feature image photo by Steven Dewall / Contributor via Getty Images
The Mountain Goats are easily my favorite band, and a quick survey of their social media fandom shows I’m not alone in my obsession with finding themes of gender oppression and transformation in their raw, high-wire, indie-rock lyrics about tragedy, monstrosity, drugs, and sickness.
As one fan put it: “if I had a nickel for every time John darnielle wrote something that isn’t explicitly about being trans but sure isn’t *not* explicitly about being trans, I’d have a lot of nickels.”
I recently had the pleasure of seeing them alive on their Bleed Out tour where, after nearly suffering a panic attack at dinner, I was transported to a crowd of other raving, crying queers holding each other close and trying hard to be unafraid of the future.
Singer-songwriter John Darnielle appears very aware of his trans fans. In a now-deleted twitter exchange, he wrote:
This prompted fan-band INNNNI to write a whole song about being “a friend of John Darnielle,wp_postsfighting against every-day anti-trans actions. One fan even compiled every Mountain Goats song with even a hint of transness in a massive spreadsheet!
With a new album coming out about Jenny, a character from album All Hail West Texas the band describes as a woman “in the process of becoming someone other than the keyholder she’s been,wp_postsfans have speculated we may get confirmation that this enigmatic motorcyclist is some kind of trans.
With all this in mind, I think there’s no better time to write about the ten trans-est Mountain Goats songs of all time.
“Broom Peoplewp_posts/ The Sunset Tree
From the autobiographical and unabashedly vulnerable 2005 album, Darnielle flexes both his expressive voice and evocative lyricism on this track about poverty, self-harm, trauma, and the vitality of youth. It was this song that my partner and I rocked back and forth to in the front row, tears and sweat streaming like rain down our faces as we screamed the lyrics with Darnielle and backing vocalist Peter Hughes.
“Friends who don’t have a clue,
but down in your arms,
in your arms, I am a wild creature.”
I’ve always cried to this song. When I was a kid, I held a dozen secrets from friends and teachers — about suicide, about gender, about how achingly hard it was to get out of bed every day — and found comfort in the arms of people just like me.
“The Mummy’s Handwp_posts/ Unreleased
“Now hold on,wp_postsyou ask, “isn’t it a little unfair to list a song we can’t legally listen to?wp_postsWell, it’s true that Darnielle only performed this song publicly once, but it’s my track of choice to belt alone in the car, and I make the rules. Go buy a copy of The Sunset Tree and wait to do the same for Jenny from Thebes, and I think you can dig into the archive of vanished songs with conscience clear.
“Say the spell three times, crank up the special effects
I’m gonna cast off all my bandages and see what happens next
I will rise fully formed
Like an infant, freshly born”
While not the last song on this list about rebirth, “The Mummy’s Handwp_postsis a great example of the band’s enduring themes of embracing monstrosity. As if speaking directly to those who call any living thing a monster, the song asks “If you prick us, don’t it sting / if you kick us, won’t it hurt?”
While nominally about the Hammer Films horror icon, the lyrics are instantly relatable to anyone in the process of a liberating (if uncomfortable) transformation, and the invocation of shedding bandages evokes images of surgery and recovery. In the comments of a YouTube upload of the song, one fan wrote: “I’m going to come out at work tomorrow. I’m sick of this shit.”
“Birth of Serpentswp_posts/ All Eternals Deck
On an endlessly witty album that covers everything from vampires to cavemen and Charles Bronson, this track resists definition. It’s partially about confusion: Its lyrics invoke twisting, cramped tunnels, vague visions in crystal balls, and blurry photographs. But as the vocals grow tenser and more strained, we get this delightful dysphoric refrain:
“See that young man who dwells inside
his body like an uninvited guest”
“Hail St. Sebastianwp_posts/ Unreleased
Here we have another unreleased song. Darnielle claims he “promptly put [the song] awaywp_postsafter writing it, because “some things you have to kill, just to see if they will come crawling back,wp_postswhich is both trans and metal as hell. Consider this the song crawling back, John.
“If it doesn’t crush me
If it doesn’t break me
All the petty demons trying to break me in two
I was born stronger than any of you”
“Hail St. Sebastian,wp_postsin addition to being titled after a martyr enthusiastically embraced by the gay community, fully embodies the pensive defiance of confronting hatred with grace. There’s something so liberating and heartbreaking about the lines “bless the brave assassins / who strike us while we sleep.wp_postsIt always makes me cry.
This song is about any persecuted minority who goes down swinging, but the lyric “Everybody hates a victim / Who won’t stop fighting backwp_poststakes on a special heat when considering those infuriating neoliberal bigots who claim not to have an issue with whatever group is on the chopping block…as long as they’re not too loud when fighting for their rights.
“Palmcorder Yajnawp_posts/ We Shall All Be Healed
On an album about addiction, this track may be the most explicit. Many trans people deal or have dealt with addiction, myself included. There was a time where I looked to anything to stop feeling, to stop thinking and be comfortable, however briefly, in my body. I put this song on the list not only for this reason, but for these lyrics:
“And I dreamt of a factory
Where they manufactured what I needed
Using shiny new machines”
Originally about the injustice of how the state treats those struggling with addiction and the lack of pure, safe drugs for those who need them, these lines are likewise relatable for anyone on hormone replacement therapy.
