John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, getting ready to do some stuff
October 29, 2005
I showed up to the Mountain Goats party late, really late, 4AD-era late. The Mountain Goats cult has existed for nearly as long as the Mountain Goats themselves have existed, since a mental-hospital nurse named John Darnielle began recording songs on a boombox with an acoustic guitar in 1991, putting them out on cassette-only albums. 1991 was a long time ago, and now Darnielle is a big-label artist, signed to 4AD and making use of all the pretty cursive cover-art and moody, expansive production that the label must include in its contracts. Plenty of his cult professes to miss the tape-hiss and bleated immediacy of Darnielle’s earlier work, the stuff he did before he had a string section at his disposal. I started last year with We Shall All Be Healed, Darnielle’s second 4AD album, and so all that production sounds natural to me. WSABH doesn’t skimp on the qualities that Darnielle’s cult always loved about him: his forcefully nasal blurt of a voice, his percussively driving acoustic guitar, his gloriously refracted/emotionally concrete lyrics. The album just lays a thick carpet of swelling cellos and swirling pianos under all that stuff, giving it heft and warmth and grandeur. But then, I’ve never heard the vast majority of his older work. As with Lungfish or Three 6 Mafia, I like that there’s this whole universe of stuff he did a long time ago, ready for me as soon as I decide I’m ready to start exploring it. Or that’s what I thought before Saturday night’s show, anyway. I can be really stupid sometimes. Some of these songs I heard that night, I can’t believe I’d never let myself hear these songs before.
Earlier this year, Darnielle released his third 4AD album, The Sunset Tree, and I’ll be shocked if this album doesn’t end up at the top of my P&J ballot. The Sunset Tree is Darnielle’s album-length exploration of his relationship with his abusive stepfather, the effects that his stepfather’s abuse had on him at the time and have on him still. Musically, it’s a gorgeous record, full of all the swelling and pounding I loved on WSABH. Lyrically, it’s fucking corrosive and harrowing, and it still turns me into jelly every time I listen to it, which is often. I don’t want to get too emo about the album in this space, but I love it. When I heard The Sunset Tree, I created this mental narrative of Darnielle’s career in which The Sunset Tree is the final triumph, the ultimate use of Darnielle’s heartfelt eloquence and unblinking fury, the end result of a career spent honing his gift. Turns out I was wrong. He’s been this good for years.
The Mountain Goats’ stage presentation is simple: Darnielle on acoustic guitar, another guy on bass, playing old songs and new songs and talking between the songs. The opening band, the Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, backs them on a couple of songs. It’s a singer-songwriter show, and it’s a good one. Between songs, Darnielle is as wired as he is erudite, introducing his songs in an embarrassed mile-a-minute stammer. The bass player’s accompaniment is minimal and generally unnecessary; he’s there mostly to hammer Darnielle’s best lines home by joining him in a piercing harmony. He’s a hypeman, basically. And so Darnielle doesn’t have the uplifting curlicues of his 4AD stuff to fall back on; it’s basically just him, playing the way he once recorded. And he delivers his songs with total conviction, grinning and baring his teeth and scrunching his face up during the instrumental passages. This minimal presentation lets his lyrics come through clearly, as they should. And those lyrics, on the older songs as on the newer ones, have a gutpunch psychic force that just completely knocks me dead. I’d quote them, but I don’t want to drain them of their context. I’m not a good enough writer to do them justice.
This is all critic-friendly stuff, of course, the acoustic guitars and enigmatic history and fierce literary fluency. Someone at the show yelled “Jess Harvell says hi” at one point, and I don’t even think it was Jess Harvell. Darnielle is a critic himself, writing with enormous grace and passion about obscure metal and Europop on his Last Plane to Jakarta zine and website. But the audience at Saturday night’s show was something I haven’t yet seen in New York: a crowd that simply demands a second encore, that cheers loudly and enthusiastically throughout the set, that gives the guy onstage a hero’s greeting. Critics don’t do that stuff, but at least in this case, maybe we should.
You’re probably doing Halloween stuff tonight, but if you’re not, you should go see the Mountain Goats at the Knitting Factory.
Voice review: Christian Hoard on the Mountain Goats at Northsix
Voice review: Laura Sinagra on the Mountain Goats’ We Shall All Be Healed