Even though we’ve had a mild winter, the darkness remains. How many lights have we flipped on during long evenings? Two animal-named acts have contemplated the possibilities of the night light…
The first selection wastes no time in setting the mood. The lines “Pull my mask so tight/ ’til it pinches my skin/ nerves strung so high/ I am a mandolin” are delivered over light rapid drums that accelerate the song like an overworked pulse. The narrator is paranoid, and decides to “plug a night light in/ leave the porch light on/ because the small dark corners have designs on me.” The song’s pace is maintained while John Darnielle lets the nervousness seep from his line delivery. The protagonist is hunted by police, has a claw instead of a fist, and hides from any trace of interaction. On top of the night light, the porch light is on as well and our narrator dares to “count a couple stray hopes out loud.” Perhaps tracing the possible trajectories of Jenny, and giving her a beacon? But those “small dark corners are establishing their colony” in this world framed in shadows. It’s familiar terrain for a Mountain Goats song, in which worried people huddle close to what they have. The speak-singing, restrained catchiness, and lead guitars like wayward sirens all serve to keep the listener slightly unsettled.
This “Night Light” opens with the hoot of an owl or some other wild bird, melting into a slow easy progression of assorted melodies. There is far more room to breathe on this track, both musically and lyrically. “Out of reach/ lying on a beach near a galaxy elsewhere/ combing through sands with two empty hands here,” it’s a contemplative tune about time and place. The singer is not bound to a single moment but to an eternity of them. Sentiments like “As long as more seeds sprout and then grow/ so will all our love/ and if the climate changes then we’ll also do so” illustrate an acceptance of the changing nature of life. There is the sense of distance, both physical and emotional, before the song shifts a bit amidst mention of afternoon thunderstorms. Then “later on the sky will clear up/ stars will appear and they’ll make night lights.” So our titular noun is not a small man-made device but a pinprick in the firmament. After a bridge of lifting ooohs and warnings against getting too far out of reach, the song twists on itself to explore the personal, expressing tales of working men and women in the narrator’s own family. For the generations who pass through this landsacpe, the stars are night lights in the bedroom of the outdoors. Lights to see by, to deflect fear of the unknown. To guide or to soothe.
Winner: Like Daylight before it, we’ve come again to that dividing line between the songs’ overall merits versus the specific relation of each tune to the title. The Mimicking Birds track is a lovely, wandering reflection of life and place, in which the stars are considered personal reminders or beacons. But when I think of a night light, I think first of the object we plug into waiting outlets. And it’s The Mountain Goats’ depiction of the type of subtle terror that results from huddling near a night light in a creaking house that really comes through. So a narrow win for Mr. Darnielle, but a good bout all around. Stay close to the light, friends, whether indoors or out.