“Teenage Alternative Realities” and Black Sabbath in John Darnielle’s Master of Reality


The Mountain Goats are a subject of enduring, embarrassingly powerful affection around these parts. This was a particularly vital year for John Darnielle—one of his best albums in years, in Heretic Pride, a paranoid, detailed series of vignettes bolstered by the kind of elaborate arrangements he’d been attempting for some time but never quite pulled off until now; and Master of Reality, his “33 1/3” book, a emphatically empathetic channeling of the rage a young teenager feels when somebody takes his Black Sabbath cassettes away.

Now, over at his Astral Weeks column at the L.A. Times, Ed Park reviews Master of Reality in concert with another, intriguing-sounding instance of music-related fiction, Martin Millar’s Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me. There’s a particularly good riff on the relationship between narrative and music, sparked by E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, no less:

What is it that makes us respond narratively to music, far beyond what the lyrics (if any) might indicate? (“The notes meant this and that to her, and they could have no other meaning, and life could have no other meaning,” Forster’s Helen thinks, after the concert.)

Spontaneous conjuring — shapes and colors, creatures and deities, fantasy and recollection — is commonplace. So are long-lasting associations, for melodies weave into a life to such a degree that they can emerge, years later, as if on a hair trigger. Millar’s and Darnielle’s books effectively capture this two-sided ability, featuring narrators who built their teenage alternative realities on tenacious, life-changing sounds, sounds that echo down the decades.

Park also suggests something about the 33 1/3 series which many have long suspected, namely that the editors could afford to be less reverent, and more concerned with “albums that aren’t critical darlings—the insights are fresher, the risks more worthwhile.” Live at the Apollo excepted, is there a single worthwhile 33 1/3 book about a unanimously classic album?

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