Monday, September 18, 2006

The Mountain Goats' Fault Lines 3 (of 3)

Fault Lines also has a good example of Darnielle’s technique of a specific detail (often from the landscape) placed parallel to some romantic cliché: “Down here where the watermelon grows so sweet,” is also “where I worship the ground underneath of your feet.” P.T. Anderson uses a similar device in Punch Drunk Love: the film so powerfully subverts the rules of the romantic comedy genre that it manages (shocking, because so rare) to earn a hackneyed line like “I have a love in my life and that makes me stronger than you can possibly imagine.” Darnielle similarly works to earn the right to cliches.

Many of Darnielle’s songs are effective because some simple worn notion – such as the fact that possessions “don’t make us feel better about who we are” – is surrounded by a population of specific and intriguing details – Vegas, Russia, Belgium, England, vodka, chocolate, strawberries, watermelon, pudding, a cracked engine block, termites, jewels, an Italian race car. And as this list shows the details have subterranean links: we don’t immediately associate the watermelon that grows on the ground with the foods from the other countries, but the fact that we are prepared for it by the other foods mentioned is precisely what makes its position in the song effective; to compare a backbone to pudding would hardly be notable were it not for the fact that it culminates a series of food references that go from references to far away, to local produce, to internal organs.

This is not to suggest that the song is without powerful formulations of its own: “experts in the art of frivolous spending” is acute and forceful, as is the notion of a love that is neither merely an abstract concept, nor merely sexual, but something fragile that is kept safe by sex: the love “we swore to protect with our bodies.” But the real strong point of the song is the transition of this fragile love’s transformation into something “deathless” (a perversion of “eternal love” into something monstrous), a deathless creature, “stumbling” across a landscape (a West Texas landscape perhaps) so empty it is abstract – the hell-bound, deathless love is stumbling across a place that is merely “its beak ending,” a phrase that exists in exactly the place we would expect a specific place detail (especially from Darnielle, who is mad about places). The characterization of West Texas as a “bleak ending” is the song’s central contribution to the album’s ostensible subject: West Texas is a place where love goes to die; Darnielle's hateful stumbling love (going almost literally nowhere), unlike Yeats’ beast slouching toward Bethlehem, will not be reborn.

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