One of my favorite creatures is the opossum. And one of my favorite songs about one of my favorite creatures is "Possum by Night," by one of my favorite bands, The Mountain Goats, from their album In League with Dragons (2019). And one of my favorite performances of "Possum by Night" is this live version recorded at the KEXP studios on September 5, 2019. This beautifully sad ode to an opossum just hits right today, on this rainy and cold first day of a new year.
I also recently discovered a wonderful essay about the song, by Helena Fitzgerald, that perfectly captures the beauty and wonder of the song. She writes:
This song is about a possum, which is how John Darnielle introduced it at the show, and you know it's about a possum because it's called "Possum by Night" and because all the lyrics are about a possum. It describes a possum who waddles down to the trash cans near a parking lot on garbage night, climbing up to the top of the compost heap ("if I try," goes lyric – the possum doesn't always get to the top of the compost heap; only when he really believes in himself) and watching over the long-haul truckers parked there, avoiding the nearby dogs and the garbage trucks' intake vents. Possums are gross, creepy, off-putting creatures, a raccoon with much worse personal branding, so it's hard for me to explain why it is that this song made me cry at the show, and once, discreetly, at a coffee shop yesterday, and why I can't stop listening to it.
She goes on to discuss one of my favorite lines of the song, which is a kind of blessing upon both the opossum and the audience:
There's a line near the end of "Possum by Night" that goes "grow fat and grow old and go blind and be content." It's a blessing on the possum, a description of what the possum wants, but it's also that same gratitude that derives from loss or pain or fuck-ups bad enough to make one know how edge-of-teeth precious these seemingly simple things are. Although Darnielle's songs are actually about the very specific and seemingly random subjects they claim to be about (possums, wrestlers, Ozzy Osbourne, Jesus, Dungeons & Dragons, insurance fraud, teens with a death metal band), they are also large enough to welcome in whatever human experience you as a listener need them to be about. It's not so much that they function as metaphors as that they leave the door open. "Possum by Night" is moving in the same way videos of rescued animals are moving, both because we care about the animal and because that animal is you, is me, is all of us, more vulnerable and weaker than we should be, in more need than we would like to admit we are, just trying to scratch out a life where we are safe from dogs and garbage trucks, and not sure we're capable of it, sometimes.
Finally, she discusses why this song really only works because it's about an opossum, a creature that's basically as pathetic as we humans are:
That a possum is so weird-looking, so laughable and off-putting and generally unsympathetic, actually increases the pathos of the song; this track would not hit one's heart in the same way if it were about, say, a stray cat or something. Instead it's about a parasitic, unloving little trash monster, waddling through the darkness.
Aren't we all, in some ways, just parasitic trash monsters, waddling through the darkness, in need of love and acceptance and help, just like the humble opossum?