"San Bernardino," the second track on the Mountain Goats' 2007 album Heretic Pride, is the sound of the sun rising. The song tells the story of two teenagers - "people who others talk down to" - as singer-songwriter and main ambassador of The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle, has said. They are expecting a child, and have little money and little prospects when they follow the curve of the highway into San Bernardino, California. It is here that they pull off the road and check in to a cheap motel, where the young woman gives birth to their son in the bathtub. In many ways it is a sad scene, but this is not how Darnielle plays it. The song is powered by carefully plucked guitar notes and the smooth, rising and falling of strings. "San Bernardino" is not a sad song. Darnielle has spoken at length about the song, that he "feels hope for them [the characters] because they love each other... their feeling for one another inspires me." This sense of hope and love that permeates the song is returned to the couple that feels it, as everywhere they are welcomed into the reach of San Bernardino's arms.
San Bernardino is a place of water, thus Darnielle's representation of birth, hope and the presence of water as a conduit for these things is appropriate to the setting. In addition, freeways are very much part of the geography of the city, as they cut across the skyline in typical Southern California fashion. The couple "hit the highway," having "consulted maps from earlier days," and the sun is rising over the mountains, indicative of a new day, a new world even, as they pass a sign that reads "San Bernardino welcomes you." Here, they feel at home in the world, despite that they have not had the best of what the world has to offer.
The young man fills a bathtub full of water, and there the young woman gives birth, as he tries to express to her just how much he loves her. Darnielle was tormented by the song for several days, as he got so involved in the story. Everything from the soft, pensive quality of Darnielle's voice to the tremulous guitar and smooth cello create the compelling voice and narrative for this track, of a man who has reached his last hope but is very much moved by the power of that singular hope. It is in San Bernardino where the hope is realized, and the scenery embraces the two wayward travelers, right down to the final lines of the song as their newborn son cries, "San Bernardino welcomes you," repeating the standout line of the first stanza. "These two," Darnielle wrote, "they're going to be the future, so it'd be awesome if we could give them enough leeway to become who they're gonna become, and encourage them when we can. I have a fondness for them though I barely know them." The Mountain Goats have not revisited these characters, as Darnielle tends to do in his various song cycles, but "San Bernardino" perhaps is best when it stands on its own, never to be encumbered by the fate of these characters if their lives do not turn out as sunny as they appear this beautiful day in San Bernardino.
~ Maggie Grimason
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