If an artist writes enough music, they’re going to eventually touch on a lot of subjects repeatedly. But it seems that for John Darnielle, songwriter, singer and creator of the Mountain Goats, that cars and driving are a constant thread through his work. Darnielle is incredibly prolific. He started recording under the Mountain Goats name in the early ’90s and has put out about an album every few years since then.
If you’ve been introduced to the Mountain Goats via mainstream music, it is probably through the song “This Year”:
This song kicks off with a teenage kid escaping his shitty home life in a car. As a car enthusiast, these lyrics gripped me immediately:
I broke free on a Saturday morning
I put the pedal to the floor
Headed north on Mills Avenue
And listened to the engine roar
My broken house behind me
And good things ahead
A girl named Cathy
Wants a little of my time
Six cylinders underneath the hood
Crashing and kicking
Listen to the engine whine
I am going to make it through this year
If it kills me
There is a decent chance you know exactly the feeling this song is portraying. The chorus “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” is still pretty apt today.
Brad Brownell and I are mega fans of the Mountain Goats. A lot of writers are, given the complex lyrics and storytelling style of Darnielle. Even if you’ve never heard the band, you’ve probably read the words of the Mountain Goats bassist Peter Hughes here on Jalopnik.
In honor of the release of the Mountain Goats’ 19th official album, Getting Into Knives, we decided to listen to every damn song in the Mountain Goats’ catalog and pick out all of the songs that mention cars and driving. This was a labor of absolute love.
Some caveats: As a huge fan of outfits like the Elephant Six collective I was instantly drawn to the lo-fi albums, which Darnielle recorded on an old Panasonic RX-FT500. Fuzzy rock is my personal favorite. Brad, on the other hand, digs the more polished studio albums, which are also honestly totally wonderful. So we split the albums, with myself taking all of the older ones, while Brad combed through mainly the sophisticated hi-fi recordings. We combed through the lyrics looking for every car/driving mention. You can find our ultimate the Mountain Goats driving music soundtrack “Getting Into Cars” on Spotify.
Also, like any prolific artist, Darnielle has a whole host of covers, limited releases, singles on cassette and straight-up bootlegs out there. We stuck with the stuff you can easily find, as combing through all the unofficial releases would be both too wonderful and absolutely impossible. We’ve listed the songs in order of release and added a few of our own notes and recollections to the tracklist. If we missed any, feel free to call us pathetic casuals in the comments.
And as always, Brad and I are all too human, so we probably missed some! If we did, hit the comments and we’ll add it to our ultimate Mountain Goats “Getting Into Cars” playlist.
Erin: Darnielle often writes road trip or travel songs to describe searching for the person you were in love with but don’t really know anymore. This is his very first version of that story. The Recognition Scene is a term the comes from Greek drama. It’s the moment when everyone in the play knows everything that has been going on. This whole album is particularly raw and fuzzy.
We stole every bit of candy they had inside.
Gobbled it all up greedily on our three-month ride.
I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone.
I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone.
You headed out to the getaway car
And hit the open road
Erin: A rare happy love song! Darnielle said this is the first song he wrote about his wife; it;s about two people in love with the open road and each other. This is the first album that I really fell head over heels for. It’s also the first of many of the epic road trip anthems that make up some of the best Mountain Goats songs. This album is fuzzy, but a little gentler than the first two. A solid album through and through.
Brad: There are so few good love songs from the Mountain Goats. I played Old College Try at my wedding, and I guess we’re doing alright.
You turned to me and asked me if I’d always be your boy
As we drove across the river into western Illinois
And on the railroad bridge, half a mile of solid steel
Wheels were spitting out sparks, scraping at the rails
Update: Thursday, October 29, 2020 3:45 P.M.
Erin: As John Darnielle himself pointed out shortly after publishing this list, we missed a great one. As if this song, or any Lincoln Continental, could ever be considered forgettable.
And I got all sentimental
We were heading straight to hell
In a lincoln continental
Erin: A song that certainly delivers on its title.
