I’m pretty sure every best-of list I’ve made in recent memory has included something by the Mountain Goats (a band actually made up of just one man, John Darnielle). Their music is, in fact, perfect for these kinds of endeavors in hindsight. Reflective, inward-looking, kind of the perfect soundtrack for going over the previous year, triumphs and tribulations. This year, on the one hand, there was no new Mountain Goats record to do this job. On the other hand, Darnielle did work on another project: The Extra Lens.
The Extra Lens, a co-op venture between Darnielle and Nothing Painted Blue’s Franklin Bruno, started its official life as The Extra Glenns with 2002’s Martial Arts Weekend. Their second album, which came out this year, is called Undercard. The songwriting certainly is very much Darnielle’s work, but the Lens are less wrapped up in album craft than song-craft, sort of the opposite of the approach that Darnielle tends to sometimes take by himself. On this record, as on Weekend, the duo has instead turned out a solid collection of artful and fun songs.
This one is one of those songs, and it is in my opinion a standout example. The song essentially chronicals the thoughts of a man who, as he is driving his neighbor’s wife to have an affair in a motel, has a terrible car accident. The song is tragically trapped in that moment right after a horribly unanticipated shake-up and right before that act-of-god reveals his sins to the world. It hovers between the bliss of love and the panicked tragedy of its ending. The music itself is triumphant, but the sentiment is complex and relatable.
And that’s because Darnielle’s art has that magical characteristic that is common in great art: the specific evoking the universal. He writes with engaging details that create believable, interesting characters with compelling stories. The emotions evoked in these stories feel intimate and personal, but they feel that way to every listener. Even if it’s not because of an extramarital tryst or a car crash, anyone can recall that feeling of dread and inevitability this song conveys. It’s that personal yet universal, specific yet general quality that makes this song one of the best of the year.
(The video has some issues: it repeats the song, but the song itself is actually only a very short 1:41.)