“I must be cruel only to be kind;
Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.”
― Hamlet, William Shakespeare
My dad sits me down in front of the television so he can unwind. He makes a decision the MPAA would certainly frown upon and puts on First Blood (1982). He says, “You’re gonna like this one. Rambo really messes up some guys.” That was my introduction to the movie about police torturing a homeless man who happened to turn out to be an absolute killing machine. The violence was the draw, and the protagonist’s suffering was only justification for that violence.
It’s important for us to analyze violence, though, and that is, of course, how a critic like me takes the fun out of things. But I totally get it. Violence is cool! Violence compels us! We want to see characters strive beyond impossibility, and the easiest, most dynamic way to show that is often through a physical embodiment of their strife so that they can then defeat it. Victories are tangible and hard-won. It’s the basest instinct and the easiest to understand: One body competes against another body until they break.
We know deep down, though, that violence in our world has costs. You can’t shoot or strongarm every problem away without it taking a toll on you and the people around you. That doesn’t make John Rambo’s quest for revenge any less alluring. If anything, we are more drawn to violence by its simplistic directness. Violence is the oldest language, after all. This is where the Mountain Goats have chosen to explore for their upcoming album Bleed Out, releasing on Friday, August 19th (credits here).
The Mountain Goats are certainly no stranger to concept albums or pseudo-concept albums. They’ve climbed to fame on their deep dives into things like Dungeons & Dragons, childhood trauma, addiction, wrestling, divorce, loss of a parent, goths, and many others. They’ve even explored so much ground, that they’ve released an average of more than one album per year since the band started in 1991. Now, they turn to action movies.
Lead singer and songwriter of the band, John Darnielle, (pictured front and center) says in developing the album, he would pull directly from vintage-style action movies he’d watch during the quarantine of 2020: “‘Oh, where’s this sample from?’ It’s from whatever movie I was watching while I was sitting around on the couch with a guitar. I watch a movie, somebody’d say something that I like the sound of and I’ll write that phrase down. And then I would pause the VHS, write the song, record the song on a boombox, and go back to watching my movie.”
Bleed Out stands out among the Mountain Goats’ already incredibly diverse discography with its bombastic tunes and driving tempo that simply never lets up. The Mountain Goats’ typical fare is often largely a contemplative delivery mechanism for Darnielle’s deeply moving and relatable lyrics and/or a house built around an instrumental great hook, but Bleed Out forces you to move. Each song makes feet stomp and heads sway, and I’m certain the whole album will just explode from the stage.
Bleed Out comes out of the gates with the album’s three singles: The infectious and direct “I’m doing this for revenge” anthem of “Training Montage,” the song I can’t get out of my head “Mark on You,” and the catchy, driving delusion of grandeur in “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome.” Each gives you that sharp, motivating drive to just give in to your base instincts and to just mess someone up physically or socially or to seek glory at any cost.
These themes continue into the bulk of the album with several more great songs about powering through pain or ideological pushback to keep the blood flowing. All the while the themes slowly drift down from the opening glory either into the gleeful, darkly comic (and disturbing) devolution into violence for the sake of violence, like in “Hostages,” into the uncertain possible victory in “Incandescent Ruins” (which I can best describe as a campfire song littered with self-doubt) or into the certain end of our own demise with the title track “Bleed Out” (which could easily just play as the credits roll). As with any of the Mountain Goats’ albums, any of these songs has enough to talk about to fill a whole article, which I can’t do, but I do want to circle back to this guy.
Smack dab in the middle of the album is “First Blood,” a delightful song about turning yourself into a super soldier by ordering body armor online, arming yourself to the teeth, and training yourself in the image of these action movie icons. The song calls you to “rise to the occasion/ or go to sleep for good in the trenches,” and the chorus proudly proclaims “John Rambo never went to Vietnam.” Which is… ridiculous, right? Like, Rambo’s whole thing was that he was trained to be an absolute killing machine set loose in Vietnam that didn’t have a place in America anymore. Some cops pick him up and torture him, then he exacts his revenge.
The later movies touch on Rambo’s time in Vietnam, but his past is mostly something to be reclaimed and reinvented so his name can become synonymous with justified violence done expertly. The narratives cover violence begetting violence. The broader cultural focus on Rambo as the character though has always been that he is an unstoppable force of destruction and that the world has pushed him to this. His preparation for and great propensity to turn to extreme violence are the fault of the world and are not actions he is choosing. As he says in the first movie, “They drew first blood, not me.”
And that’s where we come back to “First Blood.” The song is about the denial of that trauma that the world has inflicted on him (“John Rambo never went to Vietnam”) in favor of taking pride in violence and treating deadly armaments as collectibles (“Armor-piercing black talons/ from the first production line”). His pain has been commodified, co-opted, and stripped of its context to play into a destructive power fantasy. The song steps out of its deluded narrator’s perspective to hint at several real-world figures like Sheriff Buford Pusser, who waged a war against gambling and prostitution (among others) and whose violent life inspired the Walking Tall movies. In doing so, we see real-world examples of the real toll of the earlier track’s triumphant “I’m doing this for revenge.”
To combine the detachment from reality and the allure of violence, we can see cases all over where people claim to use violence as a last resort, but see it as a necessary evil. Often, people will claim violence as unavoidable or justified because it averted some greater catastrophe or served to better the world in some way. Of course, the violence of reality has (and should have) significant pushback, despite the fictions we create.
Darnielle and the Mountain Goats explicitly wanted to explore this space of compelling violence and of its human cost: “I don’t think anybody really exacts much revenge in this life at all,” he says. “Because we all know that revenge is bullshit, right? …[Y]et the idea is so delicious, you can’t get enough of it. It’s more of a grail—because you can’t have it, it starts to seem really appealing. That’s why you want to get revenge because you know you’re never going to get revenge.”