Evening came on like a big red wing
And the dying sun spilt his colors on everything
And as the night came on, you burst into song
And you scraped your car up against the guardrail
And God is present in the sweeping gesture
But the devil is in the details
Erin: Just a classic tale about a boy, his rabbit, a bottle of Dexedrine and the open road.
Heading out Highway 1,
Respecting out posted speed limits.
And I tried to figure this one out,
But I can’t find any feeling in it.
Brad: Snow has fallen on the town, and everything has slowed to a crawl in the cold. There is something unsaid between the protagonist and their partner. Despite their desire to make them disappear, they pull them closer. It’s a lovely sentiment, and there have probably been times I would relate to it.
Erin: From Darnielle’s liner notes:
This song’s title is, for me, a generic term with a very specific purpose. I use it when I’ve written a song whose mood reminds me, either lyrically or musically, of the winter I spent in Portland, Oregon, a season during which I almost died at least twice.
They’ve shut down the roads to the coast
There’s white streets as far as the eye can see
And I’d just as soon
Make you disappear as look at you
Brad: For as famous, or perhaps infamous, as the Mountain Goats’ series of Going To... songs, this appears to be the only one that actually mentions going somewhere in a car. The narrator in this song has traveled to the capital of Chile by car, and everything has gone wrong.
Look at those birds
I’d say something about them but I’ve lost the words
They’re laughing and they’re watching me
And the radiator’s boiling for no reason
Erin: We’re right back into the rough stuff. There isn’t much about this short song out there, but it’s pretty direct and has a great gut-punching end.
Brad: It’s clear that John writes a lot of his songs about people in unhealthy relationships, but even healthy ones have those moments where you just seethe with rage about something your partner said. That’s the feeling that I get from this song. This three-song run (“Scotch Grove,” “Horseradish Road” and “Family Happiness”) on Gambit features a pair of people who hate each other, but also love each other, going places in a car. And I just think that’s neat.
Leann Rimes on the car stereo
Sang that song you know I hate, the one about the blackbird
And the rain came down on the windshield
I wished it would wash us both away
Erin: Another song about love turning into something unrecognizable. The journey isn’t always a smooth one, folks.
‘Cause in this car, in this car
Somebody’s bound to get burned
I know, I know
‘Cause I’ve been watching the road turn
Erin: Ahhhh I freaking love this song. Another song about two people who are locked in a car exploring the uncharted territory of becoming strangers despite their long relationship. One of them seems absolutely done with the whole thing and refusing to fight anymore. The narrator doesn’t know the destination, but he’s going there fast.
We’re headed deep into the forest
I’ve got the pedal to the floor
The engine shudders like a dying man
When you reach out to grab my hand
You can bring out all your weapons
You can’t make me go to war
Long, winding Canadian highways
Weather forecast on the AM radio
Says we’ll be expecting highs in the low teens
Erin: I love his songs that tell a story, like this one where the narrator warns a man with big dreams against trying insurance fraud. Solid life advice from the Mountain Goats right here.
Burned-out shell of a Volkswagen,
Bloodstains on the driveway,
Torn up Mercedes, by the side of the highway
Big plans, big plans
Let me tell you, something sister,
You will never get away with it.
Erin: This is a rare B-side that Darnielle actually plays live fairly frequently.
I took to the highway
The highway took to me
Erin: A nice mellow B-side with an upbeat tune. This song strikes me as about the kind of relationship where two people are both equally reckless, egging each other on almost like a game of Truth or Dare. They’re in desperate need of adult supervision.
We went down to Pete Brown’s Chevrolet
Because Pete Brown can satisfy
All your new car needs
Erin: All Hail West Texas is the album that made me fall in love with the Mountain Goats. It’s so full of heart and poetry. This song is a heart-aching story about a man who drives to an old P.O. box to find cryptic postcards sent to him by someone who was once special.
Brad: I, for one, also wish the West Texas Highway was a Möbius strip.
Once a week I make the drive, two hours east
To check the Austin post office box
And I make the detour through our old neighborhood
See all the Chevy Impalas in their front yards up on blocks
Erin: I’ve always really loved this little song. It’s such a tidy storytelling tune. Darnielle told Salon in 2013 that the song (really the whole album) was an experiment in creating characters. This particular song was also a way to talk about his feeling about mandatory sentencing laws. Plus it has a Notorious B.I.G. reference!
