The Mountain Goats’ “Song for Dennis Brown” is one of those dirt-simple acoustic sketches whose utter gorgeousness sneaks up on you: just a secondhand riff framing John Darnielle’s murmured, meandering tale of a ruined friend and the impending collapse of the narrator’s lung, climaxing with “It took all the coke in town/to bring down Dennis Brown.” The song is off the Mountain Goats’ surprisingly elegant new one, The Sunset Tree, and though most of the faithful crammed into Northsix last Saturday had never heard it before, they listened with the most reverential silence I’ve ever experienced at a New York show. Darnielle—Iowa resident, classics student, special-ed counselor, trenchant online music scribe, and author of roughly 500 songs—has gotten the audience he deserves. His hour-long set was like the VH1 Storytellers episode of your dreams—only in place of hits and behind-the-songs elucidation were wry, rambling meta-banter and songs recorded a decade ago on a Panasonic boombox.
For all his prolific word slinging, Darnielle has become a terrifically engaging singer, channeling his thin, nasal voice with an emotional urgency that belies the impersonality of his narratives. Whether tidying up oldies like “Going to Cleveland” with the help of an offstage cellist or gently rocking out with the help of a bassist, drummer, and producer-guitarist John Vanderslice, Darnielle delivered enough vocal oomph and pretty melody to reach the handful of attendees who hadn’t already memorized his lyrics. Recent winners like “International Small Arms Traffic Blues” and “Your Belgian Things” detailed busted love affairs and perpetually fucked small-towners while touching on biohazard suits, Bartles and Jaymes, and the border between Greece and Albania. The performances were as tightly controlled as the set list, as Darnielle fended off requests with prolix intros. When he launched into a between-songs story about getting trapped in Queens and buying a souvenir Mets cup for his beloved, only to lose it in the snow, it was clear that despite the cathartic singsong potential of his blithely determined choruses, the show was mostly about his words—a flurry of left-field biography, invented local color, and random brain-spew, engaging an overstimulated community by dignifying tiny losses and thwarting emptiness. If only all cult artists could get it so right.