. So many Mountain Goats narrators seem prepared to meet a grim end, but I can’t think of many that offer even this grim hope for their conspirators. Whether or not that faith is misplaced is another question, but they’re going down with the ship either way. Good luck to the team.

523. Guys on Every Corner

The saxophone is the star on “Guys on Every Corner,” which will have you looking over your shoulder.

Track: “Guys on Every Corner”
Album: Bleed Out (2022)

I grew up among folks who wanted to play music. Some of my best friends in middle and high school played upright bass, jazz piano, and various horns. I’ll never forget some of those shows after hours in karate dojos and nearly defunct clubs watching people who, largely, would not go on to make music professionally but were essentially superheroes to those of us with no talent for it. I wanted to write the words. I’ve always been more interested in lyrics than music. That said, the awe comes through just the same.

Matt Douglas has changed the Mountain Goats. The sound is “full” now, for lack of a better term, and you hear it on songs like “Guys on Every Corner,” which would not be the same without the horns. If this series has a goal, it’s to get you to go to a show. I saw Matt Douglas completely transform “Maize Stalk Drinking Blood” many years ago and it converted me from one of those guys who loves the Goats best when it’s just John Darnielle stomping and yelling. The joy now is in the spectrum: sometimes the solo stuff, sometimes the full orchestra.

“Guys on Every Corner” is most surprising in that it is so tight. It’s a song with a saxophone solo that’s three minutes long. In such limited space, Douglas still blows the doors off and takes over what is essentially an extended threat. “They look like nothing // they look like your neighbors” becomes ominous given the circumstances, but the horns really make you want to punch your fists into your pockets and try to get the hell out of there.

522. Bleed Out

Our doomed narrator in “Bleed Out” doesn’t have to imagine the end and goes out on their own terms.

Track: “Bleed Out”
Album: Bleed Out (2022)

Bleed Out, the album, is fairly high-octane as Mountain Goats albums go. The whole thing is “about” action movies, but I probably don’t need to tell you how heavy the quotes around “about” are in that statement. The theme albums about goth music, wrestling, and Christianity also are very broadly “about” those things, though the theme really does supply a lot of imagery on all of them. “There won’t be any wisdom from me // just a lake of blood for all the world to see” is the sort of thing you don’t hear elsewhere.

“Bleed Out,” the song, certainly has a lot of blood in it. Our hero (maybe we need some more heavy quotes, but let’s go with hero) describes their inevitable end over and over, including an absolution of the listener. It’s too late. You don’t even have to assume it’s too late, because “the smallest hole was several inches wide.” You just have to accept your fate. It’s time to bleed out.

There have been ten studio albums from the Mountain Goats since I started listening to them and I think Bleed Out is the best of them. The title track shows Darnielle (and Hughes, who is co-credited with lyrics for this one) and company haven’t lost a step: “And I will never lose hope // and I haven’t lost hope // I’m just realistic.” This wouldn’t be out of place on anything the Goats have ever released, but it’s especially powerful here as these characters start to look backwards and contemplate more than they look forwards and sweat. We won’t all die in a hail of gunfire, but we all imagine our version of this moment, right?

521. Alpha Chum Gatherer

“Alpha Chum Gatherer” didn’t need to make the album, but it’s still such a wonderfully gross set of images to behold.

Track: “Alpha Chum Gatherer”
Album: Unreleased (recorded for Tallahassee, but not included on the album)

Just about exactly ten years ago as I write this, I heard “Alpha Chum Gatherer” in a sweaty room in Chicago. It’s the same performance you see in the video up top. I’ll never forget that show because it was the best version of “Wild Sage” I’d ever seen, but it’s also notable as one of a very few times you could see the outtake “Alpha Chum Gatherer” from the Tallahassee sessions. The song ultimately didn’t make the album because the band didn’t feel like it fit anywhere along the narrative.

Tallahassee is the story of the Alpha Couple, a story you can hear elsewhere in this collection. John Darnielle introduced this song with a joke asking where these two would come across a boat. That’s certainly a good question, but we can’t let that get in the way of the image of one of the Alphas waking up hungover and going fishing just to borderline (or not-borderline) punish their partner with their day’s catch.

I have said this a dozen times in this series, but Darnielle is heavily on the record that the ones that aren’t on the albums aren’t on there for a reason. “Alpha Chum Gatherer” fits the theme of Tallahassee, obviously, but maybe the best reason it’s an outtake is that it isn’t necessary. You know this already about these two. When one of them asks the other “what are we going to do,” it’s both a big question about everything and a simple one about fish guts. This has to come after the two have confronted the problem but before they’ve resolved not to solve it. In that space, a literal bloody mess may be gilding the lily.

520. Beat the Devil

Someone gets arrested in “Beat the Devil,” but their mind is back in Memphis with someone we’ll never see.

Track: “Beat the Devil”
Album: Hope Isn’t a Word, a compilation from Comes With A Smile released in 2004

John Darnielle played “Beat the Devil” as part of the solo set in a show in Chicago in 2022. I went to one of the other nights, so I didn’t see it. That’s a shame, but the studio performance of this one really is good enough that I don’t feel too bad about it. Darnielle has said several times that one of his pet peeves is people insisting the outtakes are better than the songs that make the album, so I won’t say I think “Beat the Devil” is better than anything on We Shall All Be Healed, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking it.

Picture yourself as this narrator. You engage, to some small degree, with the results of running meth in your lumber truck in Arizona when you make a joke about keeping “glowstick babies fat and happy.” You’re tired, as we see from the effort you expend as you try to keep the truck straight so as to not attract attention. You’re doing the menial work of something most people never even think about. What do the logistics of peanut-butter flavored meth look like?

But that’s the surface. What makes this one so great is the person back in Memphis. What happened here, we wonder? So often in stories like this the focus is on the events that led someone to deal drugs, especially now in our post-Breaking Bad world. But it’s just as fascinating to wonder what happened between these two people. Maybe it was the drugs, but just as likely it was the standard-fare personal challenges of knowing someone and being known. The surface is a felony, but the sub-surface is the stuff that really, truly keeps you up at night.

519. Cutter

“Cutter” hearkens back to youth, but it’s really a story about where you end up when you can’t help yourself.

Track: “Cutter”
Album: Unreleased

If you go to a Mountain Goats show in Bloomington, Indiana, smart money says you are likely to hear “Cutter.” John Darnielle was born in Bloomington, though he hails from California, and when he goes back he very often plays the only song that I know of that references his birth state. It’s a direct reference, too, and “I was born in Indiana thirty years ago” is about as direct as it comes. That line gets a “woo” invariably from the hometown crowd, but it’s an interesting song beyond that oddity.

It is easy, with a band like this, to speak in hyperbole. The band’s early official merch leaned into obsession with a slogan that became the name of a podcast with “I only listen to the Mountain Goats.” That said, even in that space, “I’m gonna wrap up my troubles in you” is extreme. So many Goats narrators are in dark situations, but this one defines themselves by it. You don’t say something like that unless you’ve, to some degree, come to terms with how things are going and you are dedicated to digging down, not out, of your hole.

The title references self-harm, so we’re obviously in a dark place, but this deserves to be grouped with songs like “Poltergeist” rather than songs from The Sunset Tree. There are brief moments that tell us this was once some other way, but this is beyond saving. There are a lot of Mountain Goats songs like this one, but I don’t know that the band has ever expressed that kind of frustrating inability to help yourself as succinctly as they do here. You cannot help but see this story for what it is.

518. You’re in Maya

“You’re in Maya” was the first ever song John Darnielle wrote about himself, but it’s about you, too.

Track: “You’re in Maya”
Album: Unreleased

“You’re in Maya” is, if you’re of a certain mind, “the” Mountain Goats song. It’s unreleased and extremely rare, even among rare songs. It’s autobiographical, from an era where John Darnielle wasn’t writing about himself often. You may still hear someone yell for this at a live show, which I’ll admit I assuredly must have done at some point without knowing any better. But that’s the thing, you can’t yell for “You’re in Maya.” At one live show decades ago, Darnielle’s act of playing it was tied to an ask of if someone would “warm him up” a shot of Old Grand-Dad. It’s a specific thing, not to be taken lightly.

The song speaks for itself, in a way. The chorus is Gaelic, so maybe that sounds crazy, but you will immediately either remember this time in your life or you will recognize it as the right now of your life when you hear it. Every performance is a little bit different, to the point where the last four lines of the second verse get transposed in order half the time, but it always feels the same. This is an era where you play pinball until you don’t want to kill people. This is an era where you wear a coat that was important to your father even if you have complicated feelings about your father. This is where you drink and you hide out in Portland.

