hello shadowlands

Editing Mountain Goats Lyrics

1 April 2024

I've recently become interested in binding books and, distressingly akin to my feelings about blogging, the problem with taking up a hobby that is focused on form rather than content is that the question of what content to wrap your form around comes up immediately. Lots of beginner book-binders make journals or sketchbooks, and that's fine, but I'm binding books because I love books, not because I love sketchbooks or journals1, so I want to bind a text.

But what text? There are plenty of books in the public domain to choose from, and a lot of my favorite authors happen to be old enough that that's definitely an option. I'm not planning on selling anything so I don't mind the legality, but public domain material seems to present certain convenient logistical advantages. Nothing that was coming to mind was particularly appealing until I thought of something: as a devoted fan of the Mountain Goats, what better text to bind than Mountain Goats lyrics? They're one of my favorite collections of words and they're easily available online, and having a nicely bound book to refer to instead of the web is an attractive prospect. I'll just print out some lyrics and bind them.

Well, okay, but easier said than done. There are a few problems here:

  1. How to organize the lyrics? I decided fairly quickly to go chronologically by album, which I think I'm happy with. There is an unfortunate lack of exact release dates for the really early releases, so I've decided to organize exactly chronologically when I can but to sort alphabetically within given years if I can't find exact dates. It's not a disaster but it's also not ideal.
  2. What songs do I include? For those not familiar, the Mountain Goats discography can be rough split at the 2002 release of Tallahassee, which marked their first polished studio recording, but there's still a huge expanse of material from the early side of the divide, enough that I might want to break it up further to mitigate time lost if I mess something up
  3. Lyrics are definitely available, but they're trickier than you might think. I've been using themountaingoats.net2 as my primary resource for early Mountain Goats material (the site hasn't been updated in something like 15 years but remains one of my favorite websites and a relic of a different, better era of the web) and it's comprehensive but imperfect. The lyrics tend to be in all lowercase and many lines end with periods, which is not how I usually format song lyrics. There are also line breaks in places I wouldn't put them, and long lines that I would break up for stylistic reasons, as well as long lines that I have to break up for physical space on the page reasons. There will need to be editing. More on this later.
  4. Books need to be printed in a specific way, and one which is extremely unintuitive for the uninitiated. More on this later too, or else I'm going to write a thousand words inside list item #4, which seems like the wrong place to put a thousand words.

Okay, so it's not quite as straightforward as it initially seemeed. Still doable, I suppose, but I'm going to be at this for a while. I started by pulling the lyrics for the first few releases from tmg.net into Apple Pages, set up in landscape with two columns so each page looks like the two visible pages of an open book. It looks nice! But it is completely useless. Books are printed using something called signatures, or sections. A signature is a group of sheets of paper, often four sheets, which have been printed such that when they're stacked and folded down the middle, the resulting structure is, essentially, a 16-page book (assuming a four-sheet signature). The first sheet of paper has pages 1 and 16 printed on one side (the front and back of the signature), and pages 2 and 15 printed on the other side (the first pages in from the front and back, respectively). The upshot of this is that if you orgaize your text such that it looks like a book in your word processing software, it will not look like a book if you print it out. I'm told that Microsoft Word can do this, but I spent an extremely frustrating couple of hours trying to get it to run on my Mac and eventually gave up.

Fortunately, Adobe makes a program called InDesign, which I've never used but seems to be the tool of choice for these kinds of projects. It allows you to setup your pages so that you can visually comprehend what's going on without keeping signature math in your head and a function called 'Print Booklet' that does the complicated part of figuring out what pages have to go where to create signatures. I moved everything I had done in Pages over to InDesign and hit Print Booklet on a chunk of what I've done so far. I'd never considered that printing on both sides of a sheet of paper is a feature that some printers have and some printers don't, but it turns out that mine does not, which completely kneecaps the Print Booklet feature. Double-sided printing is, as far as I can tell, absolutely required for this to work automagically. Undeterred, I recognized that InDesign allows for easy re-organization of pages in a way that word processors don't, so I am simply carrying on. I'll just have to organize my pages manually and do two print runs, one for the front side of the sheets and one for the back. It seems likely that there's some kind of solution to this issue but I have enough on my plate.

The problem with this is that my spatial reasoning is piss-poor and it's almost impossible for me to visualize how signatures are laid out in my head. The usual method for figuring it out is to fold up a signature and mark the page numbers so you can then deconstruct the signature and analyze the resulting placement of pages on the sheet. This is a time-consuming process if you need to do it for every signature in a book that could be over 200 pages long. So naturally, I took a break from the real project and built a web app to help me visualize what I'm doing. I give it a list of song titles3 in the order they'll go in in the finished book and it produces a visual representation of how they need to be arranged for the signatures to come out right. I also included a feature to show them as they will be in finished book form since it's impossible to tell from looking the signatures if they're going to end up in the right order, or if I need to add a blank page before or after a chapter (album) division, etc. It would be nice if this tool actually automated away the work for me, but it's really helping me get my head around what I'm doing in InDesign, so I think it was a worthwhile detour.

