In a broad overview of John Darnielle’s 20-plus years heading the Mountain Goats, you might look at 2002’s All Hail West Texas as a pivotal halfway point. Darnielle began recording as the Mountain Goats in the early 1990s, putting poems to tape over a battered acoustic guitar. He had collaborators—from early bandmate Rachel Ware to the mysterious Bright Mountain Choir—but the Mountain Goats’ early work centered on Darnielle and his words. He sang about troubled characters and unhealthy relationships in settings across the globe and throughout history. He would belt out his stories, sometimes bitterly humorous, and linger on moments and details until it all overwhelmed him. The sparse instrumentation and rough home recording only added to the urgency. It’s difficult to imagine early Mountain Goats albums like Zopilote Machine (1994) and Sweden (1995) without the static and tape grind.
All Hail West Texas—reissued this week in expanded form by Merge—was one of the best albums of Darnielle’s “homemade” era, and also the last. Just months later in 2002, the Mountain Goats released the follow-up Tallahassee, on which they displayed a newly cleaned-up sound and a wider array of instruments. The band’s lineup expanded to include Peter Hughes on bass and, later, Jon Wurster (of Superchunk) on drums. Additional musicians chipped in frequently over the albums that followed. The shift from the homemade racket to a more conventional studio presentation may have caught longtime fans off guard, but it helped take Darnielle’s songs to different place and to a broader audience. Albums like The Sunset Tree (2005), The Life of the World to Come (2009), and Transcendental Youth (2012) have pianos, strings, and horn sections that would’ve been hard to imagine in 1994—but they also feature some of Darnielle’s finest songwriting.
With the All Hail West Texas reissue offering a fresh look at a key point in the band’s history, now seems as good a time as any to review 20 essential tracks from the Mountain Goats’ back catalog.
(collected on Protein Source of the Future…Now!)
Devoted listeners have spent countless hours analyzing lyrics, looking up song title references, poring over liner notes, and trying to decipher what Darnielle’s songs are really “about”. Answers aren’t always easy to come by, and “The Monkey Song”, available on the Protein Source of the Future…Now! compilation, symbolizes that search for meaning as much as anything. The song’s narrator thoughtfully takes in his surroundings—from the planets and the heavens to the scuff marks on the floor—until an unexpected monkey shows up for the chorus: “There’s a monkey in the basement / Where did the monkey come from?”
(We Shall All Be Healed)
A single from 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed, “Palmcorder Yajna” is, musically, about as straightforward a rock song as the Mountain Goats have ever produced. Things get a little murkier lyrically, though, as Darnielle takes us into a dirty motel room full of meth addicts, cycling through dreams, bouts of paranoia, and visions of their gravesites marching toward them.
(collected on Ghana)
“There are no pan-Asian supermarkets down in hell / So you can’t find Golden Boy peanuts there.” The Mountain Goats’ contribution to 1998’s Object Lessons: Songs About Products compilation, “Golden Boy” takes Darnielle’s love for a particular brand of peanuts and uses it to make a compelling argument for being a kinder, better person. It’s the most light-hearted song on this list, but Darnielle still musters a fanatical intensity as he presents a vision of Heaven where the streets are lined with shells and your spirit can have as many peanuts as it wants. “Golden Boy” is also available on the Mountain Goats’ Ghana compilation. The peanuts themselves may be available here.
(All Eternals Deck)
Around the release of 2011’s All Eternals Deck, Darnielle repeatedly mentioned the influence of horror films on the album’s songwriting. The lead track “Damn These Vampires” introduces monsters right from the start, but it’s “Never Quite Free” that most clearly invokes scenes from a slasher movie—specifically, the scene at the end where survivors emerge from a murderous ordeal and at last appear to be safe, only for it to be revealed that there’s plenty more trouble lurking for a sequel. The song opens brightly, as a look outside the window shows “only friendly fields and open roads.” The verses, buoyed by steel guitar, let loose like sighs of relief, until they’re interrupted by a shadowy figure in the chorus: “When you see him, you’ll know.”
(collected on Bitter Melon Farm)
In a 1995 interview, Darnielle described the Mountain Goats to me as “a punk rock band without a drummer or an electric guitar.” Few tracks capture the raw power of that era like “Black Molly”, available as a live track on the Bitter Melon Farm collection. The song sets an ominous scene early—fish darting back and forth in the aquarium, sensing a disturbance; someone from the past returning to town; a distraught narrator readying himself for destruction. A phone call sets the whole thing off, and a hail of gunfire (first into the phone, then into old photos) brings the song to its screaming catharsis.