Even the most casual Mountain Goats fan knows that John Darnielle is a master of describing intense, complicated relationships fraught with tension and passion. What not everyone realizes, though, is the meaningful role food plays in the lives of these characters—in both a literal and figurative sense. Food is just a much an ingredient in these songs as Darnielle’s yelping vocals, earnest strumming and militant lo-fi tape hiss (of his pre-4AD/Merge recordings at least). With references to fresh strawberries, Belgian chocolates, yams, sausage and cheese and a bounty of other culinary delights, few discographies tell stories of romantic complexity such great delectably.
Whether it’s cased meats, fresh dairy or yams (the king of crops!), Darnielle knows the proverbial way to the heart is indeed the stomach. While his staunch vegetarianism may be at odds with the protagonist’s claims in “Earth Air Water Trees,” Darnielle still sums up with great conviction the overwhelming joys of the simplest meals—“I love you, I love you because you gave me sausage and cheese when I was hungry.” If you’re not sold on this lyric on paper, you will be on the stereo. The hunger in Darnielle’s trembling voice will have you running to the nearest deli.
Also note that sweet potatoes breed similar results:
“I felt sick in a good way, felt the fever climb when you came down all the way across town, and you brought me a plate of sweet potatoes” (“Yam, The King of Crops”)
As does black ice cream (whatever cryptic flavor that may be):
“I knew I was living in a long, long dream when you fed me the black ice cream” (“Black Ice Cream Song”)
The presence of food also connotes the absence of a lover. And man is this a bummer. Take these choice lines from “Woke Up New” off 2006’s aptly titled Get Lonely: “The first time I made coffee for just myself, I made too much of it / But I drank it all just cause you hate it when I let things go to waste.” It’s the ultimate everything-reminds-me-of-you scenario. A potent beverage yields even more potent feelings.
But that’s hardly the first time this sentiment is apparent. In “Alpha Omega” Darnielle sings “I turned the air conditioner on found the note on scented stationary—you were long gone / I had boiled peanuts for breakfast from Cairo, Georgia.” With such gripping intensity in his vocals, you can practically taste the salt burning through your tongue.
Wondering how to get over your ex? Darnielle tells us there’s only one cure to heartbreak—birthday cake: “I cut myself a piece of my birthday cake, raspberry filling in the middle, and I thought about you a little. And there was a time when you wanted me so bad it was eating you up inside, but this time has gone away.” Lesson learned: Baked goods will always fill the void your ex-lover never could.
Nothing, not even the most decadent meal, in the world is going to save the duo described in “Fault Lines.” Russian vodka, Belgian chocolate and English strawberries in all their extravagant, romantic glory only serve to fuel a self-destructive relationship. Sure their fate is bleak and drunken, but at least it’s delicious. Hey, hey, la la!
These passionate lyrics from “I’ve Got the Sex” invoke the most sensual (and literal) usage of fruit in love-making. It’s something few Mountain Goats songs can be described as: sexy. “The wild strawberries drove me on, as I lapped them up off of your skin / And I could feel your basal body temperature rise as the cold came in.”
The lyrics of “Seeing Daylight” are either a recipe for soup or emotional turmoil. “Two cans clear chicken broth, two white onions, one bulb garlic.” Sounds simple enough so far. But then the phone rings and you’re totally arrested by both the “voice on the other end and the impossibility of your voice on the other end and the impossible echo inside.” It’s downright alarming. And enough to make your blood boil. Boil, boil.
And then there’s “Jam Eater Blues” which perhaps offers the sagest advice of all: “Life is too short to refrain from eating jam out of the jar / And life is too short to wait around for you to come home tonight / Life is too short, too short to do that.”
For more musings on the Mountains Goats (and food) follow, Jessica Gentile on Twitter @volume_knob