Contributor Tess Isabelle O’Regan contemplates the theme of borders present in the music of The Mountain Goats.
In the first line of the third verse of International Small Arms Traffic Blues, John Darnielle, frontman of The Mountain Goats, proclaims: “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania”. You expect a certain amount of strangeness from a band who wrote an album about their Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but this might be pushing it. Sure, artists have compared their love to many things over the years. But when they do it’s more along the lines of Robert Burns’ “My love is like a red, red rose”, and not a border in Eastern Europe. And yet, if you consider The Mountain Goats’ discography, the border is a theme that reappears time and time again, rendering this line in Traffic Blues not quite so strange after all.
The Mountain Goats are an indie folk/rock band from California. Formed by Darnielle in 1991, they’re best known for their concept albums and extensive musical output. Their lyricism is the real attraction though. Darnielle’s songs cover all kinds of subject matter: discussing bog bodies in The Tollund Man; changing tack to explore the world of professional wrestling in Beat the Champ; before mapping out detailed odysseys across America in countless songs. It’s that last one I’m interested in: the geography of The Mountain Goats. From their numerous “Going to” songs (Going to Georgia, Going to Lebanon, Going to Maryland, etc.), to their tendency to include place names in their titles (Paris Enclave, Rain in Soho, Blues in Dallas), geography has been present in their music from the start. Nowhere is the concept of location better explored in their music than when the idea of borders and border crossing rears its head.
The crossing of a border is often associated with change in literary culture. Take for instance the author Cormac MacCarthy’s Border Trilogy. Here, movement between Texas and Mexico becomes an allegory for the transition from childhood to adulthood. Crossing a border can mark a milestone, a point of no return, a homecoming, a declaration of war; for The Mountain Goats it has been all these things.
“I have no place to go, so I head up to New Mexico.” Jeff Davis County Blues, the tenth track on 2002’s All Hail West Texas, documents the narrator’s drive from Toyahvale to Midland, Texas. The third verse however isn’t about Texas at all but New Mexico. Acting as the narrative’s pivotal point, the dip across the state line into New Mexico is an awakening for the singer. Unable to proceed, the driver turns around, taking “the first exit to 128” to go “back to Midland”. That phrase “back to Midland” implies a change of direction, hinted at further with the final line of the song: “I drive slowly and evenly and I dream about home”. The song is a nostalgic homecoming and that moment of hesitancy at the border is what sells it. The Texas-New Mexico border is infused with a sense of regret. “Fix my eyes in the rear view when I cross the state line”, Darnielle sings and suddenly a line on a map is a site rich with emotion.
Going to Georgia is also about returning home, albeit with a more joyous mood. Boundaries abound in this song, whether it’s in the refrain: “The world shines as I cross the Macon county line, going to Georgia”, or the unidentified “you” who’s “standing in the doorway” to welcome the singer home. The traversing of borders is a passionate achievement in Going to Georgia, an act of love.
Borders are places of transience and motion to The Mountain Goats. The cartography of their discography is an ever changing metaphor, in one moment representative of grief and in another rebirth. Whether it’s large scale partitions between countries and states or the recurring motif of doorways, thresholds carry significance in a Mountain Goats song. In Getting into Knives the protagonist pauses on the precipice before exacting his revenge: “Behold, I stand at the door and I knock, and then I knock twice.” The song ends a line later. We leave him in that doorway, at that border that delineates his life before and after retaliation.
Doorways and windows go hand in hand through life, architecture, and Mountain Goats songs. Houses are a central fixture in their songs and windows act as the partition between the domestic space and the public. In Lakeside View Apartment Suite “smoky windows facing the street” separate the addicts within the apartment from the outside world. When “Michael pulls the blinds back up” to watch “for the guy who’s got the angel dust”, we get the sense that this is a common occurrence. These people spend their days waiting for their one “crystal clear connection” to life beyond these walls. Lonely and isolating– that’s the picture of life we get from this song. They live in their own self-declared nation of cluttered rooms, their only contact with reality a lookout spot by the window and messages “thumbtacked to the door” but no one bothers “trying to read them anymore”.
Everywhere you look in a Mountain Goats song you will find someone teetering on the edge of something. In Lakeside View, that someone is an addict about to step away from his apartment full of addicts and out the door into the harsher world outside. Or, returning to International Small Arms Traffic Blues, that someone is headed towards a strained point in their relationship. Their love reminds them of the Greek-Albanian border, “trucks loaded down with weapons, crossing over every night”. Words, emotions, and tensions traverse interpersonal borders like trafficked weapons– quiet, hidden, and lethal.
Borders. They’re made up lines that can change and morph the world. They can be a metaphor for the condition of your relationship. The state lines that separate you from your family. The window that stands between you and real life. Or they can simply be a line from a Mountain Goats song.