I recall seeing John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats perform a concert in Durham North Carolina over the summer and grasping what exactly makes the Mountain Goats so compelling as a band. While I’ve been a steadfast fan for years, they are an acquired taste. Whether it’s the crackling lo-fi and the clawhammer strumming of his early career to Mr. Darneille’s nasal yowling and inscrutability of his lyrics, the Mountain Goats seem committed to being vaguely off-putting while crafting hyper-literate pop songs played with a disturbing ferocity. They occupy odd territory in indie rock: scene stalwarts for years at this point with LITERALLY HUNDREDS of songs available, the music they make is more visceral and adolescent than your average navel-gazing singer-songwriter, but more intimate and cerebral than a punk band. This has left them a criminally underappreciated band. They don’t court their audience and instead seem to delight in being the indie rock equivalent of the drunk guy at the party talking a little too loudly and fervently about how much how awesome the Curtis “Showtime” Stevens Vs. Jesse Brinkley fight was, or his favorite ever death metal band he saw in high school.
Darneille’s drunken antics at the show in question further cemented their claim on this territory. The show was pure punk rock, if not in its aesthetic, than in its ethic. Darneille (backed by the self-proclaimed “best rhythm section in indie rock” Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster on drums) dived into the audience, grabbing fans and screaming in their ears like a man on a joyous bender. For the diehards, it was heaven (being slapped by John Darneille is an honor akin to getting a jersey tossed to you after the game by your favorite football player); still, to the uninitiated, and even those who maybe have only listened to them on their last few relatively restrained albums, it was a spectacle that might prove… disconcerting.
Still, possibly the most vital piece of information for comprehending and appreciating the MGs came earlier in the show when, during one of John Darnielle’s signature halting, blackly funny diatribes about getting drunk and unloading on a friend about your impending divorce over lunch, he said the following: “I woke up the other day, and I wrote a song. Because, that’s what I do. I’m a songwriter, I write songs.”
Much has been remarked upon by fans of the band in regards to the shift in the MG’s sound and aesthetic, the abandoning of the much ballyhooed boombox recordings for a slicker, more produced sound (first with producer/artist John Vanderslice, now on their new record All Eternals Deck with Morbid Angel producer Erik Rutan), but I see this as a natural evolution of the boombox: after getting the meager (in comparison to what they deserve) recognition for their years of service, people started to hand Darnielle bigger boomboxes. Were there no producers or studios interested in hosting Darnielle and his demented pop legacy, he’d return to a boombox. It’s the song, not the singer.
This is basically the essence of the Mountain Goats; their steadfast aesthetic, their prolific output, their resolve to simply not give a fuck. John Darnielle is merely a conduit for songs. The entire haphazard, carefree (careless?) aesthetic of the band, from their inception to now, has been all in service of not blocking the unending flow of music that has been inexplicably routed through Darneille. He’s unconcerned about being anything but a songwriter and imparting the diamonds, rough included, as quickly as possible to avoid losing it. It’s immediacy, the most primitive and powerful you’ll ever experience. He didn’t have time or resources in the early days to belabor the songs, and it manifested in recording hundreds of songs in the most intimate, hissing analogue format possible.
His limitations as a singer/guitar player/producer/engineer/arranger all are inconsequential: The Mountain Goats write and play songs. No more, no less.
Still, given this ethic, the MGs have been thrust into an awkward position: after toiling for years in relative DIY obscurity, starting with the brilliant Tallahassee they’ve given resources, time, and patient and intelligent producers. Their recordings (from We Shall All Be Healed through The Life of the World to Come) have grown more ornate, the rawness and intensity traded for beauty and dynamics. We’ve seen John Darnielle’s debut as a classical-inspired piano player, heard him whisper in our ears about feeling like a little boy lost in a mall on Get Lonely. This has pushed the band to more challenging places with some really wonderful results. Still, those of us with a fondness for the old days of tape hiss and out of tune guitars have perhaps missed the musical kidney punch Mr. D used to specialize in.
With the impending release of All Eternals Deck, we are treated to a new track “Damn These Vampires” which, I think, recaptures a bit of that magic while reconciling the ability to have more elaborate production.
Reminiscent of his “Alpha” song cycle where the metaphors all concerned being young and wasted and falling out of love, “Vampires” feels like watching a spaghetti western at noon while drunk. Finally grasping dynamics, Darnielle’s guitar and Wurster’s drums are understated, letting Hughes’ melodic bass really carry. And even for the closet popstar like Darnielle (Robyn, watch out, the Mountain Goats are comin’ for you…), the chorus hook is almost too good, with that anthemic, scream at the top of your lungs quality:
Crawl till dawn
On my hands and knees
God damn these vampires
For what they’ve done to me…
All Eternals Deck comes out March 29th on Merge records. Get excited.