New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 15: Action Movie Cliches

The Mountain Goats released a new album called Bleed Out yesterday. It’s a concept album revolving around 80s action movies; almost all of the songs on the record have an upbeat drive to them, and the choruses arc up to the top of lead singer John Darnielle’s range before sweeping back down to meet the verses. There’s significantly more belting on this record than there has been on the last few records, as though the band has saved up all their energy for a concentrated burst of action. Musically, I’m on board with what they’re doing here: power chords driven by drummer John Wurster’s relentless pace, cut with the silk of Matt Douglas’ saxophone. Most of these songs would be good for driving fast down a quiet highway late at night—especially the third single “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome,” which comes out of the gate with a hard clear guitar lick that, if it were in the movies it narrates, would have been set to a training montage. (The lead song on the record—and the lead single—is also conveniently called “Training Montage.”) But this is the first record where I’ve felt real friction with the lyrics.

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Most Mountain Goats records take a minute for me to get into; whenever I listen to a new one, I usually repeat it a few times so that I can get into the intricacies of the writing. Darnielle is very good at making the ordinary feel unfamiliar and strange with a twist of a line. Most of his songs are in either the first or second person, putting the listener in the heads of his protagonists, or in the head of someone else who sees them and understands them: a couple flaming out who can’t seem to quit each other, even as their marriage is slowly killing them; a high school running back who turns to dealing drugs after an injury. These characters could be anyone passing by on the street, but Darnielle makes them special by giving them attention without judgment, and sympathy without pathos.

Bleed Out turns the same compassionate eye on the characters in 80s action movies, adding a layer of Darnielle’s mythologizing eye on top of something that’s already a permanent part of the warp of American myth. These movies are so simple and straightforward, populated by musclebound men, glistening with sweat and oil, pitted against the Other simply because the Other does not share their nationality or way of life. Despite their muscle, they’re often portrayed as scrappy underdogs: Rocky vs. Ivan Drago, or Schwarzenegger in the jungle in Predator. The plot doesn’t matter, or even the dialogue; what matters is that there will be a lot of violence and guns, and one of the glistening muscles will stagger out of the dark, covered in someone else’s blood, to achieve ontological victory and maybe also get the girl.

Taken individually, the songs on Bleed Out read like straight retellings of these movies. The lyrics are so straightforward that they’re almost predictable. We’ve seen this movie before, or at least, we’ve seen one like it; we can anticipate the rhyme at the end of the line before it hits. The song “Make You Suffer” leads with the line “I’m going to rise up early every day / overcome every obstacle in my way,” as though Darnielle wants to skip the setup and move directly to the action; the setting and characters are sketched in and incomplete, represented by theory and cliche instead of the concrete imagery I’ve come to expect from Mountain Goats lyrics. It feels as though the slapped-together aesthetic of American action movies from the 1980s has been applied here too, and I can’t help but be disappointed.

Perhaps that’s the point, because structurally, the band undercuts 80s action cliches, until the genre falls apart in the aftermath of their retelling. The record reminds me, of all things, of Kristen Kobes Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne, which picks apart the white Evangelical narratives from the 20th century that led to the rise of Christian nationalism today. Du Mez does this by examining Western movies, John Wayne’s life, and the gender roles that solidified in American society in the 1950s and 60s; the Mountain Goats do something similar by immersing themselves in the chauvinist attitudes of American martial arts movies. The first half of the record features a narrator whose actions are unexamined almost to the point of carelessness, the sonic version of a well-loved VHS tape of Bloodsport. “I am doing this for revenge,” sings Darnielle in “Training Montage,” and the electric guitar chimes triumphantly a beat later: what matters here isn’t some moral victory, but the opportunity to beat the enemy down and come out on top. “Extraction Point” ends with the heroes driving away from one such beatdown: “Just pick a lane and drive right through / headed off to freedom with you / dreams of the future up in the front of my mind / leave a couple dozen bodies behind.” Here, the record turns. Where the action movies of the 80s would forget about the bodies as soon as they hit the floor, Darnielle keeps the rear-view mirror focused firmly on the aftermath, where the protagonists of each song are more and more clearly the villains in someone else’s story.

This aftermath is the careful examination that I feel is missing from the lyrics of individual songs. John Darnielle has never been one to shy away from inhabiting the head of a villainous character. It’s one of the things I love about his songwriting. I appreciate that he’s willing to stretch an idea across an entire album, from enthusiastic charge out the gate to the story’s inevitable tragic conclusion, more realistic and more sober than the films that inspired it. The rhyme is so straightforward that it doesn’t sound effortless, it just sounds basic. That basic simplicity is inherent to the action movies, and I don’t know if the two can even be separated, which is where I feel friction. I want the complicating examination, a surprising image, something that makes me pause to consider someone I wouldn’t have otherwise spared a thought for. I get a flash of that simplicity in a way that hits hard in the final titular track, which is quiet after the vigor of its predecessors: “I’m gonna make a gigantic mess / but it meant something important I guess / bleed out / I’m gonna bleed out.” I just wish I hadn’t had to fight my way through action movie cliches to get there.

What I wrote:

Over at Think Christian, I had the opportunity to do a close read on Ralph Bakshi’s strange unfinished animated movie, The Lord of the Rings. I don’t think the movie is exactly good, but I do think that its unfinished attempt to adapt Tolkien’s story captures the futility of Frodo’s mission on a meta level. I unpacked that idea through a faith lens for my essay.

What I talked about:

On this week’s episode of Seeing & Believing, Kevin and I split over our review of Bodies Bodies Bodies. I also got the opportunity to introduce Kevin to Picnic at Hanging Rock, a movie I love because it’s a mystery that deepens the more you learn about it.

What I’m reading:

I’m not much of a comics person, but I do have a few I check in on from time to time. I’ve been reading Gunnerkrigg Court on and off since sophomore year of college. Every couple of years I’ll remember it, catch up, and kick myself for not checking back sooner. The art’s gorgeous, for one, and the plotting and characterization have blossomed and matured in the years since I first started reading it. If you like school stories, magic, or watching characters grow in more or less real time, I think you’ll like it.

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