A certain sort of depressive dismisses whole years as bad ones, rough ones, ones you barely escaped intact, or alive at all, even. Among them are John Darnielle, splenetic visionary behind the Mountain Goats, whose latest album, "Goths," is a guitar-free, LBVS look at alienation, and Jason Isbell, the country-folk melancholic of the moment, whose new one with his band the 400 Unit, "The Nashville Sound," is an anti-Trump adjacent attempt at finding a reason to believe. Both played Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday night, offering somber rave-ups, arch sing-alongs with a dose of recovery talk, hella vulnerability, moments where masculinity got detoxified, and songs that wrote off whole chunks of time as not worth remembering.
The Mountain Goats ended their opening set—encouraged by an understanding, mostly unaware audience along with almost two dozen serious Mountain Goats heads, adorable dweebs, up and dancing—with 'This Year,' the intoxicating and intoxicated song from 2005's "The Sunset Tree," with Darnielle intensely bleating, "I am gonna make it/ Through this year/ If it kills me," a frightened, determined anthem. Like so many Mountain Goats songs, it's singing out while it's surrounded, luxuriating ever so briefly in fleeting, thrilling feelings ("I played video games in a drunken haze/ I was 17 years young/ Hurt my knuckles punching the machines/ The taste of scotch rich on my tongue") which is enough, especially when everything else is very, very bad.
Headliner Jason Isbell's second song of the night, meanwhile, was 'Hope The High Road,' the first single from "The Nashville Sound," with Isbell offering comfort, screaming out, "Last year was a son of a bitch, for nearly everyone I know"—undoubtedly a reference to the election but also to presumably all kinds of personal stuff that we only get a kind of glimpse of through these songs. 'Hope The High Road' gently confides and mocks Isbell's flaws ("I used to want to be a real man/ I don't know what that even means"), and the song peaks as he rails against the bullshit that Trump's success is the new normal, declaring, "there can't be more of them than us/ There can't be more."
Again with the counting, calculating. It's what you do when everything else fails: you try and get orderly, empirical—even if all of that data's titled toward a conclusion that hey, we're all screwed. And what mostly stands out about the Mountain Goats is cuckoo joy: Darnielle, dancing and shuffling and screaming out, wearing white socks on the stage, and his band there (especially the endlessly entertaining Jon Wurster) to help him stick the landing when he moved too far out there, especially on the New Order-esque denouement of 'Shelved,' an elated ode to integrity at all costs.
Then there's Isbell, really in a world of his own right now. He's a striking figure IRL, tall, svelte, looking a little bit triumphant, less of a baby face than he was a few years ago. All of this is not just to, well, objectify the guy, but also evidence of someone whose songs are about not doing well clearly doing a little bit better. His wife, Amanda Shires, who helped him get sober, is next to him onstage, her fiddle adding Shostakovich-level dread to his dread-packed songs, and off-stage as he pointed out, was their 2-year-old daughter watching. At the moment where Isbell seemingly has his shit together kind of, he is reaching out, striving, trying to connect instead of coasting or getting happy. As he also notes on 'Hope The High Road,' he has "sang enough of the white man's blues."
Mind you, he began the show with 'Anxiety,' a nervous epic off "The Nashville Sound," bookmarked by spinning guitars meant to mimic a panic attack, whose hook goes, "Anxiety/ How do you always get the best of me?/ I'm out here living in a fantasy/ I can't enjoy a goddamn thing." 'Anxiety' both details the feeling of being totally emotionally overwhelmed and, I think, a way to communicate what it's like to feel like that to those who care but don't feel that way themselves: "It's the weight of the world/ But it's nothing at all/ Light as a prayer, and then I feel myself fall," Isbell sings/explains. "You got to give me a minute/ Because I'm way down in it/ And I can't breathe so I can't speak/ I want to be strong and steady, always ready/ Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak."
For someone like me, who doesn't totally know how to have fun, the show was a lot of fun: plenty of darkness, pain, and rage threatening to take over, soothed somewhat by loud solos and lonely supplications, especially Isbell on a particularly naked version of 'Cover Me Up.'
The day after the show, a tweet caught my attention. It too had to do with years. "Despite all the band news out there, a bit of uplift: Here's my column on why 2017 may be the best year ever Really!" the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof tweeted along with a link his article.
Roxane Gay retweeted Kristof's chipper white man hot take and added to it a simple "No."