John Darnielle’s original liner notes to 2002’s All Hail West Texas—the last of the lo-fi, boombox-recorded Mountain Goats albums – might say more interesting things about it than almost every reviewer of it probably did or will (including me). He spelled out that the album was in tribute to home-recording misfits. He described the static hums and whirs that are in the background of the album, noise created by the failing recording devices, as another character in the songs, almost like the uncaring divine being that is or isn’t looking on at their lives, at “the boneheaded ideas that motivate the people who populate these little songs”, as he describes them.
The people behind these “boneheaded” actions are brutally portrayed in the songs, but with a loving tone of understanding, even appreciation of the extremes they’ll go to survive and persist at their endeavors, whether it’s in their best interests or not (usually not). The first track “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is a fan favorite not just because it allows us to loudly sing “Hail Satan!”, but also because we relate to, or at least empathize with, Jeff and Cyrus, the duo who want to live up to the title (and then some) but who aren’t taken seriously, as people, by anyone (to say the least), which is how they end up separated, one sent to a boarding school.
“When you punish a person for dreaming his dreams / don’t expect him to thank or forgive you” is one of those seeming truism that Darnielle can get away with in his songs not just because they’re true, but because he sings them with a voice of experience, within stories that reek of the same. Establish a specific enough set of characters and situations to feel to the listener like real life, and they’ll not just let you preach to them but they’ll jump out of their chair and shout along out of awareness that someone has said that true thing that never gets spoken.
We empathize too with the second song’s high school quarterback who gets injured, sinks into despair, starts selling drugs, and ends up in jail – the first 17-year-old to serve federal time in the war on drugs. “Your grandfather rode the boat over from Ireland,” Darnielle sings, “But you made a bad decision or two.”
Other people in the songs are “Jenny”, who rides a brand-new motorcycle to our narrator’s house and captures his attention; a couple who is drunk all the time, living off gambling earnings (“Fault Lines”) and trying to ignore their dying love; somebody with a nine-day-old baby he or she doesn’t know what to do with (“Pink and Blue”), a couple travelling the country to try and shake off their pain and sadness (“The Mess Inside”) and somebody freshly out of jail, spending time in a motel room dreaming of home (“Jeff Davis County Blues”). Some of these may or may not be the same people.
In the context of the album’s growing collection of people and stories, read the album-cover note “14 songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys”, and you get the impression it’s a play with recurring characters, though you can’t always tell which songs apply to the same people. That the characters include teenagers in a treatment facility and lovers struggling to deal with each other and themselves shouldn’t surprise Mountain Goats fans, but this might have been the first album those themes started to coalesce in one clearly linked set of stories.
The people in the songs share a determination (several songs reference long periods of waiting), a sense of keeping-on despite themselves and their situations. The last song, “Absolute Lithops Effect” – “lithops”, by the way, is a succulent plant that blends in with its surroundings to avoid getting eaten – references breaking open to your rawest parts after “one long season of waiting”. Its protagonist is taking small steps towards healing, towards calm and growth. “I will let myself forget,” Darnielle sings, from the perspective of just one of the many on the album who have something they want to forget but can’t.
“Absolute Lithops Effect” is the last song, that is, of the album proper. This remastered version includes seven bonus tracks. One is an alternate version of “Jenny”; the other six are additional songs recorded for this album and unreleased until now. Thematically and musically they fit in well. Even if none are amazing gems likely to be screamed out for by fans at concerts (who am I kidding, they’ll be yelled for anyway), hearing more songs in the same vein, potentially involving the same characters, might slightly broaden listeners’ perspective on the album and give them further clues as to what’s going on with these people. “Waco” and “Midland” pinpoint the album more geographically, though the title has already given away where these songs are set. In the latter, he sings, “This is where I came when I ran out of places to run,” which seems to the relationship many of these characters have to their current location.
// Notes from the Road
"Powerful Chicago soul-singer dips into the '60s and '70s while dabbling in Urdu, Punjabi and Italian.READ the article