Alone in his Iowa home in 1999, the Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle had a self-described “spontaneous eruption” during his final moments recording what would become the opening track for All Hail West Texas. “The Best Ever Death Metal in Denton”, now a fan favorite, affectionately details the doomed story of its titular band. Made up of childhood friends Jeff and Cyrus, they find their quest “for stage lights and Lear jets and fortune and fame” foiled through intervening parents (who transfer Cyrus to a treatment facility).
Darnielle alludes to the revenge that the two plan, offering this timeless advice: “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream / Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you.” In the closing moments, the unplanned phrase “Hail Satan”—now an obligatory audience sing-along moment—erupts from Darnielle like “a religious confession” (gleefully hinting at what form Jeff and Cyrus’ revenge eventually takes).
All Hail West Texas, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, is an album that could be similarly described using the term “spontaneous eruption”. The record is guided by fervent and driving emotions that Darnielle either lets simmer, barely suppresses, or finally releases in just the right measure (using every ounce of his strained singing voice and thrashing acoustic guitar).
As such, very little on this “folk” LP could be called “relaxed”, as even the slower songs are marked so much unease or despair that they refuse to let the listener lose focus. There probably hasn’t been a lovesong lyric that creates more dread than Darnielle’s plea in “Riches and Wonders” of “I want to go home, but I am home”. This pure and unrestrained emotional spirit, driving every moment of West Texas’ 14-song tracklist, is what made it more than just an excellent indie record in a year full of them.
This isn’t something Darnielle managed to capture effortlessly after a few dozen rewrites and demo tracks. As he’s explained, almost all the songs were finished “within minutes of being written”, recorded straight onto the now famed Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox. A resulting constant tape whir, described affectionately by Pitchfork as sounding like “the saliva glands of a retired android”, is an ever-present force on West Texas. It gives the kind of “lost tapes discovered in an abandoned cellar” quality that the best lo-fi records have.
This was the last album on which Darnielle used this machine (well, until its triumphant return in 2020) because the Mountain Goats transitioned to conventional studio recordings later that year—with Tallahassee—and exist today as a “legitimate three-piece band”. In an essay in the album’s liner notes, Darnielle explains that he wasn’t aware of this coming departure when making West Texas. Still, revisiting it with this knowledge, the collection holds a quality of finality, as if Darnielle had gotten the boombox whirring one final time before it died.
It would be a complete mistake, though, to use this context to dismiss the album’s songs as improvised or “spur of the moment”. No matter how quickly Darnielle did it, he’s in his element for every moment of West Texas, with a keen, seemingly innate understanding of songwriting. When a song concept is complex, he will construct a larger world and narrative so unique and specific that it immediately catches the audience’s attention. These include a troubled parent caring for two newborns after an unnamed tragedy (probably the Oklahoma City bombings) on “Pink and Blue”, as well as a conspiratorial and paranoid narrator desperately camping outside the house of an old mentor that taught them radio tuning on “Distant Stations”.
On the other hand, when a song is simple, he will push it to such exaggerated lengths that it becomes slightly funny yet somehow never loses its emotional impact. These tracks may appear to show their hand early on, like the tale of waning lovers fruitlessly spending their Vegas winnings on “Fault Lines”. Then, Darnielle will throw in a lyric as hilariously direct as “the house and the jewels, the Italian race car / They don’t make us feel better about who we are”, and the listener feels silly for thinking they’d figured out what he was trying to do.
It’s a writing trick that perhaps hasn’t sustained its effect across every moment of the Mountain Goats’ discography—what with its forays into medieval fantasy concept albums—but for the 14 tracks on West Texas, it always works. It may be a bit ridiculous for a couple to constantly list the different places they’re visiting to rekindle their lost love (from “two weeks in the Bahamas” and Provo to a grand Army Stop out of Manhattan). But, Darnielle’s labored refrain in “The Mess Inside” (“I wanted you / To love me like you used to do”) means that it never hits any less hard.
Likewise, regardless of how outlandish the locations of visitors to an unnamed haven get in “Color in Your Cheeks”—whether they’re in “Zimbabwe”, “Soviet Georgia”, or apparently “liv[ing] across the street”—the song feels as genuinely sweet and warm as it did from its opening moments. Just look at how its untroubled narrator concludes that “when they finally made it here / It was the least that we could do to make our welcome clear.”
