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How The Mountain Goats got me through Grad School

tw: depression

I was supposed to attend The Mountain Goats concert in Tucson tonight. For various reasons, I am no longer able to do so. Since I was planning to write an extremely cool and super deep review of that concert and now I can't, I thought I'd write about why I wanted to go to this concert at all.

I don't know if it's possible to have a normal relationship with The Mountain Goats. Lead singer/songwriter John Darnielle's mystique precedes him, especially his lyrics, which have long featured on the tumblr posts and fanfiction titles that float around my corner of the internet. If you're looking for a phrase or a sentence to convey your particular mixture of grotesque yearning, vicious depression, and hateful joy, The Mountain Goats is your guy. I'd been scrolling past lovingly crafted gifsets with The Mountain Goats lyrics at the bottom for years on tumblr dot com (what a great website!), peacefully going about my day as someone Mentally Well, and assumed I would never relate to this specific brand of angst that captivated my fellow weird bloggers.

Then I went to graduate school.

You don't have to get depression in grad school, but many people do. There's something about spending four, five, six, seven years toiling towards a goal that is both incredibly clear (write a dissertation on a topic that moves your field forward) and incredibly abstract (persuade the 3-5 people on your committee that you moved your field forward) that breeds a unique despair. If you are part of a group that is underrepresented in academia, as I was, the additional setbacks to overcome in convincing people that you deserve to be there compound the load, until one day I woke up so angry and sad I thought I would explode. Instead of exploding, which sounded immensely satisfying but was physically impossible, I scrolled tumblr, where I once again saw some lyrics by The Mountain Goats. Since I'd spent the past [who knows how many] hours feeling like my chest was full of bees, I decided I might as well listen and see what the fuss was about.

Turns out all those tumblr posts were right. Like with so many other people, something in The Mountain Goats' music hit me right in my pain in a way that validated it, and validated me. The music that pulls us up when we're at our lowest doesn't have to be inspirational, or make us feel like we can be better people if we try. For me, it was far more important to understand that even at (what felt like) my most pathetic and hateful, my experiences had depth and meaning. I could meet myself where I was at and say, hey, even if I'm not a person I particularly like right now, I can stay alive as this person until my situation improves.

The most famous song by The Mountain Goats is No Children. It's iconic. People can sing it at concerts like it's Bohemian Rhapsody. It is the song for people in weird, destructive, co-dependent relationships and it both hates and romanticizes them in equal measure. There are many reasons why people love that song. For me, it says two things, which embrace contradiction: first, that our most terrible relationships can be beautiful, even as they destroy us. Second, that we deserve better, even if we don't get it. We can still want better for ourselves, even as we undercut those hopes with our own bad choices. We can want to go out in a blaze of glory and want to survive it, all it once. It's hopeful in the darkest possible way.

I really like No Children. After all, I'm only human, and that song slaps. But as I dug deeper in The Mountain Goats' discography, I found song after song about trying to love and be loved while being terribly damaged, of the successes and failures that come with trying to outlive trauma, of choosing to celebrate how much it sucks to be alive. Over the next few months, as I listened to Up the Wolves (from The Sunset Tree), Autoclave (from Heretic Pride), Never Quite Free (from All Eternals Deck) and Heel Turn 2 (from Beat the Champ), I was able to reach the kind of stability that comes from being fundamentally seen. I didn't get better, per se, but I was able to admit, as Darnielle says in Heel Turn 2, "I don't wanna die in here."

There are some relationships that are intimate and violent in equal measure, in ways that defy normal means of categorization. Most of the relationships in The Mountain Goats songs are like this, though the type of relationship, and the power dynamics within it, shifts depending on the album and the referenced subject. "I hope you die, I hope we both die" from No Children comes to mind immediately, but there's also "I got sugar in the fuel lines, both of us do" from Fault Lines, "I am coming home to you, with my own blood in my mouth" from Sax Rohmer # 1, and the subtle, but no less sad "but when you see him, you'll know" of Never Quite Free.

It can be depressing to admit to the lucky people who have not gone through grad school that I relate (deeply!) to the sometimes disturbing relationships depicted by The Mountain Goats. But as a grad student, I was in a sort of purgatory where I was both "not a real person" (because I did not yet have a PhD and was not worthy of respect) and an overworked researcher (because the department and the university needed me to work) in equal measure. My work and my value were intertwined, and either did or did not exist depending on how much someone else liked it. It is no surprise that, for many grad students, our relationships with the embodiments of authority in our lives are complicated, and largely bad. It felt like they were broken, but so was I. After all, a system built on hierarchy and legacy has little room for kindness in it. But I could grit my teeth, pop on Cry for Judas to hear Darnielle sing "I'm still here/but all is lost" in a peppy tone, and somehow keep going.

Now that I'm out the other side, The Mountain Goats no longer hits me like a brick to the feelings. I can appreciate Darnielle's music in a more normal way, where I go "cool biblical reference," or "nice chord progression," instead of "this resonates with my desire to self destruct in a way that somehow fixes me." But I am still so, so thankful that I found The Mountain Goats when I needed it the most. It helped me build a gritty, but solid hope for the future. Like in Never Quite Free (probably one of The Mountain Goats' most misunderstood songs), even when I'm better, as I am now, I'm still haunted by what I've lived through. But I am okay with that. And sometimes, I'm even happy.

We can all agree: they should invent a way out that is not through. But since they haven't yet, at least we have bands like The Mountain Goats to tell us that the ugliness is something that can be lived through. So thank you, Mr. Goats. And I'm sorry for calling you Mr. Goats as a bit to my friends and family, because now my mom thinks that your name is last name Goats, first name Mountain and does not take you as seriously as I do. I'm so grateful for your music, which keeps me moving along when few other things will.

Top 5 Recs for The Mountain Goats Newbies:

  1. No Children (Tallahassee, it's a classic...)

  2. This Year (The Sunset Tree, their happiest song ever in my opinion)

  3. Cry For Judas (Transcendental Youth)

  4. Up the Wolves (The Sunset Tree)

  5. Damn These Vampires (All Eternals Deck)

My Personal Top 5 Recs:

  1. Never Quite Free (All Eternals Deck)

  2. Autoclave (Heretic Pride)

  3. Heretic Pride (Heretic Pride)

  4. Old College Try (Tallahassee)

  5. Up the Wolves (The Sunset Tree)

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