The platonic version of one of Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle’s favorite lyrical strategies is called “Wait for You,” released on the 2006 EP Babylon Springs: Over a spare, indie-folkish strum, a singer afflicted with a terrible dreaminess takes the bus to Malibu and waits. That’s it. He watches the sky. Nothing much happens. But the result is still beautiful, the dread palpable.
Both of Darnielle’s new Mountain Goats EPs strike similar, familiar top notes. “We were restless/There were too many things to do,” he sings on “Sarcofego Live,” the opening cut on Satanic Messiah, a pay-what-you-will download (and 666-copy double 7-inch). He doesn’t specify which things. “In a small room in Brazil/We were waiting,” he repeats, never saying what for, instead just channeling the universal bottled rage of metalheads, another career-long motif. A similar predicament strikes the narrator of the opening/titular cut to Black Pear Tree, a tour-only/vinyl-only collaboration with guitarist and recent tourmate Kaki King. “I saw the future in a dream last night/Somebody’s gonna get hurt,” she sings, Darnielle’s words, waiting for the snow. Dramatically, it’s a Godot-like trick, transcendence arriving in the interim.
After recent full-lengths shaped into peppier, ever-shinier configurations by producer John Vanderslice (an evolution mostly characterized by the addition of drums), Darnielle now returns to more homemade roots, these songs augmented mostly by occasional chair creaks and his tentative, haunting piano on such tunes as “Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is in Another Castle.” Pear Tree holds together more, if only due to King’s presence: Together, the two sound inquisitive and delighted, resistant to the strumminess that makes many Mountain Goats songs sound alike. On “Bring Our Curses Home,” King’s distinct Leo Kottke/Ani DiFranco staccato lines fill out Darnielle’s Hurricane Katrina narrative, and provide a bit of reverbed Daniel Lanois–like ambience on “Supergenesis.” Occasionally, there are drums, too, but subtle, non-peppy drums. The four stories told on Satanic Messiah are more workmanlike, full of detailed historical/political narratives (“Gojam Province 1968”) and vague foreboding about “the church occupied by the enemy” (“Wizard Buys a Hat”). All you need is dread.