PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Mountain Goats: We Shall All Be Healed

David Antrobus

Mountain Goats have just added a further chapter in an ongoing saga of (micro) relationships examined against a backdrop of (macro) global concern, We Shall All Be Healed being the most explicit yet.

The Mountain Goats

We Shall All Be Healed

Label: 4AD
US Release Date: 2004-02-03
UK Release Date: 2004-02-02

What is it with these whipsmart paleface singers and their biting, nasal inflections? From Guthrie to Dylan to Lennon to Cobain right up to Mark E. Smith, the suspicious taint of genius reaches along and beyond the mainstream into the dusty, murky crevices where indie trailblazers like the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle and the Weakerthans' John K. Samson currently take up the sardonic mantle, re-examining all they've been told (to paraphrase Walt Whitman) only to initially dissect, and then reject with a fierce and cutting poetry, that which insults their souls. Whether those latter two end up joining the sanctified ranks of the former is a question only time will answer, but that they share a kinship is undeniable.

There's the outsider tag, for sure, and there's a staunch DIY aesthetic, but more than this, there's ambiguity and nuance and a particularly stinging type of humour in the face of things others (often simply losing heart) find merely blunt and stark. Things like estrangement and divorce, things like addiction, things like sickness, loss and sorrow; all the silly human tragicomedy of wasted lives and blind gropings in the (semi) dark. Thus far, Darnielle has avoided the overtly autobiographical, just as he once eschewed the slick professionalism of studio recordings, but on We Shall All Be Healed, he lays to rest both of these self-imposed restrictions (having previously abandoned just the latter on 2002's amazing Tallahassee), and I believe we might all be the richer for it.

With John Vanderslice at the helm (production-wise), songwriter Franklin Bruno on keyboards, long-time tour-mate Peter Hughes on bass, Nora Danielson on violin, and Christopher McGuire on drums, these slightly swelled Mountain Goat ranks in no way detract from the core aspects of the band's former strengths -- namely, an inscrutable narrative drive, often trenchant wit, frenetically strummed acoustic guitar, and a sound more passionate than it has any right to be, given such (on the surface) meagre ingredients. And of these, uppermost is that voice; a slightly rusty scalpel that more than flirts with the caustic and the unlovely, yet somehow achieves a kind of tarnished beauty through sheer force of the personality behind it. Here, Darnielle employs his signature insistent shout in the service of a turbulent story dredged at least partly from his own life, from "a very heady period of [his] youth", in which largely nameless characters gather at a Travelodge motel for a drug binge, grow apathetic, comb through carpets, get paranoid, inexplicably play with stage makeup, up and leave in some unsettling sense, end up handcuffed to a hospital bed while demanding "information" yet receiving only "medication", before succumbing to an ambiguous refrain in which (one of) the protagonist(s) struggles with defiance and letting go, choosing between the leaden reality of jail ("Please don't fit me for that orange jumpsuit") and the fragile hope of rehab ("Let it all go"). It's as if the Alpha Couple of old have been supplanted by a loosely connected Omega Huddle, waiting to see which (if any) of them will be healed. For it's certain that, the one-dimensional certitude of 12-step programs and the album's very title notwithstanding, not everyone will be healed in the end -- at least not completely.

Along the way, we are moved by a panoply of moods. "Slow West Vultures" readies us for the time-spanning narrative jumpiness, an anticipatory strummed guitar preparing us "for the future / Ready for the world about to come". In case we're tempted to interpret this approaching world as either brave or new, Darnielle injects more than enough clues to set us straight -- blase telephone laughter, a breaking glass, and finally the understated yet mildly chilling exhortation: "We are what we are / Get in the goddamn car" ... and all this before stating, simply, "We are cursed." It's quietly, insistently, apocalyptic.

After which, "Palmcorder Yajna" is a tour de force, a dense inclusive paranoid coupling between the ultimate emptiness of applied technology and the expectant ritual (Vedic) dream of self-denial, all presided over by the personality-searing influence of that most unsettling of street drugs, crystal meth ("All you tweakers", indeed). There are so many dimensions to this song that you're no longer sure whether it's your head that's racing or your heart that's spinning ... in short, with its headstones climbing up hills, unknowable cryptic symbols, carpenter ants in dressers and reflective tape on sweatpants, it's the arcane Rosetta Stone of the entire album. Each near-shouted word is dense with associated meaning while barely concealing a dangerous hysteria.

Throughout, Darnielle seems to be at once terrified and thrilled by the slow emergence of a new jittery/glittery, but mostly shadowy, generation onto the world's tarnished stage ("Here they come / The young thousands"). Wishfully fearful, it remains to be seen whether our collective future will contain "brighter things than diamonds coming down the line" ("The Young Thousands", once again), or whether "When the last days come / We shall see visions / Brighter than sunsets / More vivid than stars" ("Against Pollution"). In this particularly tentative war, flinching, squinting idealism seems to edge out reluctant skepticism. Just. Only just.

And yet, while we're all still debating that, spirit-rapt and sound-riven, Darnielle continues to want to explore both the outlandish beauty and the poignant unsightliness of our time, regardless. (There's nothing like having your cake and eating it -- thematically, lyrically, rhythmically -- and this Mountain Goats record comes closer to achieving it all, the whole damned elusive enchilada, than anything else released this year, so far.)

So ... touchpoints in every song, tempting another wasteful smattering of words, or a deeper critique (the cryptic heart-murmur of "Your Belgian Things", the sly extended metaphor of "Mole", the dreadful hope of "Cotton"), but let's summarize instead: Mountain Goats have just added a further chapter in an ongoing saga of (micro) relationships examined against a backdrop of (macro) global concern, We Shall All Be Healed being the most explicit yet. Much of this is very difficult to express, whatever the medium, although perhaps music is best suited, after all (music that's ostensibly folk, but folk as played by a man who loves death metal and '80s post punk, which may partly explain the curious-yet-compelling juxtaposition of furiously strummed acoustic guitars alongside deep and euphonic basslines): simply, John Darnielle is very worried, very worried indeed. But he's also entranced. And within that hairline clash nestles the barest hint of a direction along which we might plan our escape from this truly frightening mess we've gotten ourselves in.

We shall all be healed? We should all be so lucky.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.