The Mountain Goats are coming out with a new album tomorrow called Beat The Champ. And sure, I could’ve attempted to do a Retrospecticus chronicling all their albums, but they have a lot of albums and I haven’t listened to any of their early lo-fi ones besides 2002’s All Hail West Texas. So instead I will reduce their entire discography down to one song, and see how much I can squeeze out of it.
Song: “This Year” by The Mountain Goats
Album: The Sunset Tree
Written By: John Darnielle
My Relationship With This Song
The Mountain Goats were always one of those bands that I always meant to get around to listening to, but for whatever reason, it took a long time for it happen. Hell, I’d known about them since high school, since I have this distant memory of a friend who was an acoustic singer/songwriter-type, and he name-dropped them at one of his gigs, which was probably around the time this song came out in the mid-00’s. But then through college and even the few years after, I never quite made an honest attempt to listen to John Darnielle’s poetic songs of youthful abandon. And they were always one of those artists I figured I would like. I mean, I usually have a propensity for hyper-literate indie rock fronted by guys who look like dads, even if I only occasionally listen to anything that’s in the same realm of folkiness as The Mountain Goats.
Granted, there are a few hurdles that one has to get over to get into The Mountain Goats. The first would probably be Darnielle’s chest-beatingly nasally nerd voice, which I could see how it could be grating to some people, but to me just sounds like a voice I could trust, since every word he sings sounds %1000 sincere. No, I think the hardest hurdle I had to jump over was where exactly to start with this band, since Darnielle has been one of the more prolific singer-songwriters of the past couple decades, and a pretty good chunk of The Mountain Goats’ output is well worth listening to. Strangely enough, this makes The Mountain Goats’ discography seem a lot less inviting than some band that released one really good album that’s worth listening to, while everything else they’ve done can be swiftly thrown in the garbage.
But this resistance was finally demolished in the opening hours of 2015, as I remember on New Year’s Day I was listening to Seattle’s beloved independent radio station KEXP, which decided to fittingly play “This Year”. It’s one of those songs that has such an infectious forward propulsion to it, that every time I hear it, I think “Yeah! I’m gonna do something!” And in this case, it motivated me to finally get into The Mountain Goats. Also, this probably coincided with the fact that it was early January, which is usually a time when I’m getting done chronicling my top ten music of the past year, and am looking for a band with a deep back catalogue I can dig into, and who hopefully have a bit of a nice wintery vibe to them. Now it’s debatable how much of a wintery vibe The Mountain Goats have, due to their Southern California origins, but whatever, music based around acoustic instruments always seems appropriate for winter to me. So for that, their music and specifically “This Year” will probably always remind me of driving around the wet and wintery streets of Seattle in the early months of (sorry, here it comes…) this year.
Reasons Why I Love This Song
The Triumph Of That Intro: I know, I know. Every time I ever get around to writing one of these Obsessong things, I always point out that whatever song I’m talking about has a great intro. But I think this is just evidence that for a song to be truly obsession-worthy, it has to have a great intro. Those first few seconds have to have some sort of magic contained within them that pulls you in each time, making you want to listen to the song in question over and over again. The intro to “This Year”, as I stated earlier, is pure unimpeachable hope and triumph, instantly invoking the idea that the world is your oyster, and you should demolish anyone who would dare get in the way of you slurping that shit up. Then Darnielle comes bursting in with the line “I broke free on a Saturday morning. / I put the pedal to the floor”, and you can’t help but feel like something momentous is going down, and whatever it is, you must be a part of it.
Those Wiggling Basslines: Even if you don’t know much about The Mountain Goats, you can probably just tell from the way that I’ve been writing about them that John Darnielle gets all the ink when it comes to their music. And by all means, he should. He started The Mountain Goats as a project that was just him alone in his bedroom recording his voice and an acoustic guitar into a boombox, and the band is essentially his baby. Still, I’d say bassist Peter Hughes (who’s been with the band since 2002) is a key component, even despite the fact that I just had to wiki his name because I couldn’t remember what it was. But because Darnielle’s guitar playing is all chords and strumming, I find myself humming Hughes’ bass lines a lot, and “This Year” is pretty typical, as you can hear Hughes’ fingers running up and down the neck, while adding some flair to the song’s simplicity, but without ever overdoing it.
“In A Cavalcade Of Anger And Fear!”: I’ve already hinted at John Darnielle’s lyrical prowess being one of the hallmarks of The Mountain Goats’ sound, and “This Year” has a few of Darnielle’s finest lyrical nuggets. The line that probably sticks out the most caps off a string of lines revolving around the narrator speaking about how he’s anticipating his stepfather’s displeased reaction when he gets home, which as you might imagine, results “in a cavalcade of anger and fear”. There are a few other gems in here, such as him describing his relationship with a girl named Kathy as if the two of them are “twin high maintenance machines”. From what I can glean, the entire song is basically autobiographical, as Darnielle seems to be depicting a very specific day in the life of his troubled childhood. And because the song is written with the power of pretty substantial hindsight, it has all the excitement and exuberance of being a dumb teenager, but with all the poetry and wisdom that teenagers are too dumb to express.
You Can’t With Mess That Chorus: In most art, we usually want there to be some sense of subtlety or mystery to what the artist is trying to say. I assume John Darnielle realizes this, since most of his songs are about painting a picture or tying together some overarching themes that slowly connect over the course his songs (The Mountain Goats are no stranger to concept albums, much like their forthcoming one about professional wrestling). But sometimes it can be really cathartic to just say what we’re all thinking. “This Year”, with it’s instantly memorable chorus of “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me” is one of those great choruses, like “Surrender” or “Ooh La La” that expresses a thought we’ve all had at some point, and doesn’t shy away from the obviousness of it. No, instead it embraces the fact that sometimes life can be quite strange and overbearing, but maybe an anthemic chorus will make it just a little bit easier to get through.
Why I Will Continue To Love This Song
Because we all have years that we think might kill us, and it’s always helpful to have a song that makes you feel just a little less alone in this yearlong struggle. I know, it’s a little obvious, but I think this song’s appeal is really that simple.