The song’s lyrics don’t make any sense until you’ve listened to them a few times, and even then they only make the kind nonsensical sense things make after you’ve tied them to associations with your own life. “Broom People” by the Mountain Goats starts with a list of objects, the kinds of unsightly things you might see piled up around the house of a town’s infamous and unloved resident hoarder. The list burrows further into intimacy and revelation as it cuts in from the opening to the chorus that never arrives, landing on a second-person address tender as a teenage journal’s unspecified and aching you.
The song tells the story of a high school romance, in the kind of private language of reference shared between two teens in love and not meant for the outside world. But for me it’s about New Hampshire, and an old friend’s family’s house, and the bus from New York to New England on which I first heard the song and the album it inhabits.
The thing about music, perhaps more so than any other art form, is that it takes root in the place where we heard it, in the locations and experiences that knit it up into importance for the listener. Our ability to carry music around with us, near-literally part of our skin, means that the sound of places to which we travel grows out of the soundtrack we place over top of the experience. We invent places through the music we listen to while we’re there. Of all the places The Mountain Goats sing about, New Hampshire is not one. But I felt the kind of private language, the kind of defiant and thwarted longing that we feel in the sort of first love expressed in “Broom People,” for this small state in New England which I visited rarely and which never quite welcomed me.
Hannah’s parents house looked more like a house than any house I had ever seen. I had never been to New Hampshire before I went with her to visit her parents one summer during college. She was one of those people who told affectionate stories about the home where she’d grown up, her dad’s mustache and his bad jokes and the family dog. She invited me to visit them for the first time during a sticky green summer when every street corner in New York City smelled like vomit and everyone but us had left the city. I packed a small bag and stood with her at the bus stop, the cement baking nauseous smells up through our shoes, ready for the mercy of somewhere else.
On the bus, Hannah put her headphone in my ears and told me to listen. The Sunset Tree had come out recently, and she loved the Mountain Goats. I’d never listened to them before. The album didn’t get me until this brief, random track in the middle of it came on, the kind of thing that could easily be forgettable, sandwiched between other, larger, longer, catchier songs. But it was this breathless two and a half minute run-on sentence, barreling toward its last overwrought image of longing and then spiraling into music to replace the words, that felt like a kind of recognition. The song sounded like the defiant desire to hold onto the things that matter, and the way in which very small objects grow very large when we link them to our longings for something beyond what we can reach.
We got to Hannah’s parents house late at night and sat in the kitchen eating cookies her dad had made. The next day we drove around through the greenery between small towns–the landscape felt so lush that one could have rung water out of it. New Hampshire made me long for a better and clearer life than the one I’d had. It felt essentially inaccessible to messy people like myself, to those of us unable to settle, unable to sand down the edges, unable to construct a simple and coherent idea of family and of loyalty.
I imagined how this place might imbue one with confidence in the existence of beauty and an ability to love what was beautiful without being immediately suspicious of it. In exactly the ignorant way of someone who has never lived in a small town, I longed for the kind of emotions I imagined were offered there. I liked New Hampshire because it was a fantasy of an adolescence I had not had, because it was beautiful and it had no room for me, in the cool, riotous childhood greens of the summers, driving across covered bridges over Fourth of July as though all of America were as true as an ad for a car.
My own parents lived in California, so I often spent holidays and long weekends at Hannah’s throughout college. Whenever I visited her, I would listen to “Broom People” on repeat on the bus on the way up, until it became a ritual, and the brief single nonsense sentence of the song was what New Hampshire sounded like, this small and green place that comforted me precisely because I knew I would never belong there.
My love of this band grew out of those weekends, and eventually each of their other albums crept into my life in their own time, becoming the soundtrack for other places and other experiences. But nothing else ever matched the gritted-teeth tenderness in this one brief, forgotten song, and how it felt like trying to hold onto the beauty of a place, the exact way beauty resists being held.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.