Editing is also proving trickier than I thought. Aside from the problems mentioned above, which are mostly busywork, there are a lot of questions to ask when you're looking a transcription of song lyrics. I would love to see John Darnielle's original notebooks to see what he had in mind when he wrote the lyrics in question, but those aren't available so I'm using my judgement and awareness of the physical limitations of putting song lyrics to paper. Some of the problems I've encountered are:

  1. When to include nonsense or filler syllables, and when not to. I think the pattern I've decided on is that if it's a recognized word, e.g. "yeah", "hey", "go", etc, I'll include them, but "ooh"s and "aah"s and so forth are omitted. They often seem more like arbitrary, maybe even involuntary, things that happen during the performance of a song, but not necessarily real lyrics, but there are exceptions. I spent a harrowing 15 or 20 minutes in my car listening to the last 30 seconds of Alpha Desperation March trying to transcribe the "HA ha... ha... aHA" thing he's doing in that song at a playback speed of 25% trying to transcribe exactly what's going on as best I can, because that is an integral part of the song. That said, in the last sentence I used capital letters to denote emphasis which I've decided against doing in the book — it feels sort of tacky to me — but it's really hard to get across what he's doing if you don't. For the record, Jon Nall's transcription of that part of that song is "ha! ha-ha-ha-uh-uh-ha! uh-ha! uh uh uh-ha! uh-ha! ha ha ha", which is delightful but also definitely wrong. He did correctly count the "la"s in the chorus of Going to Santiago though, which he definitely didn't have to do, but I appreciate that he did.
  2. Lines in songs can vary wildly in length and it's not always obvious where to demarcate them. An example I bumped into in the course of this project is this verse from Early Spring:
    The pictures that you paint
    Aren't as pretty as they once seemed to me
    And the coffee's bitter because it's been boiling too long
    And the jokes you tell
    Aren't as funny as they once seemed to me
    And the songs you sing are just plain hackneyed
    I just could not get these lines to flow the way I wanted them to. The 'pictures' and 'jokes' lines are physically too long to fit on the page but the 'coffe' and 'songs' lines would look too short if they got broken up, so I accepted that these lines, which occupy the same amount of time within the song, would occupy different amounts of vertical space and there was nothing I could do about that. At the same time, I didn't like any of my options for inserting the line breaks. I can live with this result but it jumps out like a sore thumb at me. I haven't settled on a hard and fast rule for this; it's a case-by-case matter of considering the impact on metrical flow, visual cohesion, and physical space considerations.
  3. A very particularly Mountain Goats problem I had is when the times when he introduces the song with the time and date that he's recording, which he used to do occasionally. I love these introductions and felt that I had to include them, even though I wouldn't attempt to argue that they count as lyrics. I speak them along with him whenever I hear the songs that have them, exactly as I would if I was singing along to the lyrics proper, so I'm including them. It's my book. For example, from Star Dusting:
    Hello, it's the Mountain Goats at 10:24 on Sunday the 20th of December and this is a horror story.
    No, it's not lyrics, but it is undeniably part of the song for me. Related, Nall often includes the content of samples, of which there are many in the early releases, but I've decided not to do that since it's not uncommon for them to be utterly incomprehensible and including them would complicate matters even more. Who needs it?
  4. A simple one: should I include covers? There were a lot of covers on the early releases and you could make an argument either way. If Sail On got left off of Transmissions to Horace, I'd notice, but if the book is supposed to be celebrating the lyrics that John Darnielle has written then it shouldn't be included. Fortunately, I solved this problem, and in saying that just now, I raised another for myself. On the unreleased but eventually leaked album Hail and Farewell Gothenburg, there's a cover of Carly Simon's You're So Vain where he omits the choruses entirely. That's enough of a lyrical departure that I think covers ought to be included, just in case. However, I hadn't thought to actually include that album until using it as justification for including covers. Can I use that justification without including that album? Has enough time passed that we can admit in public to having heard the album? I don't know man, John is pretty specific about what he does and doesn't want listeners to engage with, so I'd feel bad if I included it, even though the book is just for me. But Kafka asked Max Brod to destroy his writings and if he had followed his friend's wishes the world wouldn't know Kafka. We'd be fine, I'm sure, but we all like Kafka. Not so simple after all. Like poor Pip treading water in the open ocean waiting for the whaleboats to come back for him, I suspect that by the end of this project I will have either gone insane or had a revelation delivered unto me that is so incomprehensible that my friends see only a gibbering fool. The questions raised by this project are fractal.

I suppose I should mention that despite the two thousand or so words that precede these ones, this project has been, on the whole, a positive one for me thus far. The process of editing the lyrics has involved listening closely to the early releases, some of which I haven't heard in years, and it's good to remember that there's a reason I'm undertaking this project: this music means a whole lot to me. The early releases in particular have an unbotheredness about the normal expectations of what music is usually like that has been inspiring me for close to twenty years and there's really nothing else like it. Consider:

Ice Blue

The sky was pale the day was gloomy
Boy, your eyes burn through me

I thought that I knew what colors were
Ha ha ha
Ha ha ha

I thought that I knew what colors were
Before I saw you
Ice blue

Everything is right where it needs to be and it needs nothing else. A perfect song.

I suppose the elephant in the room for me now is the treatment of unreleased songs. Even to this day, it's not uncommon for the Mountain Goats to do songs that they have no intention of ever releasing on an album (e.g. The Mountain Goats Shirt Song, if they were going to record You Were Cool I think they'd have done it by now, etc), and some of my favorite Mountain Goats songs are in this category. If this goes well, I may embark on a separate project for the unreleased songs. I think they deserve the treatment but I also suspect that even nailing down a canonical version of the lyrics will present huge problems and require a fair amount of research and digging through live sets on archive.org, so I'm going to do the relatively easy songs first.

I'm going to wrap this up and get back to it. I will use this website as a dumping ground for thoughts I have along the way, such as there might be. I suspect I have not run into the last of the issues I'm going to face, so I will probably not want for material. Wish me luck.