The year 2002, like many in the early 2000s, was a landmark time for indie and folk music. As such, it’s precisely these songwriting qualities that allowed West Texas to stand out amongst a crowded roster. That included that year’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco and Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain, as well as The Microphones landmark Glow Pt. 2 only a year earlier. Pure and simple emotion is what separated, and still separates, West Texas from all these records.
Those Microphones songs, in many cases, wind or build to their emotional climax, while Didn’t It Rain’s constant depressive mood seldom breaks. On these LPs, you’d be hard-pressed to find a lyric that is as direct as something on West Texas’ “Jenny”, wherein the narrator declares (after their partner arrives in their driveway on a motorcycle): “Nine hundred cubic centimeters of raw, whining power / No outstanding warrants for my arrest / Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa / The pirate’s life for me.”
West Texas gets in, tells its story, and gets out, and no moment feels wasted. There are no interludes, no part twos, and no reprises. Only the final track, “Absolute Lipoths Effect”, allows for a minute of silence at the record’s end (before the boombox is switched off for a final time). Again, this direct songwriting style permits the album to define itself on release.
The presence of vivid similes and metaphors are a defining feature of the folk and indie rock genres West Texas ostensively sits between, but Darnielle’s use of them is as self-conscious as you can get. Whenever he determines a simile or metaphor is necessary, it feels like Darnielle is hooked up to his own whirring machine. He has to strenuously change track to prevent writing as literally as his candid warning that “selling acid was a bad idea / And selling it to a cop was a worse one” on “Fall of the Star High School Running Back“.
Listening to a love song like “Jenny” reveals the benefits of this songwriting decision. The metaphors and similes that it does include—such as this vivid declaration: “We were the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have his eyes on”—wouldn’t be nearly as effective if this were an album full of them. It creates something a listener in 2002 truly couldn’t get anywhere else.
It’s no surprise that 12 years after West Texas‘ release, Darnielle made his solo writing debut. On this album, Darnielle is a storyteller through and through. All Hail West Texas is a collection, as the cover helpfully tells us, “about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle and locked treatment facility for adolescent boys”. That said, don’t let this description fool you into re-evaluating it as some grand concept album with a whole detailed host of crossover characters.
Across its 14 tracks, Darnielle constructs his small version of West Texas, and if some characters reappear, it’s only incidental. Yes, the “Japanese bike” bought by the dommed high schooler in “Fall of the Star High School Running Back” is probably the “new Kawasaki / all yellow and black” that pulls up in “Jenny”, with the narrator’s celebration of their lack of “outstanding warrants for [their] arrest”. But this is not something Darnielle lingers on or delivers with a knowing wink.
Despite this, things on the record do weave together, and West Texas is obviously best experienced in one sitting. The emotional throughline of troubled romantic relationships, always a presence in Mountain Goats songs, builds up expertly through the tragically wealthy couple in “Fault Lines”. That same applies to the similarly doomed romance in “Balance” (which Darnielle describes as trying to “squeeze tears out of mute stones”).
Again, his sense of humor and absurdity is present even in this depressive track, illustrating the couple spending their summer “picking at the bones” of their relationship, but also somehow “figuring the interest on delinquent loans”. All of this romantic tension finally boils over in “The Mess Inside”, creating the album’s greatest moment and—combined with the previous three songs—arguably one of the best three-track-runs in indie music history.
Ultimately though, Darnielle finishes West Texas with a message of hope. Closer “Absolute Lithops Effect” is, as he’s affectionately explained many times, named after a plant that disguises itself as a rock to avoid being eaten. Therefore, it’s something that “seems non-living but is secretly alive”. The track’s narrator could be Jeff, Cyrus, or any other characters that appeared across the previous 13 songs. It doesn’t matter. Again, a clear, central emotion drives the track: the determination to get up and “find the exit” from whatever situation the narrator has found themselves in.
The listener, not tied down by any strict narrative, is left to imagine the characters in “Fault Lines”, “Balance”, or “The Mess Inside”, finally leaving their doomed relationship. Likewise, they perceive the fallen “High School Running Back” being released from prison, just like they’re free to picture what kind of Satanic revenge Jeff and Cyrus eventually took.
The message of “Absolute Lithops Effect” has taken on a new meaning for fans post-quarantine, with its commitment to hope during “one long season of waiting” inside. Here, the clear emotions guiding Darnielle’s songwriting have found new resonance 20 years later, showing exactly why All Hail West Texas has stuck around.