At some performances he says the address of the house he was in for the second verse. I went to see it in Portland, many years ago. Being in that physical location could be transformative, but it’s more about the time in your life. You’ll be this person, hopefully briefly, and you don’t need Portland to commune with them again.

517. My Favorite Things

The Mountain Goats owe as much to what’s in “My Favorite Things” as they do to a tossed off response to it.

Track: “My Favorite Things”
Album: Unreleased

If you want to hear something unexpected at a Mountain Goats show, your best chance seems to be in California or North Carolina, the two primary “homes” of the band over the years. Sure, John Darnielle lived in Portland and Chicago, and sure, he and his wife lived in Colo, Iowa during some of the most critical years for the band, but it’s undeniable they have their roots in California and they live these days on the other coast. San Francisco shows especially have a tendency to bring out the early, early stuff and the stories on stage that make up the mythology we all love to turn over.

“My Favorite Things” is one of the “early, funny” ones and often if Darnielle chooses to play it, it’s because he suspects someone in the crowd might have heard it when it was a staple of his performance back at Pitzer. At a show in San Francisco in 2002 he told a story I think of every time I hear something like “Beach House” where he says it took people identifying him as a person who writes funny songs to force him into the grim, divorce territory that, honestly, made him famous.

“My Favorite Things” is a silly little song about passion and, tangentially, listening to My Favorite Things by John Coltrane. It’s a fun one, but it’s extra fun when contrasting it with the trajectory of the eventual Mountain Goats catalog. You can hear “No Children” in here, sure, but there’s so much more that came out of a rebellion against it.

516. Carmen Cicero

“Carmen Cicero” asks you in the lyrics to sing along, but I doubt that’s going to be a problem by the time you get to the end.

Track: “Carmen Cicero”
Album: Unreleased

There are some more “modern” ones that usurp this throne, but other than “You’re in Maya,” I think “Carmen Cicero” was the unreleased song I wanted to hear the most at shows when I started going to Mountain Goats concerts. At some point that feeling gave way to my favorite thing to hear a crowd yell: “just play what you wanna play!” I certainly, in my time, have yelled for some songs, but generally you get what you get, and that’s great, and it especially is true of the live-only stuff that only comes out when the band feels they can do it justice and the mood is right.

There are many versions of “Carmen Cicero” online, but the definitive one for me is this one, from October of 2000. The YouTube video cuts off the opening where John Darnielle demands the crowd sing when the time comes. The lyrics further demand your participation, directly, over and over. “And this is a song for your young men to sing when they run out of options” is the kind of thing that you hear in a certain mood, at a certain age, and you feel like you’ve never heard anything else.

Darnielle introduces the song sometimes with jokes about how much people want to hear this on a real release, but that you’d lose something. The final verse comments directly again that the song doesn’t have a chorus, but then ends in a devolution of “yeah” from the crowd. As he says at that performance, “every last one of you right now.” You need that room and those people who will do it with you. It’s something, still, without it, but it’s everything, there, with it.

515. Any Available Surface

You can find the sweet longing of “Any Available Surface” everywhere now, but it really only happened that one time, in that one place.

Track: “Any Available Surface”
Album: Unreleased

I’ve said this before here and I think I may be putting too much faith in this comment, but John Darnielle has said that he likes to open a show with a song that no one in the crowd will know. On February 25, 2009, he opened a show you can watch entirely on YouTube with “Any Available Surface,” which surely fits the bill. A few weeks later he played it again and also opened with it. That’s the whole history of “Any Available Surface,” at least as far as the usual sources are concerned. I’m a historian, by education, and that part of me wants to couch every comment like that in open-ended language. 2009 is a long time ago, now, but it’s also an era where I trust, to some degree, that answer has a chance to be complete. Those might be the only two times anyone heard this one.

I’m sure the other version is recorded and there’s this nagging part of me that feels like I’ve seen it live, too, at some show in Chicago. I think it’s more likely that I just came back to this one over and over again, released at the end of the era where I had hundreds of live MP3 files in a folder and just before YouTube and streaming made everything more immediate and open. I think it’s just this quiet, surprising moment where a crowd of devotees heard something they’d never heard and, it turns out, might never hear again.

The song itself is sweet and good, but it’s brief and it speaks for itself. People love the intense ones and the grim narrators, but those are extra powerful in contrast to someone watching someone sail away and then finding them again in the scent they left.