The Poetry of John Darnielle's Blue Guitar

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The Poetry of John Darnielle's Blue Guitar

issue-6-75.jpg This story originally appeared in Issue #6 of Paste Magazine in the October/November 2003, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.

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I don’t know how many pop songwriters read poetry, but I frequently hear the ghost of poet Wallace Stevens in contemporary music. Like an older and more sagacious Morrissey, Stevens is funny, philosophical and self-consciously melodramatic.

Recently I listened to Leonard Cohen’s famous song “Suzanne”—”And you know that she’s half crazy / But that’s why you want to be there / And she feeds you tea and oranges / That come all the way from China.” The lyrics brought to mind Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” which begins: “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair / And the green freedom of a cockatoo …” There’s a Zen-like absurdity in Stevens’ work— an orderliness, an aesthetic purity, a joyful love of language: “Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds” (“The Emperor of Ice Cream”).

Dean Wareham’s alt.pop band, Luna, frequently uses minimal, imagistic, rather cerebral lyrics that are also romantic like Stevens. Captain Beefheart’s lighter compositions might be called Stevens-esque, especially in songs like “Harry Irene.”

More than any of them, though, singer-songwriter John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is a child of Wallace Stevens. His literate songs evoke a world full of foolish humanity and an abundant environment, all textured by irony and beauty. He presents jarring opposites of transcendent possibility and earthly reality. Furthermore, he is prolific—11 albums in eight years, and all of them very good.

The title song from The Mountain Goats’ latest full-length recording, Tallahassee, seems typical Darnielle poetry, and it reflects several elements common to Stevens’ work. Both use fruit and other organic imagery to symbolize a pure, idealized life; both are preoccupied with the question of human perception, framing reality with devices such as windows or film projectors. Stevens is known for his Floridian imagery, including beaches, palm trees and blue waves. This relaxed world, like Darnielle’s, is not a real world, but a mental state—or, rather, a mental space.

Stevens’ hallmark is his philosophical perspective on art. He observes the world becoming objectified through language, wild natural things becoming brittle just by being looked at and represented. While cultivating his environment, man actually changes it. Stevens expresses this memorably in “The Man With the Blue Guitar”:

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

Darnielle similarly plays a blue guitar: His humans cultivate the world, they domesticate. As in the song “Peacocks,” all they really want is to watch peacocks strutting around their front yards, but this can’t happen without the intrusion of a helicopter flying over. In Darnielle’s stories, the experience of the natural world is commonly—and comically—interrupted by modern technology.

He also gives us plenty of comedy on Tallahassee; the songs weave together into a single, darkly amusing narrative about an alcoholic couple continually at odds with one another. First the narrator insists: “I am not going to lose you / We are going to stay married” (“Southwood Plantation Road”). Then he basks in melancholy: “Dug up a fifth of Hood River gin / That stuff tastes like medicine / But I’ll take it / It’ll do” (“Game Shows Touch Our Lives”). Later, true love finds itself deeply compromised: “Your face like a vision straight out of Holly Hobby / Late light drizzling through your hair / Your eyes twin volcanoes / Bad ideas dancing around in there” (“Idylls of the King”). Finally he waxes eloquent about his marriage: “I hope I lie / And tell everyone you were a good wife, / And I hope you die. / I hope we both die” (“No Children”). But the narrative always turns upward, comically hopeful, as in “Peacocks,” which presents simple beauty—albeit interrupted.

Remarkably, Darnielle’s lyrics are equaled by his music; utterly memorable acoustic guitar melodies reinforce the lyrical expression almost perfectly. Older albums revel in a lo-fi, alt.folk sound, while Tallahassee is Darnielle’s first studio-polished recording. The Mountain Goats end up sounding like a stylized Bob Dylan, with a delightful dose of Information Age quirkiness. A juxtaposition Stevens would have loved.