[24 July 2013]
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.
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?”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
On 2009’s The Life of the World to Come, Darnielle explored a range of subjects dealing with religion, faith, and the Bible. On “Isaiah 45:23”, Darnielle presents a prayer from a terminally ill hospital patient, delivered in the form of a gently sweet pop song. The patient is suffering (a full verse follows the pain coursing through his body as he reads magazines), but fully at peace with whatever happens next: “If my prayer goes unanswered, that’s alright.”
The spirited high point of 2002’s Devil in the Shortwave EP, “Commandante” introduces a young couple with big plans of drunken rebellion: plans to drink a lot of whiskey, ditch their belongings, and shake the whole town upside-down till “coins come falling out of its pockets.” As the song surges to its peak, the pair put on their Che Guevara pins and “sail through the night sky like a pair of bottle rockets.”
With 2002’s Tallahassee, Darnielle devoted an entire album to the “Alpha couple”, a pair that had appeared in a number of earlier songs (“Alpha Incipiens”, “Alpha Sun Hat”, “Alpha Desperation March”, and so on). The two were doomed from the start, and Tallahassee‘s “No Children” takes them to their lowest lows. The song runs through a list of “hopes” that starts out bleak (“I hope that our few remaining friends give up on trying to save us”) and quickly turns hateful (“I hope I lie and tell everyone you were a good wife”)—ultimately arriving at “I hope we both die” in the sing-along chorus.
The opening track from All Hail West Texas, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is the story of Jeff and Cyrus, childhood friends with big dreams of death metal superstardom. Concerned parents and teachers shut down the band before it even settles on a name, but the dream won’t stay down forever: “The best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you.” A triumphant “Hail Satan!” drives the point home.
From the story of Jeff and Cyrus to the Mountain Goats’ fired-up concert renditions of Ace of Base’s “The Sign”, Darnielle and his characters have often turned to music to help get their emotions sorted out. In “Duke Ellington”, the scene is a 1962 jazz concert in Sweden, where the narrator finds his thoughts drifting to someone he’s lost. He gets caught up in the sights and sounds—lights reflecting off jewelry, horns punching the air—and seemingly comes out with a strengthened resolve: “I’ve had just about enough of losing things.”
Much of 2000’s The Coroner’s Gambit deals with misery and death with an almost uncomfortable rawness, but “Onions” provides the album’s breath of fresh air. With a loping pace and sweetly droning violin, the song describes the end of a hard winter and the welcome arrival of spring—the time when geese are heading north and the cows trot back out onto the warm earth after months inside the barn.
Darnielle’s “Standard Bitter Love Song” series provided some of the most memorable lines from the Mountain Goats’ early releases (from #4: “I see you’ve left me a photograph of a leopard tearing an antelope in half / What have you done with our love?”), and #7, from 1994’s Zopilote Machine, delivers plenty more. Perhaps the bitterest of all the bitter love songs, #7 describes a couple living in a room so badly infested with flies that they can barely see or hear each other. “If I’d have been one of these flies”, Darnielle sings, “I would’ve lodged myself firmly underneath your eyelid.”
The horn-powered first single from 2012’s Transcendental Youth, “Cry for Judas” distinguishes between two types of people: those who crash and burn but learn from their mistakes, and those who just keep on crashing. The song, like much of the album, zeroes in on the latter group—the “broken machines”, “the ones who don’t slow down at all”. There’s hopelessness in the lyrics, but the horn section and giddy bass line help give “Cry for Judas” a feeling of celebration.
The opening track from 1995’s Sweden, “Recognition Scene” takes its name from the point in a dramatic work where characters finally come to understand the true nature of a situation. The song captures one couple’s arrival at that point, as Darnielle uses a candy store robbery to represent a young relationship’s short-lived joyful phase. The couple in the song revels in the sticky sweetness (“Hot caramel sticking to our teeth / And the only love I’ve ever known burning underneath”), right up until that moment in the getaway car when they realize it’s not going to last.
