“Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” – Psalm 139:12
In 2016, John Darnielle told Christianity Today his favorite book of the Bible was Jonah. Five years later, “Mobile,” the first single from the Mountain Goats’ latest album, Dark in Here, retells it.
The Jonah story is one that seems to recur culturally—the metaphor of being engulfed by something unfathomably bigger than oneself is always relatable, somehow. Even last month, the world was briefly captivated by the lobster diver who found himself briefly swallowed by a whale, telling the Associated Press that “everything went dark” and he thought “OK, this is it … I’m gonna die.”
So it’s not a stretch to read a morbid belly-of-the-whale joke in the title of the album, Dark in Here—one of an astounding four albums the Mountain Goats recorded last year, and in fact one of three recorded solely in the cursed time-vortex month of March 2020. The other two are this album’s spiritual studio prequel, Getting into Knives, and a solo effort recalling Darnielle’s earlier home recordings, Songs for Pierre Chuvin; a live-in-studio set, the Jordan Lake Sessions, was made later in the year. None of these are really “pandemic albums,” but the Jordan Lake Sessions opens with “The Plague,” a song written decades before COVID. “This is not the first plague!” Darnielle ad-libs after the song. “No! People like me have been singing about plagues for a long time!”
Dark in Here is similar to recent Mountain Goats albums in that it continues the band’s honing of the fuller, soft-edged American folk-rock sound they’ve been pursuing since becoming a four-piece in 2015. The album is not thematic in the way some of their other work is (no professional wrestlers or Goth teenagers here), but it’s very much a piece with Darnielle’s writerly obsessions, none of which are far from the plague-related concerns that have gripped all of us in the last few years: human fragility, neediness, and desperation; the brutality of existence—indeed, the darkness that lurks in all souls, hearts, and minds—and finally, a deep, tragic, tender love for the world and everything in it.
If this all sounds somewhat theological, that’s probably not an accident. Darnielle, raised Catholic, has long been interested in various stripes of faith, including a stint with the Hare Krishnas and a longstanding apparent interest in evangelicalism, from controversies about Larry Norman and alleged satanic “backmasking” on 1970s rock records (the title of his haunting debut novel, Wolf in White Van, is a reference to this lore) to his abiding love of Rich Mullins (whose musical style he seems to inch ever closer to with each album) to his occasional engagement with iconoclastic evangelical thinkers on Twitter.
While 2009’s The Life of the World to Come was the Goats’ only explicitly “Christian” offering (each song’s title was the Bible verse that inspired it), Mountain Goats songs tend to operate in two distinctly religious modes: the enchanted and the apocalyptic. In the former, narratives are populated by wizards, pagan gods, demons, and crystals; in the latter, junkies, murder victims, unhappy lovers, and broken families. Sometimes the two modes work in tandem. It’s always a bleak but enchanted world.
For evidence of this, take your pick: Dark in Here features several songs that might be about the rise of demons or beasts (“When a Powerful Animal Comes,” “Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light”), several conversations with dead people (“To the Headless Horseman,” “Arguing with the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review,” both sad and tender), an elegy for a lost holy place (“Before I Got There”), and one for a haunted place that wasn’t there (“The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower”).
Dark in Here is a lovely, understated album that gently insists that darkness must be faced, whether in the belly of the whale, the depths of hell, or a balcony in Mobile, Alabama. The speaker in “Mobile” recounts the Jonah story in the verses but always turns it back on himself in the chorus, as he stands “waiting for the wind to throw me down.”
Like Jonah, he demands God’s wrath but seems to feel he himself ought to be the target. “Why do you hold back your fury? / Don’t hold back your fury” are the song’s last words. Lyrically, we leave the protagonist on the balcony, ever trapped in the dark night of the soul; musically, the sweet interplay of guitar, accordion, and piano that closes the song offers hints of tender mercy.
Because while darkness is, well, dark, it’s not necessarily bad. On the title track, the chorus includes the lines “Just beyond your limits / Find the new frontier / I live in the darkness / It’s dark in here.”
It’s somehow reminiscent of a lyric Darnielle sang 20 years ago, on his song “Elijah”: “Feel the fullness of time / In the empty tomb / Feel the future kicking in your womb.” Life in the darkness can also be a life lived in hope, in anticipation of joy in a world to come. As Darnielle sings on the second verse of “Mobile,” “And Jonah emerged from his darkness / Like a dancer crashing through the curtain.”
Joel Heng Hartse is a lecturer in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He is the author of several books including the forthcoming Dancing about Architecture is a Reasonable Thing to Do (Cascade).