I was going to write about “No Children” this week, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m so busy this time of year that the undertaking seemed too daunting right now. We’ll tackle that particular beast later on. For this week, I want to talk about “Elijah”. It’s the second track on The Coroner’s Gambit, which is my nominee for best tMG album cover: two side by side photos of an incense factory in Kolkata. It’s appropriate, as the narrator in “Elijah,” among other things, tells his partner to “let the incense burn/in every room.”
He also instructs her to
Streak the windows
Smear the walls with coconut oil, yeah
Fill the cast-iron kettle
With water and magnolia blossom.
One might be forgiven for asking what John Darnielle is talking about with those lines, or with these:
Dust off the idols
Give them something to eat
I think they’re hungry
I know I’m starving half to death.
But these aren’t random descriptions. For the Goyische like myself, Passover is known only in the vaguest of ways, but it seems that Darnielle is describing the preparation of a kosher meal after a fast. The setting becomes more obvious once one takes into account the title of the song, “Elijah”. At the conclusion of the Seder, a fifth cup, Elijah’s cup, is poured and offered to the prophet. Traditionally, Elijah is thought to be present at each Seder. This is important, as Elijah will bring the news of the final redemption, the coming of the messiah, and the fifth cup is never drunk, as the final redemption is still to come.
Redemption is no empty theme for Darnielle, as the well-known story of his chaotic early life attests to, and “Elijah” is far from the only song in which he makes his belief in redemption and its power evident. To “Elijah” specifically, Darnielle has not made much public comment, saying only before playing it, “This is a new song. It’s about jail, sort of.” The narrator of the tune says:
I know you’re waiting
I know you’ve been waiting for a long, long time
And I’m coming home
I’m coming home
Like the titular prophet, our narrator is coming back after a “long, long time” away, and the crack in Darnielle’s voice as he carries the last chorus to its conclusion is an emotional wallop as we can imagine our narrator’s redemptive arc from prison back home to his pregnant partner who can “Feel the future kicking in [her]womb.”
While paralleling one of humanity’s most ancient stories with that of a man coming home from prison might seem like an odd decision, it makes perfect sense. The psalms recited for Elijah when he comes to claim his cup of wine are beseechments, entreaties to God to pour out his wrath on the persecutors and oppressors. Darnielle has made it clear who he believes is a serial source of persecution and oppresion in the twenty first century. He spoke to the Stamford Advocate in 2015, saying:
The thing is, there’s so much to say about…[t]he prison system beginning with the transition into private industry in the 1980s has resulted in the most inhumane prisons in the modern world.
The prison system. The prisoner Elijah is the forsaken of the twenty first century, in need of the prophet Elijah, and his tidings of redemption. Much like he does with “Fall of The High School Star Running Back”, Darnielle and The Mountain Goats are using their music as a psalmic entreaty to justice. It is a request for justice, and an acknowledgment of the humanity of the imprisoned, from, as the album cover to Coroner’s Gambit so memorably puts it, “your earnest friends, The Mountain Goats.”