The Talking Cure

Collaborating with real live mountain goats, John Darnielle puts escape behind him

In 1992, a nurse named John Darnielle dubbed himself the Mountain Goats and began releasing brainstem-to-boombox cassettes of literate bleatings. A Californian long resident in Iowa and now relocated to North Carolina, Darnielle became an icon of DIY productivity, maintaining deep ties with little folk nationwide while working as a classics student, ILM poster, Magnet contributor, special ed counselor, zine publisher, metal scholar, loving husband, proselytizing vegetarian, and, increasingly, touring singer-songwriter. His bedroom recordings challenged Barlow burble and four-tracker twee with aggro pique, rivet-head strum, flash-fiction narration, and lyrics that spiked recrimination with mythological allusion.

Darnielle's appeal verged on the religious. His nasal oratorios fought entropy by filling space with words. Though he's always insisted he's not the "I" of his pissed epistles—neither furious lover nor new father nor Grendel's mom—his pointy-voiced passion bespeaks consuming investment. A common pledge—"and I will [action verb: walk, try, go]"—plays like a campaign speech. Dozens of songs titled "Going to [somewhere: Miami, Reykjavik, Cleveland, Lebanon]"—wrest the wheel from chance, commandeer the cosmic Trip Tik. His fits of paranoia—"I know you're wearing a wire," he tells one girlfriend—express a deep antipathy toward forces beyond volition. The builds, guitar patterns, and progressions many of his songs share don't matter. He creates, therefore he controls.

But on 2002's Tallahassee and 2004's We Shall All Be Healed, Darnielle is less into hopscotching cities and alter egos and more intrigued by the rewards of vulnerability, the power of submission. Click the Floribama map on the Tallahassee website and you'll hit a floor plan of the house where the album's "Alpha Couple" drink themselves into a love-hate haze. The highlighted TV unspools a QuickTime infomercial featuring a batty Darnielle hawking a grotesque vacation package, poking fun at his own obsession with escape—you can never escape yourself. Tallahassee strands his protagonists at a dead end and peels back the layers of staying put. Recorded with sympathetic musician friends Peter Hughes, Franklin Bruno, John Vanderslice, and Christopher McGuire, Tallahassee also marks Darnielle's acceptance of the vulnerable condition of collaboration.

The Alphas have no children except their words. Sexily cerebral poets of their own decline, they cling to the grandeur of their sickness and bond in eloquent anger. Darnielle dignifies them with wit as they anticipate a fiery end heralded by "cloven hoof prints in the garden." Over jazzy vamps, they hark for the "shrieking of innumerable gibbons" to chronicle a fall as epic as the ruin of Rome. But he doesn't empower them to leave—he's too interested in their inability to escape. We Shall All Be Healed abandons escapism entirely as it ponders the nature of sacrifice. The "I" here is now Darnielle himself, describing friend-love as complex as the Alpha Couple's. As haphazardly medicated. As warped and fragile. Yet like Tallahassee, the album exudes generosity. As the happily married Darnielle made poetry of marital cataclysms, indie-rock communitarian Darnielle imagines friendship's chores and acrimonies as sacraments.

The Doppler squeals and glass shatters of "Slow West Vultures" set an ominous tone before "Palmcorder Yajna" conjures cranked Travelodge debauchery. Affection curdles to frustration: "And I dreamt/of a house/ haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out." But again he gives credit to the doomed, dropping spun logic like "laugh lines on our faces/scale maps of the ocean floor." As with Tallahassee's devastating "No Children," the song's title adds dimension, turning a pointillist bad trip into a techno-Hindu riddle. Linking Vedic yajna—the sanctifying of everyday actions—with the act of spontaneous recording, Darnielle posits this rare spilling of personal details onto tape as sacred act. A priest is supplanted by Radio Shack confessor.

But dread persists. Darnielle watches his tweakers "comb through the carpet for clues." Over synth duo-tones and electro-burps, "Letter From Belgium" fears that "the people next door will close in like a wolf pack." "The Young Thousands" makes an ironic anthem of obsolescence, huffily informing aging comrades of an imminent coup. But lest you think he's mocking insignificance, "Your Belgian Things" describes raw personal loss. As a sinister cleanup crew in "biohazard suits" picks up after a gone friend, Darnielle's verbal gifts stumble. "I guess/I guess," he sings, "but Jesus/what a mess." The even quieter "Mole" finds Darnielle visiting a hospital. Suddenly forced out of the underground into straight-world glare, he sounds powerfully weary, his brashness leveled by bureaucracy. To his friend, handcuffed to the bed, he sighs, "I know what you want/and you know what I want/ . . . information."

Cures promised by recovery programs take a hit on "Quito" as Darnielle burlesques the AA script. "When I receive the blessing I've got coming/I will raise an ice cold glass of water," he crows as his band chugs bombastically. "Cotton" further indicts a 12-step high. Over piano and McGuire's disintegrating drum patterns, Darnielle recasts yajna to include silence and submission: "This song is for the soil/toxic to the bedrock/drop your seeds there/let 'em all go." And at the end of the incantatory "Against Pollution," our chastened orator channels a Revelations-like prophecy with eerie matter-of-factness: "When the last days come/we shall see visions/more vivid than sunsets/brighter than stars/we will recognize each other and see ourselves/for the first time/the way/we really are." Till then, all we've got is a Palmcorder and a prayer.

 
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