A Strangely Comforting Quarantine Album

The Mountain Goats’ latest release is authentically a product of this pandemic, but it’s also nicely indifferent to it.

John Darnielle
“A good story is so useful ... that you can apply it to your own situation,” Darnielle says. "That's the poet's ideal." (Lalitree Darnielle)

In March, as the coronavirus was bringing public life to a halt, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats sat in his North Carolina home and composed music about fifth-century pagans on the verge of being annihilated by ascendant Christendom. One song, describing the furtive worship of old gods, included the phrase “Neck deep in our passions / Serve who we serve.” He sat and thought about the next lines. What rhymes with serve? Swerve was too obvious. Lurve was too British. Curve, maybe?

The line he sang: “Shrouded in moonlight / bucking the curve.”

When I spoke with Darnielle by phone earlier this week, I pointed out that “bucking the curve” sounds awfully similar to a certain public-health imperative of recent importance. The song gives voice to an ancient sect whose sequestration in the wooded hills along the Black Sea kind of resembles interminable quarantine: “The burden of exile / gets easy to bear / sometimes forget / there’s cities down there.” Darnielle initially told me that he wrote the song so early in the coronavirus crisis that jargon about infection curves hadn’t entered the discourse. Then he seemed to revise that claim.

“I remember now: I saw that [‘bucking the curve’ line] and thought, Oh, that’s funny, because we’re talking about flattening the curve,” he said. “But yeah, that’s an accident. Curve occurs to me and I laughed because of the double relevance.”

Semi-coincidences such as these represent some of the first, and perhaps most potent, ways that music has addressed the unfolding catastrophe. Novelty tracks and charity singles have tackled COVID-19 head-on, but what’s more intriguing is how music recorded just on the cusp of the outbreak, or even earlier, has been recast. Fiona Apple’s entrapment vignettes and The Weeknd’s paranoid parties, for example, clearly suit a moment they weren’t actually created for. The Mountain Goats’ new album, Songs for Pierre Chuvin, is more authentically a product of this pandemic, but it’s also nicely indifferent to it. Inspired by an academic text he’d been reading, Darnielle reached to traumas of the distant past—and happened to highlight how humans have long made meaning in the face of isolation and extinction dread.

The Mountain Goats have been a cult-adored fixture of American rock for a quarter of a century now, anchored by Darnielle’s panicky yelp, humble poetics, and folk-informed musicality. He recorded his early albums mostly alone and directly into a Panasonic boombox, with lovably scratchy results, before expanding to full-band richness in the 2000s. All along, he’s sketched historical figures—emperors, priestesses, novelists—in a way that depicts their love and loneliness as eternally relatable. He’s also dug into misanthropic-seeming art movements, such as heavy metal and horror fiction, so as to illuminate dread, defiance, and outsiderness. All of these thematic threads run through the strong and lean Songs for Pierre Chuvin, whose name refers to the author of the 1990 history book A Chronicle of the Last Pagans.

The album’s 10 songs mark the first time since 2002 that Darnielle has recorded on his legendary boombox—a production choice in part encouraged by social isolation. In January and February, as the coronavirus disaster in China began to infiltrate American headlines, Darnielle and his band were deep in studio sessions for an upcoming album. By the time the crisis in America “started to look really gnarly,” as he put it, he was cloistered at home with his wife and two kids. Quickly, he got the idea to take the old Panasonic off the shelf and record a song, which he ended up liking. “I thought, What if I wrote another song tomorrow?” he said. “What if I wrote a song every day? As strategies go, it’s kind of quotidian. Well, it works for me!”

I mentioned to him that a lot of other people, myself included, were finding the pandemic to be sapping our abilities to be productive. He cut in with a “Why?,” and I sighed something about anxiety and futility. “It’s interesting how everyone reacts differently,” he replied. “I tend to bury myself in my work. Now, I can get so depressed that I can’t work, and I’ve had it happen. But generally speaking, if I remember at the outset of some time of fear that one place I can go—where nothing else really matters—is work, then I go there and I stay there. I am safe in my writing.”

Social isolation, he added, didn’t actually upend his life all that much. A planned tour has been canceled, as has his daily Magic the Gathering lunch match with a friend. He also can’t go into the office space that he rents to write prose. Other than those things, though, he thinks of himself as having been living a form of quarantine for decades. “When we first started touring, I considered myself a pretty social person, but then around 1997 or ’98, I started going, Wow, I don’t like being around people as much as I used to,” he said. “I stopped going to parties. Generally it has to do with the fact that when you’re touring, you’re in rooms full of people all the time. You start structuring your day around making sure you’re not constantly in front of people.”

