John Darnielle possesses perhaps the most devoted following of any figure in contemporary indie rock. Call it a cult, if you will, but his cult is less about apocalyptic visions and matching white tennis shoes and more about compulsively collecting his outrageously extensive discography and experiencing the singular emotional catharsis that each Mountain Goats show brings to a few hundred like-minded people. Although they’ve progressed from legendarily lo-fi to lushly produced numbers, The Mountain Goats remains Darnielle’s project through and through, with apologies to bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster. Darnielle’s collaborators certainly flesh out his compositions to great effect, but his songwriting is always the main draw for fans and critics alike.
Franklin Bruno has long been one of those collaborators, his work appearing on The Mountain Goats’s Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree. He, like the rest of the freefloating band, took a backseat to Darnielle’s immense presence on both of those records. He also joins Darnielle in more of an ostensibly egalitarian project, The Extra Lens (formerly The Extra Glenns), in which the pair write and arrange all productions themselves. The Extra Lens records and performs sparingly, unsurprisingly for the side-project of a man so utterly prolific in his main act and tireless in his creative spirit. However, here they are again, returning with Undercard, the duo’s first album in eight years.
It’s perplexing to consider why Darnielle would need to record under a different name when he puts out so much material already and that he already writes and records regularly with Bruno’s help. The right answer’s probably the simplest one—the dudes are friends, and they want to spend some extra time together. Whatever the reason, the songs on Undercard don’t sound too discernibly different from the rest of The Mountain Goats’s output over the last several years. That, of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing—Darnielle is nothing if not consistent.
That consistency shows itself right away in Undercard’s opener, the brief and aggressive “Adultery”. Bruno’s distorted electric guitars here are a welcome addition to Darnielle’s usually acoustic palate, giving the song an added drive and power that gets the fists pumping right away. Darnielle’s on his lyrical game, immediately: “There’s a mean streak in the sky / on the morning when you come by, / and you ask me would I, / and say I would, / and it’s an ill wind that does nobody good.” In his usual way, Darnielle’s plain spoken imagery puts a fresh spin on conventional topics. Here, he gives us the darker side of an affair, the point in a betrayal where neither party much enjoys themselves anymore. If any song justifies the collaborative spirit of The Extra Lens, it’s “Adultery,” where Bruno’s guitar work puts real bite into Darnielle’s vocals. The duo actually seems on equal footing.
The next track, “Cruiserweights,” immediately slows the tempo down. With the sting of “Adultery” gone, one realizes quickly that The Extra Lens might still, after all, make songs quite interchangeable with those of The Mountain Goats. Darnielle strums his acoustic guitar while Bruno adds keys and fingerpicked accompanying melodies on his own guitar. “Counterweights” sees Darnielle in full storyteller mode, indulging himself in one of his favorite topics—boxing (as superfans well know, he maintains a blog largely dedicated to the sport). His passion translates into beautiful songwriting, as he tells the tale of a weathered, fatalistic boxer fighting against himself as much as his opponent in the ring. The refrain of “Almost out of the woods, / awake and alive” becomes a mantra for taking on daily, mundane battles of every sort. As always, Darnielle’s eye for imagery keeps the song from becoming a sports cliché: “PA system borrowed from the high school, / breathe through my mouthpiece; / I hate this town. / And there’s a whole long list of other things I hate, / I had to starve myself this week to make weight…” It’s another testimony to Darnielle’s unparalleled skill as a narrative songwriter, and one of his best songs in a long time.
“Only Existing Footage” completes Undercard’s opening one-two-three punch. Another mid-tempo tune, Bruno’s arrangements maintain their background sheen of atmospheric pull. “Oblivion’s been calling since it found out where I live,” sings Darnielle in his nasal, matter-of-fact voice. That voice becomes a crucial element in this record’s success, as it has in his past albums. His range is limited, but it’s almost because of those limitations that he can’t lapse into melodrama in his presentation. He can’t really wail, can’t really moan, and that’s to his credit in these understated, restrained compositions.
Unfortunately, after its initial salvo Undercard begins to simply take the paces. “Communicating Doors” is too hushed for its own good, as is “Programmed Cell Death,” which features a rare miss on Darnielle’s part: “How much longer / are we supposed to stay alive / gathering by the Portuguese sardines / in aisle five.” Even he can’t win them every time. Bruno brings his electric guitar out again to give oomph to “How I Left the Ministry,” and it’s much appreciated. The trick doesn’t work as well on “Some Other Way,” which sees both members missing the mark. The Randy Newman cover “In Germany Before the War” doesn’t seem to get past the drafting stage of a thin character sketch, though Bruno rises admirably to the occasion and imbues the song with tension and dread through his minimal piano and accordion arrangements. “Dogs of Clinic 17” at least closes the album on a satisfyingly anthemic note.
By the end of Undercard, one realizes how integral Franklin Bruno has been to the songs’ successes. Not all of the compositions here reach their potential, but Bruno almost consistently nails his efforts to create the right mood for Darnielle’s storytelling. Darnielle doesn’t always bring his best material to the table here, but his bandmate is onboard with both feet.