The Mountain Goats: Have to Explode
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
I got into the Mountains Goats precipitously late, 2005's The Sunset Tree serving as the firm smack upside the head I needed; but the fever hit hard and I acquired the easy-to-find stuff, the studio albums, as quickly as possible. Each became my favorite in turn, gracefully yielding to the kind of obsessive listening I didn't think I was capable of engaging in any more. But even after a few weeks with Tallahassee I don't think I could have told you there was even a song called “Have to Explode” on it, let alone what it sounded like. My Damascene moment, such as it was, came at work when I was so stricken that I actually paused the CD until a coworker wandered away, retrieved my headphones, and listened to track 11 on repeat for about an hour.
Nothing more complicated happens than the slow twining of John Darnielle's unusually gentle acoustic and vocal, Peter Hughes' circumspect but crucial bass and Franklin Bruno's tentative piano notes. The lyrics are, as always, deserving of close attention, but what caught my ear that day was one line: “Name one thing about us two anyone could love.”
With a line like that, in a story like this, you'd expect rancor, pity, disgust; all you get is calm, almost loving statement of fact. Darnielle's vocal is one of his most restrained and beautiful; while he has consistently given us scattered moments of grace, here I can and have fixated on each line he sings, from “Checkerboard white and grey” to “Someone's going to do something someone else will regret.” All drugs and delusions have their moments of clarity, of shocking lucidity. They don't always get acted on. But “Have to Explode” is that moment, “You and me lying on the tile floor / Trying to keep cool / Restless all night / Sweating out the poison.” The narrator knows it's not going to last, knows that the whole problem is that no-one in that house ever seizes the moment until it's too late, until they lock eyes and start throwing off sparks again.
“Have to Explode,” from title on down, is a song about knowing that things are fucked and about to become even more fucked... and about being at peace with that. I've always been a sucker for songs that say “yeah, but we're alive, and that's something,” or “our lives aren't perfect, maybe not even good, but we'll be okay,” or “existence, even the most screwed up kind, is worth it.” We look at these two drunks and tend to recoil or judge or just give up; but they know what they're doing, they've made their choices and they're content. It may not be the right thing, but it’s their thing. “Name one thing about us two anyone could love,” sure; the mere fact that they ask the question is enough. They're humans, and they suffer, and we're humans, and we suffer. So they roll out the red carpet when rotten luck comes down the road. Maybe most of us don't, but if you can't empathize while listening to the two of them ticking down the seconds until the flash, then who's worse off?