25 Mountain Goats Songs That Could Be John Darnielle’s Next Novel


This week, John Darnielle will publish his first novel, the psychological thriller Wolf in White Van. This is of note because Darnielle has already released hundreds of narratives, but most in the form of songs with his band The Mountain Goats (he also previously penned a 33 1/3 book on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality). The novel seems like an inevitability from the man whose music has always leaned literary, and got us thinking about some of the very best stories he has told within his music, and how the tales have become the backbone of one of the very best catalogs any songwriter in contemporary music has to offer.

Certain things come up again and again. Abusive stepfathers. Drug addiction. Heartbreak. The retreat to music from life’s struggles. The lessons learned from getting older. Memories of lost loved ones. It’s all very fertile stuff, tried and true terrain, and the only thing completely original about it all is Darnielle’s wisdom, his wit, and his uniquely empathetic perspective. Rarely will you find judgment in his songwriting, and when there is, you can be certain that the objects of his scorn deserve it.

Maybe a follow-up book will be in order for Darnielle. If so, I doubt he would ever expand on an old song, seeing as he still has plenty of new stories to tell. Still, here are 25 Mountain Goats songs that one could imagine becoming novels.

“The Diaz Brothers” Album: Transcendental Youth

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “Hear my rivals on the western wind. Hard to know who might or might not be your friend”

Plot: Darnielle creates a story for the minor characters of Scarface, capturing the titular brothers in the time before their eventual death. Expanding to a novel, this might qualify as Scarface fan fiction, which might be a thing already in the dark corners of the web.

“Up the Wolves” Album: The Sunset Tree

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “I’m going to bribe the officials, I’m going to kill all the judges/ It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage”

Plot: “Up the Wolves” might be a familiar song to fans of The Walking Dead, but as a novel, Darnielle could attack the tale from the thematic angle of revenge. Or, he could go literal and write about the myths surrounding the founding of Ancient Rome. So many options!

“Lakeside View Apartment Suite” Album: Transcendental Youth

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “Michael pulls the blinds back up/ Stares blankly down at the intersection/ Watching for the guy who’s got the angel dust/ Crystal clear connection”

Plot: Darnielle has numerous songs — actually, an entire album, We Shall All Be Healed — chronicling the lives of drug addicts. On this song, we find junkies waiting for their connection to arrive, but it is not without hope, as Darnielle drops in the nugget, “Emerge transformed in a million years from days like these.”

“Southwood Plantation Road” Album: Tallahassee

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “Our conversations are like minefields/ No one’s found a safe way through one yet”

Plot: The house on Southwood Plantation Road is not always a happy one, as compared to “a Louisiana graveyard,” because nothing stays buried. The song’s central couple keeps having the same fights again and again, until man and wife finally realize their marriage isn’t going to end happily. In novel form, the reader could really feel their slow descent into unhappiness.

“Fall of the Star High School Running Back” Album: All Hail West Texas

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “Your grandfather rode the boat over from Ireland/ But you made a bad decision or two”

Plot: William Staniforth Donahue was a Texan star running back in high school (I guess you could gather this from the title), who blew out his knee and wound up selling drugs to a cop and going to federal prison. Kind of a downer of a story, but a fall-from-grace character study could be intriguing from Darnielle in novel form.

“Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” Album: The Sunset Tree

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “You were looking at the void and seldom blinking/ The best that I could do/ Was to train my eyes on you”

Plot: Dinu Lippatti was a pianist who died of cancer at a young age, and his “bones” could refer to the music that was left behind. Within the song is a relationship where Darnielle’s counterpart seems hardened, far-gone, while he struggles to match that removed state of being. We all know how these sort of affairs end (not well), but the character in the song doesn’t know it yet, and that is where the intrigue of wanting to hear more of the story lies.

“This Year” Album: The Sunset Tree

Lyrical Evidence of Genius: “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.”

Plot: A coming-of-age tale, a teenage hero escapes his broken home through video games, booze, and a girl named Kathy. Every dude writer has written this book, and some of them are among the best.

“Your Belgian Things” Album: We Shall All Be Healed

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “A tiger’s never gonna change its stripes/ I guess/ I guess/ But Jesus what a mess/ One way in and no way out”

Plot: Darnielle has often said that the characters of his meth-related songs — the people he knew — are either dead or in jail. In “Your Belgian Things,” we see one of these people near death, in a hospital, and the hopelessness of a better outcome for her or anyone else. Knowing that at least Darnielle made it out of this world both alive and free makes for a strong, if still depressing, conclusion to this plot line.

