« A Few No-Fee Manhattan Landlords Online | Main | Mango Curry »

We Shall All Be Healed

"The kind of shrinking we practice turns us into invisible towers of strength." - WSABH liner notes

I'm relatively new to the Mountain Goats, having heard only their three most recent albums in their entirety. I bought Tallahassee because I love the 4AD record label and when I heard they'd signed the MGs I figured they couldn't be all that bad. Next, I got into All Hail West Texas, with the help of The Beginner's Guide to All Hail West Texas by my friend Michael Davidson. When We Shall All Be Healed came out, I finally started to understand why MG fans make such sweeping statements as "Best band on the planet."

Lyrics to We Shall All Be Healed are available online, so I haven't bothered to copy them here.

In this essay I'll use a standard abbreviation which refers to the name of the guy behind the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle, as "JD." I know that's only one letter off from Christ. I tell you, these fans of his are zealots.

The Album as a Whole

From a 4AD press release: Whereas most Mountain Goats records - like last year's "Tallahassee" - are entirely fictional, all of the songs on "We Shall All Be Healed" are based on people that songwriter John Darnielle used to know. This, perhaps, accounts for the nervous tension that crackles through the album, as well as the curious tenderness that surfaces from time to time.

Well, I find this a very sentimental album. The title, as far as I can tell, is not more than 10% ironic. There's a lot of drama in it. It seems to be set in the 80s when JD was living in Portland, when he was just 18, and ended up hanging out with a bunch of tweakers. If you're a square like me, you probably need to know that "tweakers" are people who take crystal meth and stay on it for a long time, caught up in manic activity, not sleeping nor eating. It is a very bad scene. I think that back then, Oregon was the epicenter of the whole meth thing -- it was really new then, still localized, not nationwide and global like it is now, and there probably wasn't as much known about its effects and its incredible addictiveness back then. JD almost certainly had no idea what he was getting into when he first tried it.

While it seems like most of the album's content eulogizes the bravery and fellow-feeling of the tweakers, tinged with love and regret, the album's metaphors are structured around the dual high/low of drug usage: of feeling like the kings of the world, while scrabbling to cover up the reality of being desperately sick and out of control. The official We Shall All Be Healed site has lampreys as a recurrent visual motif - lampreys being a parasitic, bloodsucking fish used for medicinal purposes - and I think this symbolizes that Greek idea that equates a poison and its cure - I can't remember the name for it, since my books are all packed away, but it's referenced in the Lotus-Eaters chapter of Ulysses, "Poisons the only cures." Inverted now, so the only thing that can make your sickness go into temporary remission is the thing that causes it in the first place.

Slow West Vultures

This song sets the stage for the rest of the album, invoking contrasts of glamor and horror. I think it's supposed to be a brief anthem for the tweaker gang. I love the strings on this, and the screech that sounds like a circling predator.

Palmcorder Yajna

This was the first single off the album, and is available as a free download from 4AD. I think the optimistic, chugging tune of the song is supposed to convey the feeling of creativity and productivity that people feel when they're on speed.

They're holed up in a cheap motel, tripping, and I feel fairly lacerated whenever I hear that line of self-loathing, "I hope they incinerate everybody in it." I guess when tweakers do sleep, their dreams are all nightmares.

As far as I can tell, yajna is a Vedic (early Hindu) act of sacrifice involving the body.

Linda Blair Was Born Innocent

The year after child actress Linda Blair filmed "The Exorcist," she starred in a brutal, depressing TV movie about a teenage runaway called "Born Innocent."

This title seems to belie the otherwise gentle, sentimental tone of the song, where the first person plural lyrics make me think of camaraderie and a shared quest for happiness. There are just a few lines in it that hint at a darker edge. "You may not like Tate's methods" refers to what? Theft? Violence? The phrase "Ready to drown" makes me think of the adolescent's eagerness to lose himself in something larger, something I think we're born with and develop a healthy resistance to as we get older.

Letter from Belgium

There are several references to the small European country of Belgium in WSABH and its supplementary docs. I can't imagine why. I associate Belgium with chocolates, ecstasy manufacturers, and Tintin. Maybe to JD "Belgians" are lotus-eaters.

