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Monday, May 23, 2005
The Mountain Goats' "This Year" isn't a particularly good song, but I like it anyway. The first three verse stanzas are pretty much pointless on their own, only existing to serve as setup for the culminating line in the fourth stanza, "Twin high-maintenance machines," which hits pretty good until you think about it a little and it starts to remind you of Steppenwolf. (The band, not the book.) The singer belts out the lines in a totally inappropriate sort of lurge, and we know from previous experience that this forced hurl is not necessarily the best timbre for him, plus the music--well, it's nice that he was able make a distinct verse and chorus bit out of the same riff, I suppose, but that doesn't really excuse the paucity of the backing.
Still, it all doesn't make too much difference when, after the third verse set (sixth stanza) he suddenly busts out with "There will be feasting / and dancing / in Jerusalem next year," ending smartly on a leading tone rather than on the tonic and sending him straight into the chorus. This is interesting to me because it's basically an adaptation of a common short-fiction technique: using familiar quotations from religion or pop culture, not to show off your obscurity as much as to present something we're all presumed to know as if to say, "Here, what I am feeling is so easy to understand that this person already has," while simultaneously ride on the inherited sense of profundity that a quotation carries with it. This will ring a bell for anyone who's ever read the creative writing of teenagers (favorites in my day included Nirvana, NIN, Ani, Tori, and Zeppelin--I can only imagine what the kids are quoting now. Anybody?) but JD's too good a writer to be using this as lazy shorthand. Instead, he's using it as productive shorthand, opening up a whole other series of associations and assumptions with, what, 10 words, always a good thing in these sorts of songs.
I've been to three Passover seders now (well, 4 if you count the one at college, but I don't) and when they get to the climactic line of the ceremony, "Next year in Jerusalem!" it's always said with a real ruefulness. (I asked what they say for this line if you are having Passover in Jerusalem--"Next year at Aunt Ethyl's house"?--but it is merely omitted.) Because, of course, it's a line that predates the reformation of Israel by many, many years, and by now anyone with a brain knows that the fulfillment of that dream is not necessarily something to be celebrated. But what I love about "This Year" is that JD takes it back to its original context, which, because things are getting a bit too serious here, I'll call the "Mets context"--not a prophecy, in other words, but something to confer solace on the present-tense situation, a dream meant to give courage and hope rather than something can pencil into your daily planner, and I love that after all this very realist talk of cars and video games and scotch, he all of a sudden throws in this religious allusion that doesn't seem forced or slightly offensive, but instead fills in the gaps in the song (the interior mental state of the main character, which had only been hinted at before, is made pretty clear with this line) and works actually, not that different from how the allusion typically does, as I understand it. It's nice to see it reclaimed, because it is a great line, and Darnielle does it very well.