Many of his songs have depicted reclusiveness as a survival technique, in terms sometimes romanticized and sometimes nightmarish. On 2004’s “Dance Music,” he tenderly reminisced about using the radio in childhood to drown out his abusive stepfather’s eruptions. On 2008’s scorching “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” he voiced a mentally unstable person’s revulsion at the sight of humans congregating on the streets. Now Pierre Chuvin conjures communities of late antiquity attempting to thrive in hiding. On the rollicking “Until Olympius Returns,” pagans forced into servitude reassure themselves, “This is just a momentary ripple in the stream.” On “January 31, 438,” whose title refers to the date when the Eastern Roman empire outlawed Jews and Samaritans from public office, he delivers this vision of lonesome rebellion:

I dance in the dark, all alone
I dance for the God on the throne
If they come catch me and arrest me, mid step
Let me go down dancing, let me be the last one left

If the listener hears the album’s tyrants, seeking and destroying pockets of huddled human warmth, as akin to a deadly virus, that’s okay with Darnielle. The pandemic may well have subconsciously shaped his work. “In group therapy, people will say something, and then you notice they were actually saying something else,” he said. “Then you say, ‘It seemed like this thing you said was actually coming from another place.’ You gain insight into your behavior that way, right?  For me, I tell stories, and then I go, Why is that your take on the story?

But he rejects the notion that these songs were written as allegory. “A good story is so useful and so polydisseminative that you can apply it to your own situation,” he said with a chuckle at his own use of academic terminology. “That’s the poet’s ideal … When I’m writing about the fall of a civilization, well, especially given our present political moment, there’s a 50/50 chance on any given day that it’s going to sound like I’m writing about the present. I notice all of those things in the writing, and if I see one that feels cool, then I leave it in. I’m singing songs about doomed people, and that was what I was already doing.”

Darnielle is not only describing his songwriting ethos—he’s describing a process of connection-making that occurs within his own lyrics and in the reception to them. On 2005’s “This Year,” his most widely beloved single, Darnielle blended his own troubled teenage memories with imagery of a feast in Jerusalem. That song’s chorus, “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me!,” has been a mantra for many during the coronavirus pandemic; the Mountain Goats retweeted an image of those words posted outside a closed concert venue. Of having coined such an enduring slogan, he said, “I imagine it’s what it must feel like to have come up with a really great recipe. Food is nourishing, so if you write a recipe and people are serving it to their families, then you’ve done a great thing. You don’t get to take that much credit. The people who are doing the cooking are the ones who get the lion’s share.”

Poignantly, the “This Year” chorus also shows up on Pierre Chuvin’s final track, “Exegetic Chains,” which explicitly celebrates how people across eras and cultures find commonality in trying times. The pagan narrator addresses the modern listener’s myths and Christmas carols, saying, “I know them well.” And when the speaker vows, “The places where we met to share our secrets now and then / We will see them again,” it’s not only a wish for a squelched community’s restoration. It’s also a message from the Mountain Goats to the people who would normally be attending the band’s shows. Darnielle mentioned the line when explaining why pandemic-era live-streams leave him cold. “When people gather in space, I think it’s congregational, it’s liturgical, and it’s personal,” he said. “Even though I’m kind of a hermit, that’s where I get the charge from: the presence of physical bodies in the room, and mine being one of them.”

Darnielle noted that in recycling “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me,” he’s really recycling a much older message: Carpe diem. Millennia after the poet Horace first counseled seizing the day, the sentiment lives on as an inspirational cliché—but one, Darnielle said, that’s often misused. “The wrong interpretation of Carpe diem is that you have to live life to the fullest,” he said. “To make the most of the moment is also to make the best of the moment. That’s one potential good [of this crisis]: asking whether moments in quiet are just as good as moments where you’re squeezing life ’til it bleeds.”

The question of how to properly seize the day right now reminded Darnielle of his years as a teenage metalhead. “When I was young, I only wanted music that was very convulsive and violent,” he said. “When you learn to accept something being mellow, it’s a great moment in your music-listening life. That’s something I hope people give themselves permission to do. It’s great to challenge yourself with art. And it’s also great to just listen to something that feels nice.” What he didn’t point out is that Songs for Pierre Chuvin reconciles the two imperatives. Its stories can be used to escape the present emergency—or, if the listener so chooses, to better understand it.