...the thing is, mandatory minimum sentences are not just a story. They’re a lot of people’s reality. Back then, you’d see multiple “20/20s” about some guy who got the idea to buy a pound of weed to distribute in college and got caught and was doing 10 years. You can’t do 10 years and come out the same person you were, as the young person who made a mistake and wound up getting a sentence that a judge was compelled to give him. So yeah, that’s an explicitly political song about how mandatory minimum sentences are bullshit.
Brad: I remember listening to this song for the first time on my iPod while walking my dog and just stopping dead in my tracks and sitting on a park bench until it was over. Great storytelling, great tune, perfect work, no notes.
Relevant lyrics :
And you’d figured out a way to make real money
Giving ends to your friends and it felt stupendous
Chrome spokes on your Japanese bike
Erin: The cover of All Hail West Texas details that inside you’ll find “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys” This might be a song about a motorcycle, but Jenny shows up throughout the Mountain Goats’ work. Whether Jenny actually is the motorcycle or is someone special is a matter of fan debate, but Darnielle himself said of the song on the podcast I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats:
For me, this Jenny is like, it is and isn’t the same person. Usually the three songs I think that she’s mentioned in, she is a function of memory, right, she’s there for a person to be remembering something. And I think everybody has people like that in their lives who when you say their name, your memory floods with a whole bunch of feelings that you may have worked really hard to move past or that you miss and would like to recall or any number of other things. And that’s who Jenny is for the narrators who recall her, as somebody who is gone and whose absence continues to assert itself... She is defined by an absence, she has yet to speak.
Brad: I have thoughts about Jenny:
1. It might be my favorite tMG song.
2. I imagine it as a young lesbian woman escaping her emotionally abusive Texan parents.
3. Or Jenny is the motorcycle. Possibly and.
Relevant lyrics (well, pretty much all of them are relevant, but this one is awesome):
900 cubic centimeters of raw, whining power, no outstanding warrants for my arrest
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, the pirate’s life for me
Erin: Lots of car references in this one, and one of my favorites from All Hail West Texas.
But none of the money we spend
seems to do us much good in the end
I got a cracked engine block, both of us do
Got a house, the jewels, the Italian race car
They don’t make us feel better about who we are
I got termites in the framework, so do you
Polaroids of the two of us
Scattered on the passenger seat
I drive slowly and evenly
And I dream about home
Erin: A lithops is a tiny succulent plant that looks like a rock to avoid being eaten. Two leaves grow from a central point but are forced apart when new leaves grow. A pretty apt metaphor for what it can be like to be left alone, seemingly not doing anything, but what you’re really getting ready for is tearing yourself apart to grow.
The big trucks come up the highway
And the big wheels rattle my windows
And night, night comes to Texas
Erin: Here’s what Darnielle has said about this song:
This is a song about a couple of people who shouldn’t probably have gotten married in the first place. They did and you were like, hey hey hey hey, it’s always good to see you guys out around the town, cruising the bar and everything, but maybe getting married, not the best idea… and when you said it, they got really angry, and they were like, you know, ‘Who are you to judge me?’
Brad: Equally as important as the “Going To ...” series of songs are the “Alpha Couple” songs, and Tallahassee is packed with them. John wrote a series of songs about the rise and fall of a very problematic relationship. Thankfully, they had No Children.
Bad luck comes in from Tampa
Bad luck comes in from Tampa
On the back of a truck
Doing ninety up the interstate
Erin: Another “Alpha Couple” song. These two are really a mess. Honorable mention to the line: People say friends don’t destroy one another, what do they know about friends?
I heard cars headed down to oblivion up on the expressway
Brad: I get so amped up listening to this song. Big time Goat energy.
Erin: I love the beat to this song. I’ve always thought it would make a fun burlesque act song.
I was driving up from Tampa
When the radiator burst
I was three sheets to the wind
Brad: I actually first heard this song on Weeds, believe it or not.
Erin: One of my favorite things about the Mountain Goats is the creative use of unexpected similes and metaphors. This song is a prime example.
Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania
Trucks loaded down with weapons
Crossing over every night
Moon yellow and bright
Honorable planelopnik mention:
My love is like a Cuban plane
Flying from Havana
Up the Florida coast to the ‘Glades
Brad: After I’d already listened to tMG’s more popular albums a lot, Davey G. Johnson told me I should listen to We Shall All Be Healed and that it had a lot of great songs. A few weeks later I saw them perform a lot of the songs from this album live at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and dammit if he wasn’t totally right. The “Young Thousands” is one of those great songs. “Palmcorder Yajna” is another.
You drive east from the ocean with both hands tied on the wheel
And you go past Garden Grove as the pleasure index rises
The things that you’ve got coming will do things that you’re afraid to
There is someone waiting out there with a mouthful of surprises
Honorable boatlopnik mention:
Boats ease into the harbor bearing real suspicious cargo
Erin: This song puts me in the conquering mood, but apparently, this song is about a friend of Darnielle’s scoring black tar heroin in Orange County. He pulled over on the side of the freeway to shoot up and fell asleep, only for a CHP officer to arrest him.
Wipe down the windshields and roll down the windows
Let’s go where the jackals are breeding
I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it’s dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give
Erin: This song is about Darnielle’s girlfriend who helped him through getting bullied in high school.
‘36 Hudson in the garage
All sorts of junk in the unattached spare room
Dishes in the kitchen sink
New straw for the old broom
Brad: We already discussed relevant lyrics for this song in the intro, so here’s my personal favorite:
Twin high maintenance machines
The king of the jungle
Was asleep in his car
When your chances fall in your lap like that
You gotta recognize them for what they really are
Erin: Ox Baker was a wrestler whose catchphrase was ‘I love to hurt people!’ (might as well put that on the cover of every Goats album.) The Mountain Goats would go on to record an entire album about wrestlers called Beat The Champ that is one of my favorite of the hi-fi albums. That album has a song devoted to the good guy wrestler Chavo Guerrero, Baker’s enemy.
I will rise from the swamp where they dumped my private plane
I’ll be clutching the life preserver in my teeth
And I will find the highway
And I will flag down a truck
Worry lines on my forehead, blank stare underneath
We got in your car and we hit the highway
Eastern sun was rising over the mountains
Yellow and blood red bits
Like a kaleidoscope
We were parked in your car
In our neutral meeting place, the Episcopalian churchyard
I had things I’d been meaning to say
But in the dazzling winter sun that late I could feel them melt away
Hubcaps on the car like fun house mirrors
Brad: Aside from being a totally awesome song from start to finish, this one really resonates with me. I was an angsty little shit as a teen, for a WASPy dickhead, from rural Michigan, and I liked to do the kind of shit you weren’t supposed to. Like blow things up and ruin things only for the reason that it was cool to ruin things. Darnielle once said that this song is “for the children who like to burn things” and goodness gracious if that wasn’t me. We will get there when we get there, don’t you worry.
Erin: The Mountain Goats are at their best when Darnielle is screaming into the mic and slamming his guitar strings like he hates them. I especially love his performance of this song on NPR’s Tiny Desk series. I love the way he described his thinking behind this song in a 2009 Pitchfork interview:
If you directly intend to offend him, though, it would probably be the most direct, in a sense— this is kind of Hare Krishna stuff, where they talk about the different ways you can stand with God. One is as a lover, but another is as His enemy. Because when you are engaging with someone in a position of enmity, that is also a very intimate relationship. So these people are doing some bad things and one of them, the one who sins, is sort of experiencing a connection to God in the depths of his degradation— which I think is almost a universal experience. When do you cry out to the God you don’t believe in? When you hit bottom
Lord, send me a mechanic if I’m not beyond repair
Brad: I can’t do this any justice, so here is the description of this song from John Darnielle himself in a 2009 interview with Pitchfork.
