John Darnielle writes lots of songs. However, unlike, say, Bob Pollard, who also writes lots of songs (half of which are brilliant and half of which are crap), the vast majority of Darnielle’s creations are actually worth hearing. The problem is that until now, unless you were an obsessive-freakish collector type, a lot of these songs have been, to put it mildly, very difficult to track down. Sure, many of his full-length records aren’t all that hard to find (especially more recent releases like The Coroner’s Gambit and All Hail West Texas), but the thing is, Darnielle has much more to say than the regular LP-a-year release cycle lets him. Over the years, he’s gotten into the habit of releasing limited-run EPs, contributing songs to obscure compilations, and putting out 7-inches on tiny labels. All of these, unless you’re really on the ball and manage to secure copies shortly after their release, are practically impossible to track down after their initial run. The other thing worth taking into account is that, perversely, Darnielle often saves some of his best songs for these fleeting appearances.
For those of you who appreciate the man’s work, but are not willing to spend the time and money necessary to track down all of his ephemeral releases, well, you’re in luck. A few years back, you may have heard of a plot by Ajax records to release three compilation CDs containing most of Darnielle’s previously-very-tough-to-find gems. Ajax got around to releasing two of these, Protein Source of the Future . . . Now! and Bitter Melon Farm, but went out of business shortly thereafter, leaving the release of the third and final compilation in limbo. Thankfully, the fine folks at Three Beads of Sweat have seen fit to pick up the torch, re-releasing Protein Source of the Future . . . Now! and Bitter Melon Farm, and finally giving Ghana proper release.
While these compilations are definitely designed for the already-converted among us, each also serves as a perfectly adequate introduction to Darnielle’s work under the Mountain Goats moniker. The material here differs very little from most of Darnielle’s other work — the constants remain his reedy, declamatory voice, his bruised and battered acoustic guitar, and his resolutely lower than lo-fi recording values, and — of course — his astonishing songwriting ability. The latter is consistently on fine display throughout the 31 (count ’em) songs that comprise Ghana. Whether he’s deliberating on “The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix’s Life” or continuing his tradition of “Going to . . .” songs (“Going to Port Washington”, “Going to Kirby Sigston”, “Going to Jamaica”), Darnielle consistently infuses his brief songs with memorable characters and situations.
Ghana sports many highlights among its vast array of tracks, such as the aforementioned “The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix’s Life” (“On the last afternoon of his life, Jimi Hendrix went to the kitchen / And he got himself a glass of water / He put four ice cubes into the glass / There is nothing like cold water / There is nothing”), as well as the hilarious (if historically inaccurate) “The Anglo Saxons”. The leadoff track, “Golden Boy”, exalts a particular brand of peanuts, and proclaims, “There are no Pan-Asian supermarkets down in Hell / So you can’t get Golden Boy peanuts”. You also get the songs from Orange Raja, Blood Royal, his four-song collaboration with noted New Zealand violinist Alastair Galbraith.
However, those willing to slog through this vast collection of material ’til the bitter end will be rewarded with perhaps the best songs on the whole collection, located in the unlikely #30 and #31 slots. “Noctifer Birmingham” and “Leaving Home” neatly encapsulate all that is great about John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats. “I had to stop and catch my breath / When the telephone rang out as loud as death”, begins “Noctifer Birmingham”, a simple tale of going to visit someone in Birmingham. Darnielle’s storytelling skills — he knows that the details you leave out are sometimes just as important as the details you mention — make the simple story as evocative as anything else he’s ever done.
“Leaving Home” is a poignant portrait of a couple on a boat with a small baby, watching their homeland recede into the distance as they embark on a new life. It’s a touching and beautiful song, and a perfect closer to an album full of moments like these. “Leaving Home” is so good, though, that when it ends, it accomplishes the impossible feat of actually leaving you wanting more, despite the fact that it’s the last of a marathon 31 songs. Honestly, I can’t think of too many other songwriters around today who could accomplish this feat, but Darnielle manages it, and with a “B-sides and rarities” collection, nonetheless. Long may he rant.