“You Were Cool” Album: Unreleased

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves/ It’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side/ With our hearts still beating/ Having stared down demons/ Come back breathing”

Plot: Though Darnielle hasn’t even recorded this song yet, its story of a girl who’s mistreated in high school and the hope that she has a happy life now, years later, is sweet and earnest. The novel could delve into the people you forget over the years and the ones you never can, and the aching curiosity to find out how they all turned out.

“Harlem Roulette” Album: Transcendental Youth

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “Every dream’s a good dream/ Even awful dreams are good dreams/ If you’re doing it right”

Plot: One of the more specific and straightforward Mountain Goats songs, the track tells the story of the last night in the life of Frankie Lyman, the singer of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” As Darnielle explains it,

He had one of the most beautiful voices ever, and then got drafted in the middle of his fame and then went AWOL, but by that time his voice had changed and he was, and music had kind of moved on. He was having a hard time trying to fit in, but there were a bunch of little labels, and one called Roulette offered him a deal and he went in and tracked a bunch of songs, you know, in those days you’d go in and track ten songs, you know, and then leave, and he did, and he had gotten just enough money to, uh, buy some more dope, and he went home and overdosed. “Seabreeze,” the song I mention in the last verse, is one of the last things he recorded. Yeah, it’s uh — I don’t know why, because I myself was not a child star, but people who get famous too young, and then it just ruins them as people, I get really sad thinking about it.

“Linda Blair Was Born Innocent” Album: We Shall All Be Healed

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “Hungry for love/ Ready to drown/ So tie down the sails tonight/ We’re going downtown”

Plot: In this drug tale, we find addicts leaving the safe confines of the house for the horror and excitement that is the city. The sympathy and realism that are present in his drug songs would seem perfect for expansion in novel form, perhaps with Darnielle as the hero emerging from the scene unscathed… or perhaps the opposite.

“Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” Album: The Sunset Tree

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “Held under these smothering waves/ By your strong and thick veined hand/ But one of these days I’m going to wriggle up on dry land”

Plot: Abusive stepfather and music as escape are big parts of The Sunset Tree, and nowhere do they appear as directly as in this song. Starting from the California setting, the plot could expand on the song to tell the story of how this abused child becomes a famous musician, as the track’s ultimate conclusion is that this storm will pass, that the narrator will be OK in the end.

“Dance Music” Album: The Sunset Tree

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “Lean in close to my little record player on the floor/ So this is what the volume knob’s for/ I listen to dance music”

Plot: Like the last entry from The Sunset Tree, “Dance Music” returns to this theme of music as escape, as healing power when times get tough. The speaker here retreats to lighter fare to cope with his serious life. Whether it is an angry male figure at home or impending heartbreak, music remains a constant. Not a bad vehicle for telling the story of how one becomes a musician.

“The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” Album: All Hail West Texas

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream/ Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you/ The best ever death metal band out of Denton/ Will in time both outpace and outlive you/ Hail Satan!”

Plot: Jeff and Cyrus are but two metal fans in Denton who want to live their rock star dreams. Their band will be called Satan’s Fingers or The Hospital Bombers (The Killers has since been taken). But Denton could not handle their hypothetical metal, and sent Cyrus away to boarding school, which Jeff and Cyrus react to by plotting a (possibly) murderous plan of revenge. This could be the best book ever written.

“Going to Georgia” Album: Zopilote Machine

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway/ Is that it’s you and that you are standing in the doorway/ And you smile as you ease the gun from my hand/ I am frozen with joy right where I stand”

Plot: A man, possibly suicidal, drives from North Carolina to Georgia to see his love — a reunion that will set everything right. The drama exists in the fantasy-vs.-reality element, where the (potential) reader won’t know whether the protagonist is just deranged or mad, or if there really is a woman who will bring piece to his clearly troubled mind.

“The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix’s Life” Album: Ghana

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “He put four ice cubes into the glass/ There is nothing like cold water/ There is nothing”

Plot: The point (put some scare quotes around that if it helps) of this song is not to talk about Hendrix’s death, but to muse on the mundanity of life, even on the last day of someone famous’ life. But yeah, Darnielle writing a Hendrix biography would be pretty awesome.

