Print Reviews
Master of Reality
by John Darnielle
Continuum (2008)
Master of Reality
9 / 10
Professional criticism is an old, old game. We’re talking thousands of years. On the modern end of the ol’ left-to-right timeline, you’ve got your popular masters of the ever-evolving art—people like Lester Bangs, David Cote, Michiko Kakutani, Simon Reynolds, Jonathan Lethem, Nick Hornby, John Berger, Barney Hoskyns, Greil Marcus, and Roger Ebert, to name but a few. Then there are literary-academic mainstays like Jacques Barzun, Plato, Aristotle, Simone de Beauvoir, Voltaire, Ben Jonson, Alexander Pope, Immanuel Kant, Matthew Arnold, Leo Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, Carl Jung, Jean Paul Sartre, and Susan Sontag, plus countless others. Hell, pick a liberal arts discipline, and you’re sure to have professional and habitual essayist-critics coming out the yin-yang.

Given the depth and breadth of the above lists, it’s both easy and obvious to say that criticism is a hugely varied art, a craft as diverse and idiosyncratic as the persons who practice it. While social, literary, philosophical, and political criticisms remain a constant of academic and public discourse—all hail the doctoral thesis and the syndicated editorial column—the most widely-read and -practiced form of criticism these days seems to be pop-cultural.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Moreover, judging from sheer volume and newsstand prominence, you could easily argue that music journalism—with its ancillary cabal of bloggers, columnists, contributing editors, and undergraduate newsies—comprises the lion’s share of modern analytical criticism. True, in the broadest sense of the term, virtually anyone who has put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to express an opinion can be considered a “critic.” But my concern has—as yours should—less to do with Joe and Joan Forum-goer than with those who have made a career, paid or not, of dissecting, analyzing, discussing, and even participating in the histories and minutiae of their chosen fields of interest.

I’m talking about the irascible enthusiasts and driven demi-professionals, not the sound-bite snipers and flash-form hobbyists. Better still are the critics who also contribute to the very content they consider. In the case of music criticism, there is a rare handful accomplished and eloquent writers who spend equal time as touring performers—persons who eat, sleep, and breathe music.

One such individual is John Darnielle.

Best known for his role as the leader/singer/songwriter/guitarist of folksy rock outfit the Mountain Goats, Darnielle also maintains a predominantly music-themed, damnably entertaining, and remarkably well-written blog entitled Last Plane to Jakarta. Additionally, he contributes the regular South Pole Dispatch column to America’s “only monthly extreme metal magazine,” Decibel.

Yes, you read that above paragraph correctly: dreary DIY maestro John Darnielle is a consummate metalhead. Norwegian Death Metal, classic American and British Metal, Doom Metal, Speed Metal—you name it, the shaggy-haired, bright-eyed Darnielle has probably air-guitar soloed to it or written about it. Given his avouched interest in bombastic rhythms, thrashing riffs, and chaotically convoluted arpeggiations, it should come as little surprise that Darnielle’s contribution to Continuum’s well-established “33⅓” rock-crit series of chapbooks tackles none other than the proto-metal rock deities of Black Sabbath.

What might surprise you is the manner in which Darnielle tackles Black Sabbath and their third studio album, Master of Reality. Rather than affect the stilted academics, navel-gazing memoirs, and self-righteous diatribes to which many practitioners of long-form music criticism have inured themselves, Darnielle approaches the work of Ozzy Osbourne & co. as a jaded teenager—which is to say, clumsily, solipsistically, and with a passion that borders on rapturous zealotry. His writing is juvenile, syntactically terse, and operates within an intentionally-limited vocabulary; on the whole, it more closely approaches the style of a stuttering, stop-start stream-of-consciousness than a painstakingly outlined argument or a methodical, researched essay. At first glance, it’s incredibly hard to label it “criticism” in the strictest sense of the word.

But this roughshod approach is fitting as, quite literally, Darnielle writes from the perspective of an obsessed teenager. Namely: the perspective of Roger Painter, a fictitious teenager whose parents, following his attempted suicide, have committed the unwitting teen to an adolescent psychiatric hospital in Southern California.

From a writerly standpoint, Darnielle’s take on Master of Reality is a string of “talk therapy” sessions, retrospectively witnessed through mandatory journal entries from Roger’s time at Santa Fe Springs Psychiatric in the fall of 1985. Understandably, Darnielle’s Master of Reality is an intentionally one-sided conversation between Roger and the reader, wherein the reader serves as the silent stand-in for Roger’s state-appointed psychologist and perceived aggressor, Gary.

