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.