Written by Devon Mitchell
Recently a new band has come across my desk. The Mountain Goats, an indie rock/folk band first formed in the early 90s, was introduced to me by my good friend Kristi. While driving to get coffee, an interesting Mountain Goat’s song came on Kristi’s queue entitled, “Picture of My Dress”.
My introduction to the Mountain Goats has been plaguing my thoughts for far too long, as I have been trying to interpret the bizarre lyrics of “Picture of My Dress”. Upon the first listen, they make no sense. The narrator of the song first talks of meeting “somebody’s grandma” at a truck stop in New Mexico. It is at this truck stop we first get a picture of the narrator’s dress with skinny white shoulder straps. In the next verse, the narrator describes being in a “Dallas Texas Burger King” while eating a crispy chicken club with extra mayonnaise in the parking lot. Strange, right? To procrastinate studying for finals, I began conducting research as to what these lyrics mean. What you will continue to read is my humble analysis.
The story mentioned in the above paragraph is only the first half of the song. The second half is a little clearer, talking about only wearing this dress one time, specifically nine years ago. Then some metaphorical language wondering when the narrator will be set free. From these last couple of verses, I gathered the narrator is a divorced woman. The dress she is talking about is her skinny white strapped wedding dress which she only wore once. But what does everything else mean and why is she taking pictures in her wedding dress? This is where the research comes in.
Two years ago, in December 2018, poet Maggie Smith tweeted, “photo essay that won’t happen: Divorced woman drives her rumpled c. 2005 wedding dress across the country and takes photos of it in various locations. It’s a metaphorical Weekend at Bernie’s sans stapled-on-toupee and sunglasses, because the dead thing is the marriage.” Lead singer of the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle responded saying, “this song would be called ‘Picture of My Dress’ imo”. Then in late October 2020, the Mountain Goats released their nineteenth studio album, Getting Into Knives, which features Smith’s photo essay idea in song form.
I think “Picture of My Dress” is more than just an idea for a photo essay. Like any literary masterpiece, there are layers. I think this road trip from New Mexico to Texas is a metaphor for defining this part of her adult life. She begins in New Mexico, excited to once again see the souvenir from her failed marriage. Much like how she would have been excited to start life with her now ex. Then she’s in Texas where she is making a mess while eating a sandwich. Perhaps this relates to making a mess of her marriage.
The metaphor continues in the third and fourth verses. Here she is driving into the sunset and acknowledging that something has been taken from her (presumably taken by her ex). It is unclear what this stolen item is. I believe it is her youth which she is trying to regain from this journey. To her, I think this is what the sunset represents. But then her car breaks down before she can reach it. She stands by the roadside, smiling oddly. Maybe recognizing her youth is out of reach but she doesn’t need it to be happy.
So there you have it, my less than professional analysis. Maybe you’ve listened and had a different interpretation. That’s the beautiful thing about musical lyrics. We can interpret them differently, although we can all agree they are beautiful and romantic.