With climate change on the rise and trans healthcare under threat, the queer people who desire medication for transition are in fear of shortages and bans. But for another perspective, consider that the drugs we use to alter our bodies are not made for us. Estradiol and injected Testosterone were developed to treat menopause and hypogonadism in cis people, with the side effect of making some trans people happy. In these lyrics, I see the dream of drugs made for us, to help us alter our bodies at will, as best as science possibly can.
“The Young Thousandswp_posts/ We Shall All Be Healed
By now, you may be asking if there are any songs by the Mountain Goats I don’t cry to. Well, yes! But they’re mostly the funny ones, like “The Monkey Songwp_postsand “The Anglo-Saxons.wp_postsNot this one.
I was in college when I first heard this track, heading to an English class taught by a professor whose philosophy of life changed me forever. It was autumn, and I stared out over the red-orange campus and felt the convulsive guitar and ringing piano push me closer and closer to coming out, like waves bearing a boat into harbor.
“The ghosts that haunt your building are prepared to take on substance
And the dull pain that you live with isn’t getting any duller
There’s a closet full of almost-pristine videotape
Documenting sordid little scenes in living color”
I identified so strongly with the lyrics it scared me. I had stomped down my gender confusion so much it left my whole soul bruised and tender, a dull pain which only got sharper with time. I tried to tell myself I was past the self-hatred and disgust that began at puberty, that I was content with my lot in life. But I, like the speaker of the song, had a closet full of evidence to the contrary, the memory of a thousand sordid scenes of gender-play and crossdressing more vibrant and real than anything I ever did as my assigned gender.
When I came out, it didn’t feel like a choice. It felt beautiful and inevitable, like the thousand ghosts of my body had decided for me.
“Hebrews 11:40wp_posts/ The Life of the World to Come
Given how queer people often have to find and forge their own families when rejected by the ones they were born into, the following lyrics on an album about death, rebirth, realization, and religion should hit close to home:
“Invent my own family if it comes to that
Hold them close, hold them near
Tell them no one’s ever going to hurt them here”
A song about surviving in any way you can, “Hebrewswp_postsreminds us it gets dark before you “feel certain [you are] going to rise again,wp_postsand echoes the solemn resolve of those aching for another body:
“Take to the hills, run away
I’m gonna get my perfect body back someday
If not by faith then by the sword
I’m going to be restored”
“Heretic Pridewp_posts/ Heretic Pride
The definitive anthem of gays with religious trauma, “Heretic Pridewp_postsdescribes the same defiant martyrdom as “Hail St. Sebastian,wp_postsbut is absolutely, positively feral about it. The second song and title track of the album, it describes a stoning from the perspective of the victim, who has nothing but spite (and yes, pride!) to show their murderers. At a show in Milwaukee, Darnielle summed up the song in gory detail: “You start to say to yourself ‘when they kill me, I hope my blood gets on them.”
“Well they come and pull me from my house
And they drag my body through the streets
And the sun’s so hot I think I’ll catch fire and burn up
In the summer air so moist and sweet”
As the ritual killing starts, the speaker “marks their faces,wp_postsas though memorizing them to haunt in the afterlife, and remarks:
“Transfiguration’s gonna come for me at last
And I will burn hotter than the sun”
That’s just the dream, isn’t it? That there will be a moment, however brief, where you can be you, the fullest, most effulgent, most fiery you there can possibly be.
“White Cedarwp_posts/ Transcendental Youth
I was mooching off two college friends, living in their small apartment rent-free over the summer when I made my first appointment for gender-affirming care. I’d wronged both of them in different ways, but they were kind enough to let me live there and drive me back and forth to the clinic. When I got back, approved for HRT, I played this song and cried, turning every ounce of water to tears of joy, anticipation, and hope for redemption.
“I’ll be reborn someday, someday
If I wait long enough
I don’t have to be afraid
I don’t wanna be afraid
And you can’t tell me what my spirit tells me isn’t true, can you?”
My friends kept silent as the testosterone-blocking medications briefly depressed me, made me gaunt and tired, before the full flower bloomed and I left my old life and body behind. I can’t ever thank them enough for their help, and I hope they forgive me. I wish I could tell my smaller self that the day does come; you can change.
“Attention All Pickpocketswp_posts/ Letter from Belgium EP
For my money, this may be the best song to ever come from the Mountain Goats. The shortest track on this list (just beating out “The Mummy’s Hand”), “Pickpocketswp_postsdescribes two friends separating with an excited, anxious love for the future.
“And the cornet blows
Where the oleander grows
And us two, not the same people that our old friends knew”
On one upload of this song, someone has commented:
“This song reminds me of how much I love my sister for who she is— even if for 20 years that was my brother. We don’t change because life stands still around us and I don’t know if our old friends would recognize us. Or care.”
I’ve met up with a lot of people I knew who transitioned since the last time I saw them. Sometimes, we bond over having to leave things behind, old friends and old selves. There’s nostalgia, hunger, and hope when we part ways. But other times, it’s more simple than that. Sometimes you’ve got to take a look at your life, then get in your car and drive away. It’s hard to carve a path for yourself, but you do the best you can, and “hope they’ve got plenty of money where you’re going.”
Jenny From Thebes comes out October 27, and the Mountain Goats announced a whole suite of tour dates alongside it. I’m getting tickets just for a chance to learn a little more about Jenny. And myself.