Last Call

Music of the Trilobites

On John Darnielle's Master of Reality.

By From the June 2014 issue

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I read John Darnielle’s 2011 novel Master of Reality under the unfamiliar constellations of Australia—which was fitting, since the slender book is about being both physically and spiritually far from home. Master of Reality is an entry in Continuum’s “33 1/3” series of books about pop or rock albums. (The other books in the series tend to be straightforward critical studies.) I’ve never listened to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, but Darnielle’s diary of a 1980s teenager locked in a residential psychiatric treatment facility, pleading with his counselor to get his Walkman and Black Sabbath tapes back, captured some of the deeper and darker currents in my own relationship to music.

Darnielle is the man behind the Mountain Goats, an indie band I stumbled across in 2010. I fell for them hard and fast, and for about two years I listened to them constantly. Then I quit drinking. Since January 2012 I’ve only listened to Darnielle’s music twice, right around Holy Week, always with a faint shudder of longing and fear. I have to be careful about opening the door in my head that leads backward in time.

Music and drinking—at least the kind of drinking I did, the kind I still care about—have a lot in common. They’re a way of dissolving the self and silencing its constant pointless chatter. They accordion time; vodka is the poor man’s tesseract, bringing back all those memories you only have when you’re drinking, letting you touch the crowd of sharp-edged regrets and yet protecting you from feeling their edges too painfully. Music and drinking are ways we try to live in the subjunctive. They’re not about what is but about what could have been and would have been, if the world were different. They’re the results of our dissatisfaction, which is Adam’s—the attempts to make something reminiscent of a home out of the wrecked memory of Eden.

Sometimes all the things that happened when I was drinking (friendships made during those slurry spangled nights—and then friendships lost, because I wasn’t really there) feel like they happened a million years ago. I used to drink with the trilobites, among the crinoids, when all the life in the world was undersea. And then other times it feels like all of that happened five minutes ago, but to somebody else.

A lot of Mountain Goats music deals with that bizarre expansion and collapse of time. There’s a lot in his songs about revisiting the past, trying to understand it and somehow reconcile with it, as if the past is a person to whom we could make amends—or whom we could forgive. Songs about breaking into your childhood home (“See how the people here live now/Hope they’re better at it than I was”) or watching people pack up a dead friend’s possessions. A lot of songs about the not-yet, the feeling of waiting for the moment when the wind will blow you, against your will, into the future.

One thing Master of Reality gets right is the simultaneous importance and silliness of lyrics. Roger, the kid in the psych ward, quotes a lot of Black Sabbath lyrics in order to prove various points, but he also says that the lyrics don’t always make sense. I could tell you some of my favorite Mountain Goats lines, but reading them can’t convey the point of them. “Blues in Dallas” conveys its battered hope less through its lyrics than through its dusty, fuzzy dive-bar sound, Darnielle’s light voice tripping across the notes in an almost rinky-tink cadence. 

Roger isn’t given to image and metaphor the way Darnielle’s lyrics are. His hardest-hitting lines are often nearly monosyllabic (“I am not feeling any better”). But what matters in Roger’s story is the rhythm and the timing. Master of Reality is brutally suspenseful. Simple lines hit hard when you feel like you know the cavernous emotions behind them. Roger tries to use his music to connect with his counselor. There’s this immensely poignant desire to let someone else in: “Rush is a band that you might like,” he notes, conscientious and eager. (I tried to get my mom into Guns N’ Roses.) And he expresses so well the way that music, like intoxication, can open a door in the mind.

Sometimes someone walks through that door. In the novel, as in my own life, sometimes that uninvited visitor is God: Darnielle is one of the most Christ-haunted songwriters in the indie world (and that’s saying something), and thwarted longing for the Christian God pulses through Master of Reality despite Roger’s bitterness toward the Christians he’s met.

But there are other gods than Christ. Roger’s diary ends abruptly, picking up again when he’s an adult who has just found his old dusty box of tapes. He opens the box, just like somebody out of Stephen King, and tries to journey back into the bad times to understand them. Opening the door back to his broken adolescence lets the helpless rage of the past flow into his adult life. The music which was once his source of hope, comradeship, and escape becomes the channel for something else.

And yet I know why he had to open the door. There’s comfort—and a hope that someday maybe we can truly be reconciled with the past—in the thought that somewhere in my skull there is a door, and behind that door they’re playing the music I used to dance to with the trilobites, in the lowest bar in the world.

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About the Author

Eve Tushnet blogs on the Catholic channel of Patheos.com.