Mountain Goats

King Saul fell on his sword when it all went wrong
And Joseph’s brothers sold him down the river for a song
And Sonny Liston rubbed some tiger balm into his glove
Some things you do for money – and some you do for love love love

Raskalnikov felt sick but he couldn’t say why
When he saw his face reflected  in his victim’s twinkling eye
Some things you do for money and some you’ll do for fun
But the things you do for love are gonna come back to you one by one

Love love is gonna lead you by the hand
Into a white and soundless place
Now we see as in a mirror dimly
Then we shall see each other face to face

And way out in Seattle young Kurt Cobain
Snuck out to the greenhouse, put a bullet in his brain
Snakes in the grass beneath our feet, rain in the clouds above
Some moments last forever and some flare out with love love love

Love, love, love by John Darnielle on The Mountain Goats’ album The Sunset Tree

I am just discovering the band The Mountain Goats. This song is particularly haunting and beautiful: I love the varied references from so many different sources, the mixing of modern culture with literature and scripture.  Their songs often use Biblical imagery: the latest album ‘The Life of the World to Come’ – that my daughter gave me for Christmas 🙂 – has a scripture reference for every song.  This will draw the attention of believers and who knows what unbelievers will make of it: they will have to reach for a Bible – or Google it!

But these are not orthodox Christian songs.  They are challenging, intellectual, poetic and deeply emotional works of art.  They tell stories about death and relationships from an odd spiritual angle.  They look truth and reality in the face; their art is a window into 21st century experience in an attempt to give it context and expression.  It is definitely poetry and in some ways it could even be called prophetic…  Plus John Darnielle’s concept of love is way beyond what is comfortable.  It makes us think!  These are the communicators whose message is getting out there and we do well to sharpen our minds and discernment and work out where we agree and disagree – and why.

Apparently, when asked about this particular song I have quoted, the writer said: “the point of the song is we are very well damaged by the legacy of the romantic poet, that we think of love as this force for good and then if something bad happens that’s not love…  I don’t know so much about that.  I don’t know that the Greeks weren’t right, I think that they were, that love can beat a path through everything, that it will destroy a lot of things on the way to its objective – which is its expression of itself.  My stepfather mistreated us terribly quite often, but he loved us and well, that to me is something worth commenting on in the hopes of undoing a lot of terrible damage, yet we talk about love as this benign comfortable force: it is wild.

Its not ‘lovely-dovey’ then… Out of his own painful childhood experience he is trying to make sense of the mixture and interpreting the passion behind these actions as love. But when I first heard the song I thought most of the actions in it were definitely NOT love! I thought they must be the motivations of ‘money’ or ‘fun’ he mentions… but that isn’t what he is saying.  He is talking about what drives people.  One commentator puts it well: ‘I think this song is a slightly sarcastic jab at mushy love songs, and it is an ode to self-love, which is the motivating force in all of the actions described in the song.’

Most of us will know the stories of Saul and Joseph and will hopefully have heard of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994 – the lead singer of famous grunge band Nirvana and icon for a generation.  Incase you don’t know the other two references:  Sonny Liston was a boxer who allegedly put something to “blind” his opponents on his glove when he wasn’t doing so well in a fight.  Raskolnikov is a university dropout in Dostoevsky’s novel ‘Crime and Punishment’, who has the idea that he and larger-than-life historical figures (like Napoleon) are ‘overmen’ – people who are remarkable and thus above the moral scrutiny and justice that govern the rest of humanity. He believes that the fruits of his labours will be so completely worth any ‘sins’ he may commit to achieve them that those sins will be pardonable. To prove this theory, Raskolnikov decides to murder his pawnbroker.  The commentator I found on this goes on to say, “The sickness John describes in the song is pivotal to the book. Raskolnikov follows through with the murder, but the guilt and disgust it brings him drive him to confess, thereby undoing him and his theory. Had Raskolnikov murdered the woman for money, he wouldn’t have been tortured as he was, as he’d have achieved his goal of robbing the pawnbroker. Similarly, if he’d killed her for fun, he’d have satiated his bloodlust.  Instead, he killed the woman out of love: love for his own idea.”

I find the discussions going on around these things amazing.  People are looking for truth: art and music have such a powerful voice – they are the teachers of this generation. Post-modernism means that there is no more black and white, true and false, and everyone makes up their own minds.  The many voices are saying many things!  It is good for me to hear them.  I don’t want to be entrenched in my own opinions.  Many of us have found our beliefs changing over recent years: I have recently heard a number of Christians say, ‘But I don’t believe that anymore’. Revelation takes us into new vision – and it comes from surprising places – but we need discernment more than ever!

God can speak through all sorts of things.  This song made me think about why I do things and what love really is.  1 Corinthians 13 tells us the wonderful qualities of ‘agape’ love, Jesus’ love, the highest ideal, but it is certainly true that in this world it gets mixed up with other things. Most people have no experience of that perfect love and can only go on what they see and feel… Here is another thought-provoking comment on this song from the Song Meanings site I found:

‘The song and Darnielle’s quote above reminds me of what Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil:  “That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”  I think that’s the message of the song – love is a force separate from morality that causes people to do things that can be good (as the “legacy of the romantic poets” says love always is) or bad (as most of the examples in the song are, just like, as John says, his stepfather mistreated them but still loved them).

The 1 Corinthians verse – “Now we see things as in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face” – comes towards the end of the very famous chapter on love, the one that’s read at wedding ceremonies, with the list – “Love is patient, love is kind…” The chapter describes the qualities of love and talks about how all actions are meaningless if not done with love and love will endure beyond our prophecies, our languages, our knowledge. Verse 12 is about the time after the judgment/second coming when we have “put away childish things (13:11)”. The final verse of the chapter is “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love,” meaning that those three continue to exist eternally. I’ve always thought 1 Cor. 13:12 was a powerful statement that one day we will understand why things happen; now we can only interpret the world narrowly, because we can’t see the whole, but when we’re with God we will be able to understand the meaning behind the tragedy in the world.

John seems to be attacking Corinthians’ list of only the positive qualities of love and rejecting the idea that doing an action with love automatically transforms it into a good action, while affirming the epistler’s statement that love is a constant.’

Thank you ‘splintercat’, whoever you are, for philosophical input and accurate exegesis! Some of it we agree with, for instance the law of sowing and reaping expressed in the line ‘But the things you do for love are gonna come back to you one by one’. We may disagree with much else or interpret it differently to suit ourselves, but its good to know what we are disagreeing with.  And its good to think about LOVE – a powerful force, a passion, an ideal, a feeling – the stuff that really matters, marks our lives, makes us who we are and without which we are nothing.  ‘Some moments last forever and some flare out with love love love’

Love love is gonna lead you by the hand
Into a white and soundless place
Now we see as in a mirror dimly
Then we shall see each other face to face

I am not advertising The Mountain Goats, though you could get this track off i-tunes and its even more compelling with the music (sounds a bit like Sufjan Stevens).  No, I’m just sharing my thoughts and heart.  And sending out love.


About Sally Ann

True-story teller - words and pictures
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