There’s something to be said for perseverance. For the better part of the last 10 years, John Darnielle, AKA The Mountain Goats (yes, we know, there’s only one of him, but somehow “The Mountain Goat” just doesn’t sound quite right) has been churning out brilliant lo-fi gems whose main features have been his hallucinatory, erudite lyrics, his bleating voice, and his primitive bashing on an acoustic guitar. Oh yeah, and the boombox. Or, to be more specific, the Panasonic RX-FT500, which, for several years, was the sole piece of equipment that Darnielle used to transfer his songs to tape. If you consider four-track, or even eight-track recordings to be a little low on production values for your taste, then you’d do well to stop reading now, because after a four-year hiatus wherein it was presumed that the Panasonic had breathed its last, thetrusty machine has miraculously revived itself just in time for Darnielle to record 14 more brilliant lo-fi gems into it.
Darnielle’s last few records (last year’s The Coroner’s Gambit in particular) saw him edging almost imperceptibly towards slightly higher fidelity recordings — hell, some of Gambit was even recorded on an eight-track! All Hail West Texas is, however, in Darnielle’s own words, “the sound of a long-broken machine deciding, on its own and without the interference of repairmen or excessive prayer vigils, to function again”. So, there you have it. The boombox is dead, long live the boombox. He goes on to admit that the resultant sound is “painfully raw”. That about hits the nail on the head. In fact, the first sound that the listener is confronted with on popping West Texas into the player is not Darnielle’s voice or guitar, but the sound of the gears of the tape machine, which invariably get picked up by the boombox’s extremely sensitive condenser mic. This wheel grind begins and ends every song, and no effort whatsoever is made to mask it. In fact, at the end of many songs, the tape noise is actually allowed to whirr on unaccompanied for a few seconds before it’s faded out. Darnielle states that the boombox can be “legitimately thought of as a second performer on these otherwise unaccompanied recordings”, and in a sense, he’s right. Although it only knows how to play one note, the good ol’ Panasonic certainly contributes a great deal of ambience to these songs.
From the above description, you might legitimately think that listening to All Hail West Texas is a rather painful experience. If you’ve heard any other Mountain Goats releases, you probably already know that this is not the case at all. If you’re a Mountain Goats newbie, read on, and allow me to explain. See, John Darnielle is nothing if not one of our nation’s finest songwriters. While at times, his songs can come across more like tiny short stories or vignettes rather than songs in the traditional sense, he never fails to imbue the characters in his songs with an amazing amount of humanity. He has always been a master at reducing banal lives and situations to sublime epiphanies, and nowhere is this more true than on All Hail West Texas. Although he has strung conceptual threads throughout many of his songs and albums (see the “Orange Ball of . . .” or the “Going to . . .” series of songs), this is the first time that Darnielle has sat down and deliberately written a concept album.
As it plainly states on the CD’s cover, All Hail West Texas is “14 songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys”. These people range from Cyrus and Jeff, the two dirtbags who comprise “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”, to William Standeforth Donahue, the star of “Fall of the Star High School Running Back”. Basically, these are people with little hope in their lives, little to motivate them, little to live for. However, for some reason, God knows why, they keep on plodding along in their vain attempts to better their situations, and this, seemingly, is what Darnielle is fascinated with. What makes these folks tick? Why do they do what they do? Why do they make the mistakes that they make? In a way, some of these songs resemble psychological case studies set to music, and as such, are as endlessly fascinating as leafing through the confidential files of your next-door neighbor’s troubled teen might be. Voyeuristic? Perhaps, but who doesn’t crave a little peek into the dark side of human nature now and then? Perhaps I’m being a bit sensationalist, because there’s really nothing here that would be considered worthy material for the tabloid pages; merely the details of exceedingly average people and their problems that they face in trying to cope with their lives.
In describing these people, Darnielle is about as matter-of-fact, non-ironic and non-judgmental as possible, considering the fact that he is an educated, extremely intelligent man writing songs about and from the perspective of unintelligent, uneducated people. The effect is very interesting, especially when Darnielle speaks in the first person, as on “Riches and Wonders”, where he sings “We live high, our love gorges on the alcohol we feed it / And it grows all fat and friendly, we have surplus if we need it . . . I am healthy, I am whole / But I have poor impulse control”. It’s almost as if, through Darnielle’s pen, a loutish West Texas man is suddenly given extreme insight into his own life and situation. Elsewhere, in “Fall of the Star High School Running Back”, Darnielle tackles the potentially cringeworthy topic of a star high school football player who blows out his knee, and is therefore no longer able to play, turns to selling drugs, and inevitably gets busted. However, Darnielle tackles this topic with more grace than anyone could reasonably expect possible when he sings “Selling acid was a bad idea / Selling it to a cop was a worse one / A new law said that 17-year-olds could do federal time / You were the first one / So I sing this song for you / William Standeforth Donahue / Your grandfather rode the boat over from Ireland / But you made a bad decision or two”. It’s also a testament to his amazing songwriting skills that he can fit the above rather wordy couplets into a song without the result sounding tremendously awkward. For those of you who have grown fond of Darnielle’s ability to paint amazing imagistic miniatures within his songs, never fear, he has not abandoned this gift. Although his character sketches often take precedence, a line like “The crows discussed their future / In the branches of their Louisiana live oak”, from “Pink and Blue”, is but one example of Darnielle’s ability to instantaneously burn pictures into your brain with his words.
There are a few times on the record, however, where Darnielle reaches slightly beyond his grasp and ends up sounding terminally, hopelessly dorky. For me, this comes mainly with “Jenny”, which is not, as the title might imply, an ode to a girl, but rather to a new, fresh-from-the-showroom yellow and black Kawasaki motorcycle. When he sings “900 cubic centimeters of raw whining power / No outstanding warrants for my arrest / Hi diddle dee dee/Goddamn / The pirate’s life for me” in his high reedy tenor, it’s really almost too much to take. And yes, you did read that right, he actually sings “Hi diddle dee dee” within the context of a pop song. Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly “work”. Elsewhere, on the opening song “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”, which is, for the most part, a rather humorous take on two scummy teenagers, Cyrus and Jeff, who “practice twice a week in Jeff’s bedroom”, and couldn’t ever come up with a name for their enterprise, “but the top three contenders, after weeks of debate/Were Satan’s Fingers, The Killers and The Hospital Bombers”. However, it’s the end of the song where it all comes unraveled, with a chant of “Hail Satan / Hail Satan tonight”. I suppose it’s intended as realism, but coming out of Darnielle’s mouth, it just plain sounds silly.
However, these slight missteps are easily forgiven in the context of what might be, song-for-song, the best album of his career. While previous records have sported highlights that shone brighter than any one song on West Texas, as a whole, this is by far his most consistent album. Although it takes a step back in fidelity which may not be welcome to many ears after the relatively pristine-sounding The Coroner’s Gambit, it’s absolutely worth slogging through the “ferocious wheel grind” of the Panasonic RX FT-500 to get at the meat of these amazing songs. In the last verse of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” (before the “Hail Satan” bit, that is), Darnielle sings a verse that, to me, seems emblematic of this whole record. “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream/Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you/The best ever death metal band out of Denton/Will in time both outpace and outlive you”. As the cockroach will inevitably outlive the man, those of us who consider ourselves intelligent purveyors of art and culture need must understand that it’s the salt of the earth that wins out in the end.