Lyrically, and spiritually at least they’ve been trying to find the new ‘Bob Dylan’ since, well, since the former Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minn., broke through the din of the1960s folk scene in Greenwhich Village to tell the world that “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.” Yet while many singer-songwriters over the decade have tried the title on for size — voice of a generation — few have passed the test of time, digital music, and a wandering cultural attention span.

Perhaps listeners, ears accustomed to auto-tune inanity, could care less about lyrics anymore. Dylan’s new record, Tempest, came out with much marketing fanfare last week, and from the one track I’ve heard, it’s pretty good. Yet lyrically, Dylan’s best days seem behind him — and that’s OK, for even an aging, cynical and wealthy Bob Dylan is better than most of the crap out there.

But in the view of this writer, the lyrical claim to fame these days belongs to the obscure, the twisted, the relatively unknown and the deeply personal. And that’s why, while I’ll always be a Dylan fan, singer-songwriter John Darnielle is my new life coach.

Darnielle, front man for the intrepid band, ‘The Mountain Goats’ writes with demonic power and urgency, and like Dylan at his earliest and angriest, he senses the cultural zetgeist and tears at it with pen and rapid fire downstroke on his acoustic. The chorus to the first Darnielle song that grabbed me went like this:

“And Sonny Liston rubbed some tiger balm into his glove, some things you do for money and some you do for love, love, love.” (Love, Love, Love, The Sunset Tree)

Next song I heard: “St. Joseph’s baby Aspirin , Bartles and James; and you, or your memory…” (‘You or Your Memory’, The Sunset Tree)

Such turns of phrase have draw praise, scores of fan sites, and twitter feeds devoted to him, featuring seemingly random bursts of Darnielle’s brain bleeding. Sasha Frere-Jones, of the The New Yorker, called him “America’s best lyricist”. Paste magazine even named Darnielle one of the “100 Best Living Songwriters”.

But I didn’t know all that before I fell in love with Darnielle’s words.In Darnielle, we find a man, who at once embraces Biblical, Apocalyptic, and Pharmalogical themes and mixes them effortlessly so that it feels as if you are the only one to accurately perceive this smoky, scary brew of brutal truth. Great songwriters after all, never bond with an audience, they bond with individual listeners. And so like Dylan there is pain and beauty here, and it is sublime.

“I am drowning — there is no sign of land — you are coming down with me, hand in unlovable hand.” (No Children, Tallahassee)

On Darnielle’s blog, Last Plane to Jakarta, he muses about the songwriting process, documenting his adventures in creativity and song. Darnielle is aspirational, and his sense of hopeful doom seems to emanate from his very soul:

“I wanted to begin by saying that in the future
there would exist poetry sufficient
to describe not only the splendor
of the album that’s presently blasting in my kitchen,” he writes. “But then I was forced to confess to myself
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that such a poetry will never be and cannot be:
or that it exists already…”

Darnielle was raised in California, the son of a reportedly abusive stepfather, now deceased, whom he references often in the epic “The Sunset Tree.” As a young man he went to work as a psychiatric nurse in a state hospital. He lived on the grounds and while not working he was writing songs, recording them onto an old boombox. He would eventually attend Pitzer College from 1991 to 1995, earning his bachelor’s degree in English. And it was there that a roommate, an aspiring record-label owner in fact, released one of Darnielle’s cassette tapes to the world, and the cult following he currently enjoys began.

Like Dylan, Darnielle’s musical style isn’t for everyone. You have to buy into it to a degree, go along with the non-nonsensical plan, as he sings in a nasally voice, about how “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania…”

On “Tallahassee,” the songs are mostly about places — places that are merely foils for storytelling: “Going to Queens,” “Going to Cleveland” and “Going to Georgia.” The latter tune, for example, tells the story of a man on a mission, potentially dangerous; and one he’s not so sure about, rightfully:

The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it’s you … and that you’re standing in the doorway…and you smile as you ease the gun from my hand and I’m frozen with joy right where I stand … the world throws its light underneath your hair … forty miles from Atlanta, this is nowhere … Going to Georgia…”

Hey, if Darnielle’s at the wheel, I’m going too — riding shogun with this modern-day lyrical Shaman who isn’t afraid to die by his own pen.

John Darnielle, you make a fine life coach — for you know life is lived not as the radio plays but unevenly, in great and blinding blasts of beauty, and in dark and endless mine-shafts of darkness.

About the Author

Gary Mays

Gary Mays is a veteran freelance writer, editor and investigative reporter who has worked for The Chicago Tribune, The Wisconsin (Madison) State Journal, and other, smaller but no-less- important publications.

View All Articles