Despite his present circumstances—or, rather, because of them—all Roger wants to do is to listen to his tapes. Tapes which he uses to escape reality. Tapes which he relies on to think and to function socially. Tapes which the facility’s well-meaning staff have duly confiscated and kept under strict lock and key. And so, in an attempt to convince his perceived captors to return his stolen property, Roger attempts to explain exactly what makes his tapes so important to him.

As one would rightly expect, the resentful and confused Roger sits off to the side of the room and spits ink at the blank, unresponsive pages, covering them with defiant, profanity-laced complaints and pleading, half-formed testimonies to the collective genius of Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward. You see, Roger understands his world through music, whether by songs as touchstones to formative moments in his youth or through lyrics as intuitive statements about the nature of life and the purpose of living. And he tries to convey this understanding, limited though it may be, through his journal.

[T]here is a lot of echo. And the drums echo too. Even the guitar solos echo. Maybe their new recording studio is a cave! Or maybe the point is, when you listen to [Black Sabbath’s] Born Again, you are going into a cave for a while, because nobody else is listening with you. That is what I take from it. So it’s like me and the band are in a hidden cave and they are telling me horror stories and if I even tried to tell someone about it there is no way they could understand, because they don’t even know there is a cave.

Melodramatic to a fault, Roger relies on excessive punctuation and capitalization to emphasize his more strident points. Not to mention sarcasm, mantric repetitions, and shock-value statements to mitigate his discomfort and mask his continuing loss of control. Of course, these are all inherently futile gestures, and Darnielle subtly implies that Roger recognizes their futility even as he recounts various acts of youthful rebellion in thinly-veiled attempts to impress Gary. But, for all his bluster, Roger remains a teenager, enslaved to impulse, instinct, and pained idealism. Even in those brief moments when Roger is able to lower his defenses and talk about his favourite album—Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality—candidly, his thoughts come out in cautious, half-questioning statements. Roger cannot bring himself to believe that Gary (or the reader) could possibly understand what he has to say, and it is this isolating “me against the world” mentality that paradoxically informs Roger’s greatest character strength and his most glaring weakness.

By which I mean that Roger is a loner, and that he is painfully lonely. His revelations and revolutions are consistently internalized, whether because he feels they are best kept private or because society (via his parents and the personnel and policies of Santa Fe Springs) has convinced him that they are inappropriate. While he has gone over the thoughts inspired by Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality countless times, trying to externalize such complicated inner dialogue is, at times, too taxing for Roger. The words escape him, the ideas are misinterpreted by Gary (but not necessarily the reader), and the underlying message is lost in the muddle.

Then something happens, the specifics of which are best left to Roger and Darnielle to tell. Time passes, and, ten years after a teenaged Roger began writing his journal entries to Gary, an adult Roger revisits his past, listens again to the music of Black Sabbath, and tries to untangle the years since his time at Santa Fe Springs. It’s an abrupt change in style, a shift from unpolished, excitable teenaged prose to calm, considered connections drawn between Roger, Gary, the reader, and Black Sabbath. But it is a necessary change, and likewise a sign of growth—Roger has come out of his ordeal alive if not entirely intact, and the experience has helped him, albeit unintentionally, to find answers to questions that he once had to struggle to even ask. While listening to “Into the Void” early one morning at work, Roger realizes

Peace, peace, peace, happiness, happiness, happiness. That was the message that Master of Reality came to spread. It’s the same message we get told every year at Christmas time, and we hear that we’re supposed to carry the message with us all year long. But some of us who are desperate to find the message end up finding it in places where the tones are really dark and the images are explosive and scary, and when we say that we found the secret of love in some sticky lightless place, we get punished.

And Roger is okay with that. By this time, the reader is, too. You never hear back from Gary, but, like Roger, you realize that his approval was never needed in the first place. Gary never helped. He never really tried to help, at least not in any way that was worth a damn. So when Roger ends his journals and letters with one final, defiant “Fuck you all. Go to Hell.” to Gary and all those like him, you can’t help but feel liberated.

Really, that’s what music did for Roger over the years, what Black Sabbath and Master of Reality helped him achieve: freedom, peace, happiness, and the strength to fight for them on his own.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Print Reviews (May 25th, 2008)

Tags: print, reveiw, John Darnielle, Master of Reality, Black Sabbath, The Mountain Goats, Continuum, 33 third, 33 1/3