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Monday, July 19, 2004
I've always been a bit ambivalent about the Mountain Goats for some reason--sure, I love individual songs, but the whole rhetoric of Darnielle-as-speed-freak just never made much sense to me.  I mean, besides the charming domesticity that sneaks into LPTJ (which I do love unreservedly) I just don't see it in the songs.  Sure, he plays the guitar and sings pretty fast, but he's way too coherent for speed freakery.[1] I know what speed freaks sound like and it's just not "Going to California."  It's not even the truly awe-inspiring (and certainly ADD-ish) "Cubs in Five."  It's Slayer, or Japanther, or something.  There's a certain cult of personality around the Goats, and while I appreciate said cults (I do love pop, after all) I just haven't been able to suspend disbelief, as it were, the perfection of "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton"[2] aside.
But I do love "Dance Music" in a way that almost makes me want to buy into it.  Because it's so very good; it does so many things that I want a song to do.  It tells a very archetypical story (which allows him to say more than he would be able to normally, which is the pop lyricist's stock-in-trade; you have to allude to elements of a well-known narrative in order to do anything other than present an image in those few lines you're allotted) in a specific, and, for its genre, somewhat new way.  There are the elements of real speech ("five years old, or six, maybe"), the mix of abstract imagery with specificity ("indications that there's something wrong with our new house trip down the wire twice daily"), and the particular move from concrete-but-overused image into one that has too many unique details to be cliche ("in the living room watching the Watergate hearings while my stepfather yells at my mother / launches a glass across the room straight at her head and I dash upstairs to take cover").  And that's just the first verse.  In subsequent verses it does something else key: it takes the setup of the first verse into different areas.  There's this particular scenario/behavior established for the character, and then the 2nd verse (which is a bit more imagistic and less narrative than the first verse) shows how this plays out in his life 12 years later.  That particular movement that comes in at the end of vagueness into archetype, causing both to coalesce into specificity ("there's only one place this road ever ends up / and I don't want to die alone / let me down let me down let me down gently/ and when the police come to get me/I'm listening to / dance music.") works really well here.
As does something else: the charge of the verse into the chorus, which is short--two words, with two different melodies thereof--but a sort of revelatory summation of the semi-realism of the verses.  Realism doesn't obviously summate, usually, so when you can do it, and do it in a way that isn't really obvious from what's come before (what does domestic violence have to do with dance music?), that's a great little trick, because you're proving a point.  You're saying, this is about the chorus, about the title, because I say it is, and do you see it?  Melody helps, too, of course, and melody and rhyme can do a lot to convince you of things that aren't really true.[3] 
But this is true.  It's a story that's been told before, of course--I mean, Glitter--but only in some ways.  Music-as-escape is a constant theme of, well, music, but for an indie/folk/let's just say "non-electronic" song to be talking about the escapatory qualities of dance music is kind of new.  Darnielle's not new at this sort of thing, of course, but at the same time he does it very well here.  The kind of music doesn't necessarily matter; as funny as it might seem for someone to rebel by listening to Mozart, in some cases that might well be true.  But I'm saying rebel when the subject here is escape, and that can always happen, especially with a genre as particularly escapist as dance music.  There's something to be praised in that kind of sonic utopianism, and Darnielle alludes to it even if he doesn't say it outright.  It's a praise that is not given as often as it should.
But of course the other thing that's different here is how he's showing that this very escapism doesn't really matter.  Not only does it not change your life for the better, it doesn't serve as some sort of Hornbyesque emotional shield either.  It's not a regressive thing because the consequences we see occur when the narrator is 17, and there's nothing to really regress to.  He couches his particular situation in very dance music-y terms--which is to say, oddly enough, vague, abstract, and universal, eschewing personal narrative for inclusiveness (which isn't really necessary, but never mind for now).  But it isn't salvation; his childhood has still fucked him up, and the only role for the music here is really to be playing when the cops arrive.  
What is going on in that second verse?  There's talk of paths and alleyways which may or may not be literal, and a certain determinism ("there's only one place...") and a crime is clearly committed, you'd be inclined to guess something related to domestic violence, although there's not so much textual evidence for that.  The one thing that ties it in is that last line before the prechorus chords kick in: "...and I don't want to die alone."  Now what would a 17-year-old care about that?  It seems like something driven by the heightened romanticism of dance music, that particular fear of emptiness and loneliness that it chases off so well sometimes.  So maybe the music has an effect after all.

ADDENDUM: Boy, didn't talk about the music much, did I?  But I think that's a bit part of my love for this song.  The simple fact that it's based around piano rather than guitar takes Darnielle out of his more familiar element, I think, and the particular DUM-dugga-dugga acoustic guitar rhythm that forms the basis of a lot of his songs isn't here, which is both refreshing and good for the song, regardless of who's playing it.  It leaves a space for the vocals and it makes the rests in the chorus that much more notable.  I don't know if it's Dance Music, but it does have a groove, which at least makes it as good as Guns 'n' Roses.  Uh, sorta.
[1] Plus a certain cohort of mine wrote a batch of songs while on the aforementioned substance once and they were all fairly languid in parts. 
[2] I'm relistening to this, and one of the names suggested for said band is "The Killers."  Ha!
[3] I've always been a lot more interested in this than in all the semiotics claptrap about the falsity of seemingly truthful images.  Images encourage processing; melody and rhyme doesn't so much.  But never mind.