30 Years of The Jesus Lizard’s Emotional, Meaningless ‘Goat’

Originally published in PopMatters

The Jesus Lizard is a band centered on feeling. They’re an angsty band, but they aren’t known for angst in a political or intellectual sense. They aren’t known for having much of a message at all. The Jesus Lizard was never an image-heavy band. Of course, they were obligated through record label contracts to be photographed for promotional use, and these photos were stylized with the band dressed up to appear a certain way to appeal to a certain audience. Still, they didn’t have a strong brand, and they weren’t heavily featured on MTV. In fact, MTV refused to play the music video for their single “Nub” due to imagery that the network deemed was “too much.” The Jesus Lizard never relied on mainstream exposure. What they did have is endurance, shelling out six full-length studio albums in eight years. The band succeeded in practice. This means making music and playing live shows, and they played a lot.

Fourteen days after the release of their full-length sophomore album Goat, The Jesus Lizard played a show at The Space in Washington D.C. Vocalist David Yow slunk around on stage with a charisma akin to Iggy Pop, stumbling in an inebriated stupor and diving into the audience and writhing on top of their hands. Bassist David Wm. Sims has said that he couldn’t understand how Yow could do that and still remember lyrics. Yow would often perform shirtless, wearing worn-out torn blue jeans and belting out mid-ranged shouting that is careless yet passionate. In an interview with Vice, he asserted, “If people wanted me to take my clothes off and jump into the audience, then I didn’t wanna do it. But then three-quarters of the way through the show, I would do it anyway. Usually because of alcohol.” As Yow dove into chaos, the rest of the band strung out jazzy, complex rhythms, meandering through spacious progressions and arpeggios with a barebones presentation. Guitarist Duane Denison manifested his fiery guitar licks while Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly punched up the show with rattling basslines and focused beats.

That same charisma of their live performances comes out in their recordings. The Jesus Lizards first EP, Pure, and first LP, Head, were worthy submissions for an up-and-coming alt-rock band. But it was Goat, released on March 15th, 1991, through Touch and Go Records, that shifted the band into a higher gear. Goat is somehow composed with both recklessness and precision. The album has a live energy that makes it sound as if only a few takes at recording each track were necessary, as if they weren’t interested in recording perfection. Tonally, the album is laden with head-spinning, swinging derangement that still leaves listeners standing on their feet. Goat is a collection of songs that grabs you by the shirt and forces you to move with an intoxicating groove. This is lolling, meditative, yet high-energy punk.

Following the eighties post-punk of The Fall and The Birthday Party, and perhaps to a lesser extent, hardcore punk bands like Minor Threat, The Jesus Lizard embodied the stripped-down, fed up, defiant ethos of late-eighties, early-nineties heavy music. They continued through the nineties with fellow punk, noise-rock outfits like Mudhoney and Nirvana. Sonic similarities can be drawn to bands like Unwound and Shellac, especially in terms of fuzzy guitar tones and repetitive song structures, which are likely influences for contemporary noise bands like Metz, Young Widows, and Daughters.

Of course, it would be foolish not to mention Steve Albini’s influence. Albini is a producer who has worked on albums for major bands like Pixies and The Breeders, made music in the eighties with his punk and noise bands, Big Black and Rapeman, and maybe most known for producing Nirvana’s In Utero. This man helped The Jesus Lizard shape their sound throughout most of their career as recording artists. He insisted that the bands he worked with stayed in control of their creations, that they don’t look at a producer as someone who can magically make their music sound good by applying production tricks that are meant to hide imperfections. Albini’s musical philosophy was geared toward minimalism and authenticity. In an interview with writer Greg Milner, Albini proclaimed, “If your record takes more than five or six days to make, it’s bound to suck.” This is most likely why The Jesus Lizard’s records don’t even sound like they came close to being overproduced.

Throughout their entire career, The Jesus Lizard managed to carry a punctuating attitude while retaining humor and avoiding pretension. Lyrically, Goat resembles a collection of oddball, low-brow stories almost in the vein of authors like Raymond Carver or Denis Johnson. The lyrics read like slice-of-life stories about losers or people down on their luck. “Then Comes Dudley” is a cynical take on pregnancy out of wedlock, and a man who’s going to fix them up straight, whether literally or figuratively. “Mouth Breather” is evidently about Britt Walford, the drummer of 90s post-rock band Slint, and how he wrecked Steve Albini’s house while house-sitting for him. “Nub” is a pounding post-hardcore jam about a child whose arm is accidentally broken off and experiences phantom limb. It’s songs like these that pin Goat down as an album about specific instances of abnormality and discomfort. Each song is an unusual, surreal, disturbing, Lynchian scene.

David Yow seemed to have a haphazard way of piecing lyrics together. His words are nonsensical, but they aren’t devoid of depth. “Seasick”, the most aggressive song on the album, has a repetitive and obsessively screamed one-liner chorus: “I can’t swim, I can swim.” Yow continues to shout about an overwhelming ocean and waiting for a single person to help him. The imagery may imply a precarious nature of Yow’s frame of mind, being tangled in obscure control, possible (probable) drug use, and being strung out and pushed around and drowned by the motions of life. He doesn’t directly state these ideas. Instead, they can be pulled from the lyrics’ imagery. The meaning of “Monkey Trick” is elusive even to Yow, who probably had an idea during the song’s writing that slipped away from his memory. Like “Nub”, it includes imagery of dismemberment (Body parts all over town / What are they doing?). An underlying message may not exist in the lyrics of this song. However, an uncanny impression is undeniable.

The Jesus Lizard were not interested in intellectualizing their music. It wasn’t necessary for them. For instance, when asked in an interview who came up with the band name and what it means, Yow replied, “We did and nothing.” It’s a Dadaesque answer that can be applied to the album’s lyrical content. Goat isn’t full of plunging thematic elements, yet it seems to be open to subjective meaning. More often than not, if words and images are put together, ideas can be derived. There will be a sense of mystery, a desire for meaning. There will be, at least, a feeling.

And then there is the dirt-cheap humor that reaches across the entire album. Quips about sex are ubiquitous in Goat. “Karpis” muses about Depression-era gangster Alvin Karpis’s time spent in prison and about sexual tension and jealousy. Then, there is the crude humor of “South Mouth” and “Lady Shoes.” These songs are full of vulgar expressions, which permeated parts of early nineties hard rock culture, but if anyone did want to send a perverted message earnestly, it was not The Jesus Lizard. The lyrics for these songs are joke poetry, albeit totally tasteless. The deepest meaning one could take from songs like these is that they are foolish and silly in their perception of sex. Goat finishes off with “Rodeo and Joliet,” a song with a tongue-in-cheek title about the unpleasant town of Joliet, Indiana, and its local prison.

With Goat, The Jesus Lizard illustrate moments within a life controlled by desires or not controlled at all, or perhaps only made interesting by accident. The mood of the music fits. There is no doubt that Duane Denison’s nervous guitar work and David Wm. Sims’s ominous basslines fused with Mac McNeilly’s driving, frantic drums fit David Yow’s depraved lyrical content. Goat is built out of dirty rock movements that create and sustain tension. This album feels like it’s fit for the disenchanted, slightly warped, haphazard swagman hung dry by misfortune. He’s disillusioned but unable to make a change. Goat is the soundtrack to the night for a stooge bound for trouble.