For a while I was on a kick of listening to The Mountain Goats’ “You Were Cool,” and I couldn’t tell if I was feeling bummed out because I was listening to it a lot, or if listening to it a lot was making me feel bummed out. It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing, but John Darnielle’s postcard to a former classmate who was bullied is affecting regardless. It’s the kind of song that tends to give me pause, and only after a minute or so has passed do I realize I’ve been staring off into space, looking at nothing.
As Pitchfork wrote back in 2010 when Mountain Goats main man John Darnielle tweeted a video of it, “If you’re the type who gets emotional about Mountain Goats songs, you will get emotional about this one.” I wouldn’t have counted myself among that demographic, but that speaks to the power of the song. It’s just Darnielle, his acoustic guitar, and “the same four chords I use most of the time when I’ve got something on my mind, and I don’t want to squander the moment trying to come up with a more complicated riff to say what I want to say.”
What he wants to say is that he hopes his former classmate loves her life, that painful memories of shitty high-school experiences don’t come up too often, and “I hope the people who did you wrong / have trouble sleeping at night.”
As he says, “People were mean to you, but I always thought you were cool.” Maybe he didn’t say it then, or maybe he did. Chances are most of us knew someone like that, and The Mountain Goats are saying it for all of us now. Too bad Darnielle has steadfastly refused to record the song properly, but fans can download a live version or watch a few different versions on YouTube: