The Mountain Goats are a veritable army of one, generaled by Colo, Iowa resident John Darnielle. His weapons of choice are a Panasonic boom box and an acoustic guitar, and his lo-fi recordings peg and hiss like the homemade tapes that most of them are. But Darnielle couldn’t care less about such meddlesome blemishes, for he usually is too far morphed into the identities of his characters — those engaged in Roman controversies, National League pennant races, or episodes of gourmet cooking. His narratives have always boasted a ferocious attention to detail and an obsessively keen sense of place. A decade-long series of songs has Darnielle “going to” such indie-rock meccas as Catalina, Bangor, Utrecht, Monaco, Kansas, Port Washington, Reykjavik, Santiago, Tennessee, Denmark, Bogota, Queens, Lebanon, Bristol, Palestine, and Lubbock (with Franklin Bruno).
The Coroner’s Gambit (or, Slavic Dances, as Darnielle grudgingly allows) is as technologically barren as any other Mountain Goats offering, with Darnielle relying primarily on adrenaline and vocal contortions to fill the gaps that the studio or a backing band normally would fill. Settings always play a predominant role in the Mountain Goats’ songs, and on this record, winter is the setting of choice. The trilogy of “Scotch Grove”, “Horseradish Road”, and “Family Happiness” is steeped in an unbearably cold, midwestern frost from which Darnielle’s character uncovers the hideous truths of a fledgling romance. The vitriol toward his companion crests memorably during “Family Happiness” as the pair drive through frigid Canadian evergreens: “I mouthed silent curses at you / I could see my breath / I hope the stars don’t even come out tonight / I hope we both freeze to death”. But the rage and the frost disappear quite suddenly on “Onions”, as Darnielle settles into a quiet, countrified air that rivals Son Volt without even trying.
Do not, under any circumstances, confuse the Mountain Goats’ acoustical footing for folk, country, or singer-songwriter pop. Darnielle’s truest triumph — best reflected on songs like “Jaipur”, “‘Bluejays and Cardinals'”, “Alphonse Mambo”, and especially “Family Happiness” — is his ability to channel the dynamics of four players into one. The workmanship of such a feat is, at times, nothing short of spellbinding. Darnielle pounds the six strings like a drum, and his chords often emit a sonic resonance that sounds of several guitars. When his characters’ emotions call for it, he plays at a frenetic, possessed pace, adding the oddly shaped chord where necessary to accent the appropriate emotion. Even when he softens his approach, as he does on “Horseradish Road” and “There Will Be No Divorce”, the lingering notes leave mischievous overtones that heighten the suspense of the plot. Imagine if Sebadoh or Guided by Voices was a solo act, and you can begin to understand why Darnielle’s resourcefulness, not to mention his intellectual rigor, has endeared him to college radio since he began making music 10 years ago. Here’s hoping we get 10 more.