Yeah, that one is about my mother-in-law. Straight autobiographical song. It’s about the time that I— oh man, it’s hard to talk about. It’s about the time that I called my wife from tour, and she had gone to be with her mom and she said, “We’re thinking it could come any minute.” I was on tour, and I couldn’t not go say goodbye, so I canceled a show in Northampton, Massachusetts and flew home, drove in and stayed in that environment where someone is about to leave their body at a very young age. I was there for about 24 hours, and then I turned around and went back to tour and stepped from a cab onto stage. It was really disorienting in a really heavy, heavy way. So yeah. That’s for her.
The quality of the video linked here is maybe not the best, but John’s voice cracking just obliterates me every time, so I had to include it. Clearly it’s a very emotional song. And just so fucking good.
And I’m an eighteen wheeler headed down the interstate
And my brakes are going to give and I won’t know until it’s too late
Tires screaming when I lose control
Try not to hurt too many people when I roll
Brad: An enforcer for a crime syndicate finishes his day torturing someone and goes for a drive to try to clear his head. When that doesn’t work, he smokes some high purity clear rock cocaine.
Erin: Ya know, like you do.
Drive til the rain stops
Brad: Vampires is a reference to intravenous drug use, likely speed as Darnielle has confessed to using a lot of that in the mid-1980s. In this song the narrator is hopped up on something and sees himself and his crew as heroes and trend setters, driving wild broncos, pulling young free spirits into their circle of influence. Later in the song, the narrator sees himself in a mirror and recognizes nobody should be following his lead.
High beams in rain
Drive wild broncos
Down the plain
Brad: This is very passively related to cars, but it specifically mentions a Chevrolet Impala, so obviously I had to include it. Someone is having an estate sale to rid themselves of the possessions that remind them of the toxicity of failed love.
Erin: I just love the line “every martyr in this jungle is gonna get his wish”
Some guy in an Impala shakes his head when he rides by
But I remember when we shared a vision, you and I
Brad: Set in 1979 Cambodia during the deposing of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The narrator feels remorse for having ratted out a friend or family member to a higher, perhaps despotic, power. The trucks here refer perhaps to the Khmer fleeing Vietnamese occupation.
Erin: Of course, there’s also the reference to the biblical Cain, whom God cursed to never be able to grow crops again and to wander the Earth after he committed humanity’s first murder against his brother, Abel. The narrator in this song is a marked man and won’t be finding redemption or rest, no matter how long he searches.
Saw the trucks roll out this morning
Not sure when they’re coming back again
Brad: This one is pretty dark for having such an upbeat tempo. Perhaps a throwback to the ’50s classic Rebel Without A Cause, speeding up to the precipice as a way of doing something that makes you feel alive, but if you get it wrong you’re dead. It’s a balancing act between feeling something and feeling nothing. Someone feels remorse for doing something bad, so they go out and do something worse to try to make the initial bad thing easier to live with.
Speed up to the precipice
And then slam on the brakes
Some people crash two or three times
And then learn from their mistakes
This song also gets an honorable mention for this totally bitchin’ ride making a cameo in the video. I think it’s a DeSoto? Prove me wrong in the comments.
Brad: The narrator here has lived through something emotionally crippling, which has forced them to observe life happening but not interacting with any of it. They are stuck in one place while the world continues on without them. Cars, in this case, signify how routine the world is.
Erin: A song about what it feels like to enter a deep, dark depression.
Cars start up and make
Their nightly exodus
Brad: This is a song about descent into paranoia. A homeless person who believes the government is tracking them and potentially has a clandestine meeting with someone driving a car with fake license plates.
Dig through the trash
Sleep on the grates
And watch for the cars
With the counterfeit Florida plates
Brad: Beat The Champ is an entire concept album about professional wrestling of days gone by. There once was a wrestler named Bull Ramos. After he retired from wrestling, he started a tow truck company in Houston, Texas. Take this one at face value, folks.
Drive a great big truck
When I’m old, when I’m old
Haul the wrecks down to the wreck yard
Help the boys unload
Brad: In case you hadn’t caught on, the album Goths is about all things Goth. “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds” is about the lead singer of The Sisters Of Mercy, Andrew Eldritch, completing his touring career in 1993 and as the genre was no longer popular, moving back to where it all started, Leeds. The band once saw itself as on top of the world, buying fancy sports cars and bopping around together in them.