“Heretic Pride” Album: Heretic Pride

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “Transfigurations gonna come for me at last/ And I will burn hotter than the sun”

Plot: This one is explicitly narrative, as it recalls the experience of a heretic getting pulled from his home and burned alive in front of a hateful audience. Until his last breath, the speaker holds firm that he is in the right, and we can’t help but agree with him. A novel from this perspective could prove fascinating.

“Evening in Stalingrad” Album: Full Force Galesburg

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “When you were 19 I first laid eyes on you/ The small stream that ran through the center of town carried your name to me/ Your hair was dark and your eyes were a frosty blue/ And then they put me in jail ’til you were 23”

Plot: Darnielle often uses setting as the central defining element of his songs, but this one, despite its Russian locale, holds enough curiosities to draw out an intriguing story. Why did the speaker go to jail? Was their love so intense that it survived the incarceration, or did they reconnect by chance afterward? Throw in Russia, and you got a 20th-century modern literature blueprint to success.

“Matthew 25:21″ Album: The Life of the World to Come

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “It’s three days later when I get the call/ And there’s nobody around to break my fall”

Plot: The song tells the story of Darnielle visiting his mother-in-law for a final time before her death. The details here sting, describing the sights and sounds of watching someone die of cancer, and what it’s like to say goodbye to a loved one.

“Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident” Album: Heretic Pride

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “When you’re walking keep your head low/ Try to leave no traces when you go”

Plot: Marduk is a Swedish black metal band, and Darnielle is a noted lover of the darkest of all rock ‘n’ roll genres, but the metal band is but a stray detail in this otherwise beautiful narrative. The speaker sees a drunk girl on the floor of the men’s room and imagines she is his love, ultimately feeling guilty for the thought alone. The refrain of “weightless, formless, blameless, nameless” makes expanding on the tale almost seem sacrilegious, but if anyone could pull it off with grace, Darnielle could.

“New Star Song” Album: Beautiful Rat Sunset

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “I hung pictures of you from every lamp post in town/ As the humidity climbed into numbers I don’t care to repeat”

Plot: This is a song about losing a dog and searching for him. It might be sadder than any heartbreak tale common in songs, as there is a futility to the putting up of posters around a downtown business district. Ultimately, readers could hang any loss they have experienced on Darnielle’s often ambiguous imagery. And then, at the end, he could find the dog, because everyone likes a happy ending.

“Grendel’s Mother” Album: Zopilote Machine

Lyrical Example of Greatness: “And you can run, and run some more/ From here all the way to Singapore/ But I will carry you home in my teeth”

Plot: Well, technically this book has already been written. Actually, it was an epic poem handed down in the oral tradition, called Beowulf, and it has been reimagined numerous times throughout literary history. But telling the tale from the perspective of Grendel’s mother, the chief adversary in the original, could be a fresh perspective for the lit major’s ancient texts syllabus.

“Woke Up New” Album: Get Lonely

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “And I stood there like a business man waiting for the train/ And I got ready for the future to arrive”

Plot: The song follows a man on the first morning after the dissolving of his marriage, as he is lost, sad, scared, and ultimately optimistic. Darnielle has a ton of songs about divorce, but this one stands out, and would be worth expanding on, because it is one of the least bitter of the bunch.

“Steal Smoked Fish” Album: Steal Smoked Fish

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “God bless all my old friends/ And god bless me too, why pretend?/ Feast when you can/ And dream when there’s nothing to feast on”

Plot: Darnielle offers up more blessings for degenerates free-falling into their own drug- and poverty-addled demises. This song feels as haunted as a ghost story, but it would make for an interesting POV for a story about addiction survivors — and the ones who didn’t make it out alive.

“High Hawk Season” Album: All Eternals Deck

Lyrical Evidence of Greatness: “Rise if you’re sleeping, stay awake/ We are young supernovas, and the heat’s about to break”

Plot: A protest song about protestors and being at the protest, a novel based on this song could examine the community that forms within demonstrations, whether that setting is the Occupy Wall Street movement or the recent protests in Ferguson. The song captures the energy at these sites, how it seems to feed on itself, often powered by idealistic youth or injustice. Lots of room for Darnielle to work here. Plus, it is the best song he has ever written. Yeah, I said it.