This is the first explicitly horrible song on the album, and the music has a similar go-getter feel to Palmcorder Yajna. Meth users often engage in compulsive, useless behavior like repetitively assemble and disassembling electrical devices, and picking at their own flesh till it creates deep bleeding wounds -- and I assume the stage makeup covers up their gauntness and the scars. The chorus has a teen anthem feel to it. Even more so than in Yajna, I find myself tempted to turn this song into a cautionary tale when it really isn't. The 4AD bio for this album describes the album as "celebrating such small victories as real squalor has to afford, and championing either the merits of true friendship or of parasitism." Yes, the song is celebratory and brave and dripping with irony. It's this complexity that's still working its way through my emotional digestive system.

The Young Thousands

Another of the waking-nightmare songs. In addition to the ghost references here, there are a lot in JD's web strip Book: Eva. I really like this couplet that explains how desperation and sobriety gets erased by the groundless optimism of a drug high.
There must be diamonds somewhere in a place that stinks this bad
There are brighter things than diamonds coming down the line

So many references to camcorders, videotape, cameras, film. I guess JD was a compulsive documentarian.

The galloping rhythm of the chorus makes me think of thousands of young people rushing off to battle. Or maybe they're just flocks of ghosts.

Your Belgian Things

Once again, her "Belgian things" seem to be drug paraphernalia. It's such a tender-sounding song that I wonder if JD had a romantic relationship with the girl who overdosed.

Mole

This is the first song on the album that really grabbed me and wouldn't let go (eventually, they all would, each in turn). Is it a sequel to "Your Belgian Things," or is it about a different friend who overdosed? I assume that when JD visited the hospital, the bright, sterile lighting would blind him after days spent indoors avoiding the light because it makes them wonder if they're dying, hence the title of the song -- but what it makes me think of is having a near-death experience, or maybe that many of us are moles caught in the compulsive routine of everyday life, then blinded in hospitals when we are forced to confront sickness and death. When he says "I want information" I wonder if he's interrogating the hospitalized person about drugs. The passion of the refrain sends chills down my spine.

Home Again Garden Grove

There is a Garden Grove in Orange County, California, and one in Iowa as well. I know that JD grew up in California and lives in Iowa, but I don't know where. Since this album is largely set in the past and in the west, I'll assume it's the California one.

The emotion in rippling/sigh/ahh after the verse about being in high school just kills me. It's so pained. He feels like adulthood has replaced adolescent dreams with a shiftless, brutal existence. He's only a teenager, hasn't even lived, but he feels as desperate as an old man, and probably has about the same life expectancy.

All Up The Seething Coast

This is the first song where the pathos seems to suffuse the music as well as the lyrics. To me that's a healthy sign - that his self-perception and his mood are finally in accordance, seems like a fever breaking. The suddenly self-aware lyrics chronicling unhealthy behaviors make me wonder if he is in detox, especially since he's finally forcing himself to eat.

The end of this song is one of my favorite bits of the whole album. "But the best you've got is powerless against me / All your little schemes break when they come crashing up against me." And it finishes in yet another "ahh" that just kills me.

(I write reminders on my skin constantly, so it's strange to me to see this lumped in with all the other terrible stuff.)

Quito

Aside from being the capital of Ecuador, I'm not sure what significance "Quito" has. Maybe a pun on the word "quit", since it sounds like he thinks he's reached the 12th step? I love the hopeful energy of this song even as it chills me. It's just too sure of something as fragile as recovery, but it's something I want to believe in. The violin part here fairly rocks.

Cotton

One of the prettiest and least opaque songs on the album. The choked harmony on this is breathtaking. I see it as an elegy that draws the curtains on the drug-song-cycle part of the album.

Against Pollution

Despite its religious references, this is my current favorite song on WSABH. It's the most sentimental and it makes what I see as a philosophical point about the nature of memory, specifically how we cope with the knowledge of having done evil, and assimilate it into our day-to-day lives -- it's the only one that lives up to the album's title by actually depicting a healing process. The second time he makes the liquor store confession, a year or so after it happened, the story is subtly different. Lines have been done and he's established some sort of temporary moral clarity. Hopefully it'll hold until the last days and our final reprieve.

Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of

What a great way to end the album. It's cute comic relief and a metaphor about liberation in one peppy little bundle. Chino and Claremont are both towns in California.

(UPDATE: Douglas sent a tip-off that this song is actually based on a story in the Bible, Mark 5:1-15, about a man possessed by demons which were exorcised by sending them into a herd of pigs, which ran straightaway into the water and died. Ooh.)

(UPDATE II: I think JD really likes pigs)

Links and References

A must-read: the official We Shall All Be Healed site, assembled by JD himself. It includes the following

Other links:

February 28, 2004 in Original writing | Permalink