Today I'll be analysing the song Autoclave, by The Mountain Goats, off their 2008 album Heretic Pride. You can see the lyrics I'll be referencing and listen to the song on Genius. Additionally, here's a video of John Darnielle performing the song live in front of a huge troll statue which I thoroughly recommend.
This is one of my favorite Mountain Goats songs ever. It is a song for when
- you are not OK
- you feel like it is in your nature is to destroy anything good and growing that comes your way, just like a complex piece of industrial sterilization equipment
- you feel this state of affairs is not going to change
Here's the first verse and chorus.
[Verse 1] Hand me your hand, let me look in your eyes As my last chance to feel human begins to vaporize Maybe it's the heat in here, maybe it's the pressure You ought to head for the exits, the sooner the better [Chorus] I am this great, unstable mass of blood and foam And no one in her right mind would make my home her home My heart's an autoclave My heart's an autoclave My heart's an autoclave
Note that the conceit is not "my heart is an inferno" or "my heart is a pressure chamber". Instead J.D. uses the more baroque word "autoclave"; I sure didn't know what that was when I first listened. But that word is doing its job. It's odd but specific, and because of that (and the musical qualities such as repetition and tone) difficult to dislodge. It's like a puzzle piece that has finally snapped into place.
Imagine having vague things wrong with you for years and then receiving a diagnosis. It's bad to have the disease, but it's cathartic to finally know what the problem is. The shortness of the line and the descending tone he sings it in feel like the resolution to the previous lyrics. Ah, that's the name for it: an autoclave.
[Verse 2] When I try to open up to you I get completely lost Houses swallowed by the earth, windows thick with frost And I reach deep down within, but the pathways twist and turn And there's no light anywhere, and nothing left to burn [Chorus]
"My interior experience is awful, and it’s even worse when I try to share it with someone else, because the attempt to bridge the gap is such a failure that I lose all hope."
Nothing left to burn is pretty powerful for me here; the idea that reaching far enough out of the state he's in to get help from somebody else requires consuming a limited resource, which he's running out of. It's odd that this happens (why would just talking to somebody feel like burning something up?) but rings true for me, as a thing about very bad mental states.
Houses swallowed by the earth... actually bothers me a bit, since unlike the rest of the imagery in the song it does not have a physical correlate. It's not "my head is a house swallowed by the earth", it's just a reference to the idea of houses swallowed by the earth. For some reason I can't put my finger on, this feels slightly amateurish.
[Verse 3] I dreamt that I was perched atop a throne of human skulls On a cliff above the ocean, howling wind and shrieking seagulls And the dream went on forever, one single static frame Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name [Chorus]
The last line of this just wrecks me every time.
This verse is a fantasy of loneliness and of being secure in one’s own never-changing darkness. It's a dream because he thinks it would be better than the current situation. Presumably he feels that being eternally stuck in the bad mental state would actually be better than being in-between, having to warn other people off or trying and failing to open up to them. "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven".
Where everybody knows your name is from the theme song of Cheers, an 80s sitcom set in a bar (from what I understand). The original line is meant to conjure a sense of homeyness and comfort; here, it's being twisted to refer to the kind of comfort that would come from having this kind of "King of Darkness" setup.
The verse's Goth imagery verges on cliched until this reference comes from the opposite direction, throwing you for a loop. But what wrecks me is that being the King of Darkness is working; earlier the speaker was scrambling so hard to be understood, but now he's asserting that from this dark place by the ocean everybody actually can understand him. Everybody knows his name.
Sometimes, in a bad enough mental state, you see as a ladder what the world would call a tunnel. The speaker doesn't seem deceived; doesn't think that the skulls are daisies. He just, because he thinks that his heart is powerful destructive machine, dreams of someday being able to own it.