On 1998’s New Asian Cinema EP, the Mountain Goats added some new elements to their sound, most notably the delicate banjo playing of Darnielle’s wife Lalitree. On “Cao Dai Blowout”, the protagonist deals with a visit from his father’s ghost, who comes to town in a wave of chaos and disruption—frightening the livestock, knocking over furniture, blocking the wireless reception. “When the ghost of your father starts pushing you around, how are you gonna make him stop?” With banjo and a faint organ hovering over Darnielle’s guitar, the track serves as a rustic first step toward the more fleshed-out arrangements the group would explore later on.
Of all the ill-fated relationship songs in the Mountain Goats’ catalog, “Old College Try” would be the one you might hear at a wedding. That’s not to suggest that all is right with the couple in the song—“The warning signs have all been bright and garish”—but the song is a promise of commitment, for better or (mostly) for worse: “I will walk down to the end with you / If you will come all the way down with me.” Over the course of the other songs on Tallahassee, we’ll watch this relationship deteriorate (see: “No Children”), but “Old College Try” finds an almost-bright point in the bleak surroundings, “like a trashcan fire in a prison cell.”
The characters that populate most Mountain Goats songs are fictional, but Darnielle devoted 2005’s The Sunset Tree to deeply personal songs about his own life. “This Year” feels like that album’s centerpiece, a gritty close-up of Darnielle’s troubled teenage years with an abusive stepfather. The song opens with 17-year-old Darnielle “breaking free” from his home for a day: “My broken house behind me and good things ahead.” The drums pick up as he drives off, and the song for a moment veers into Springsteen territory, engine roaring on the open road. Soon, he’s playing video games and hanging out with a girl named Cathy, pounding Scotch till he can hear alcohol humming inside him. The two lock eyes and hold hands, a momentary connection that steels him for the return home to his stepfather. “The scene ends badly, as you might imagine.” It had to, but the chorus commits to pushing on: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.”
On 1995’s Orange Raja, Blood Royal EP, Darnielle’s acoustic guitar found perhaps the most expressive accompaniment it would ever have, courtesy of New Zealand’s Alastair Galbraith. The EP—since collected on the Ghana compilation—featured four songs by the Mountain Goats and Galbraith, including “Raja Vocative”, possibly the prettiest song Darnielle has put to tape. Darnielle’s guitar and Galbraith’s violin create a sparse but evocative backdrop perfectly suited to the lyrics, which don’t aim to tell a complete story but instead capture the essence of missing someone who’s far away: “A bird you would have loved brought the sky down / But it was useless to see it without you around.” Similar images would reappear a year later in “Maize Stalk Drinking Blood”, which in some ways feels like a sister song, from 1997’s Full Force Galesburg.
Broken relationships and self-destructive behaviors lie at the center of numerous Mountain Goats songs, but few tracks combine the themes as deftly as “Source Decay” from All Hail West Texas. The song describes a weekly ritual in which the protagonist drives to an old post office box to check for mail from an ex—even though it’s clear that the ritual does him no good. Darnielle details the process every step of the way: a detour through his old hometown, a stop in an alley near the post office, a flashback to a departing train years earlier. He finally returns home and spreads the postcards on a table, hopelessly searching for patterns in the pictures, postmarks, and stamps. Darnielle’s guitar and voice ratchet up the intensity as the situation grows more desperate. “I wish the West Texas Highway was a Moebius Strip / I could ride it out forever when I feel my heart break.”
“The most remarkable thing about coming home to you is the feeling of being in motion again—it’s the most extraordinary thing in the world.” The awkward sweetness of those opening lines doesn’t linger for long, though, as 15 seconds later, the narrator is in mid-breakdown, shaking, waving around a gun with a busted safety catch. “Going to Georgia”, a longtime concert favorite from Zopilote Machine, quickly navigates from one extreme to the other, unfolding as a delicate love song when you least expect it: “You smile as you ease the gun from my hand, and I’m frozen with joy, right where I stand.”