To remember how it was
When they all thought they’d move away
And ride in Lotus 7s
Through the London streets one day
Brad: This is a song about joining in with a tougher crowd than you can really stomach because you want to look tough. Especially as a malleable youth in the California Goth scene, it’s easy to fall in with the wrong crowd and end up doing some hardcore shit. I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore. (And for what it’s worth, I have confirmation from Peter Hughes that the Grand Am referenced here is a 1980, possibly with the rare California-legal Chevy 305 V8.)
Load into the Grand Am
Brad: In case you’re unaware, 92 degrees is the perfect temperature for a murder, because if it’s hotter than that people stay inside, and if it’s cooler than that, people aren’t quite as quick to become irate. There’s a “Siouxsie And The Banshees”song about it. Anyway, it would seem that this song is from the POV of someone who has just committed a murder and is fleeing capture. Hmmm, I’m sensing a pattern.
Blaupunkt in the dashboard
Cracks in the cylinder block
Heading up the Golden State Freeway
Toward Eagle Rock
Brad: I love this song. It’s just a night in the life of North America’s beloved native marsupial, the adorable opossum. Listen, man, they don’t all have to be deep. This one is shallow as hell, and it’s still a bop. Also, big shout out to the long-haul truckers, for they keep the global economy running and don’t get nearly enough credit.
Erin: The opossum definitely deserves its own heartfelt piano-filled ballad. A long overdue tune.
Long-haul truckers still wide awake
Guard their pathways for Jesus’ sake
Brad: Doc Gooden was a baseball player. I don’t know shit about baseball, but this song isn’t really about baseball. It’s about the passage of time. Gooden is reflecting on his career and how in his declining years he still plays, but not quite as well. No matter how many foes you vanquish in your prime, one day you’ll get old.
Potholes in the parking lot
You feel the jolts a little harder every year
Erin: Anything with slide guitar gets an instant A+
Brad: The first time I listened to In League With Dragons, “Waylon Jennings Live!” stood out to me as an instant classic. It’s not in the typical tMG fashion, as it’s got more of a country and western feel to it. The main character of this song is clearly up to no good, and his rented Mitsubishi is the vessel he plans to use to evade some form of law enforcement. I’m not sure if the border he’s looking to escape across is to the north or south, but being that the Meskwaki Casino is in central Iowa, he’s got a long way to go.
When the valet parked my rented Mitsubishi
With a beat up old brown suitcase in the trunk
Full of firearms and flash drives
Full of passports
And international money orders
Brad: This time the car is metaphorical. An Antidote For Strychnine is all about the creative process. The things we do in service to creative endeavor are often poisonous, but we’ve delivered the poison to ourselves. It’s only once the thing we endeavor to create has been completed that we find the antidote. I am the car with the rusty frame, and I am scraping parts of myself into the work that I perform.
Scrape a winter’s worth of salt deposits
From the rusty frame of my car
Brad: This might be the only time I’ve fallen in love with a song inspired by a tweet. This is easily my favorite song from Getting Into Knives. The narrative is all about memorializing a marriage by driving around with a wedding dress and taking photographs of it in places, which sounds like a very cathartic road trip. I love cathartic road trips. And the song has a similar tonal feel to “Waylon Jennings Live!” which is fitting, because I picture this woman as having divorced the man from that song.
It may be a long while before the highway
Decides to finally set me free
I’m going to have to chase down the remnants
Of something special that you stole from me
Brad: The piano on this one is haunting. As are the lyrics. It’s remembrance of a deceased loved one. The world has changed without them, and even something as simple as driving around town reminds us of their former existence. Surely all of us have experienced this at some point. Familiarity and memory can come to be the thing that haunts you.
I’m not thinking of you
When I swing left onto Gordon Avenue
It’s just the way the traffic veers
Haven’t driven down these streets in years
Brad: “Harbor Me” is another of those classic Goat tropes in which someone is escaping from something or someone. There is a threat, this person is hiding from said threat, and someone they love is helping shelter them from whatever storm is headed their way. Unlike other escaping songs, however, the character here isn’t running but instead hiding.
Grab some shades
From the gas station rack
Living in fear
Until you come back