Is it a symptom of arrested development to still start developing obsessions with guitar groups when you reach your forties? It doesn’t happen to me very often, but there was a period of two or three months last year when I was listening exclusively to music produced by one band, the existence of which I had been hitherto wholly ignorant of.
The Mountain Goats is an American band led by singer and songwriter John Darnielle. Actually, the phrase “led by” here is putting it mildly – for roughly half of their recordings (of which there are many, but I’ll get to that) there are no other musicians present, just Darnielle and his (usually acoustic) guitar, and for most of the earlier albums there aren’t even any producers or recording engineers involved. Darnielle has always been perfectly happy to record his songs by whatever method happens to be available at the time, and while this might mean a conventional studio, often he’ll simply hit the record button on his home Panasonic beatbox and just get the tracks for release mastered from a standard audio cassette. This might sound like a wilfully lo-fi approach, but Darnielle says that he doesn’t work like this to make any kind of point about authenticity, it’s more to do with removing the obstacles, inconveniences and delays inherent in spending time and money rehearsing and recording songs professionally.
Or maybe he has to look sharp with the recording of his songs because he writes so many and he’d never get round to them otherwise. Since The Mountain Goats started releasing music about twenty years ago (initially on cassettes and 7″ singles, then later on CD) Darnielle has put his name to something like 500 songs, if you count various side projects. He’s astonishingly prolific. And while the earlier releases are undoubtedly raw and unpolished I’m bound to say that I’m yet to hear a Darnielle composition that’s lazy or throwaway. He’s primarily a words man, and even if he often relies on well-worn chord sequences and recycled melodies, you can bet that the lyric will be original, felt and surprising. He’s clearly well versed in classical European, Eastern and South American myth and history and will frequently bring in startling allusions to cast new light on the potentially hackneyed themes of longing and regret. Darnielle writes a lot about the disenfranchised young, drifters who turn to alcohol or crime when denied the opportunity to better themselves, and although these earlier songs are not directly autobiographical you can tell he’s got some life experience in this area.
Stewart Lee has said that one reason he loves The Fall is because their catalogue is so pleasingly convoluted, with a liberal peppering of one-off albums and singles appearing in limited editions on obscure independent labels. He’d have a field day with The Mountain Goats. For the first half of the nineties it seems they put out an unstoppable stream of material on 7″ singles split with other bands, sampler CDs only available in Germany, cassette compilations only available in Sweden, and so on and so on. Their first “album” (actually, cassette) probably only exists now as a handful of copies, and Darnielle has said that he never wants it reissued. Most of the other stuff not on the string of “official” albums that started with 1994’s Zopilote Machine has now been mopped up on three compilation CDs and it’s great fun, once you’re acclimatised to the tape hiss, the weird jumps in recording quality and the random samples of old reggae records that crop up here and there. You can even hear that Darnielle and his occasional sidekicks are not bad musicians, even if they’d never do anything as indulgent as taking a solo. Darnielle sings in a high, reedy, slightly nasal voice – again, he can hit the notes, but he wouldn’t get through the first round of The X Factor. Although this stuff is easily available on download now, it’s worth tracking down the physical CDs of these albums for Darnielle’s sometimes winningly honest, sometimes cryptic sleevenotes.
The Goats’ discography starts coming into focus round about Full Force, Galesburg from 1997, which is the first album on which the songs sound thematically linked. They feel a bit more considered too. Twin Human Highway Flares is an accomplished and resonant road song, and Weekend In Western Illinois with its hooks, warm organ changes and fiery electric guitar chords sounds like a demo for a record that could have been a hit. The Coroner’s Gambit from 2000 is a definite step forward in terms of sophistication – the sound is much thicker, and you suspect that some of the songs might even use more than four of the tracks available via multi-track recording.
Up to this point The Mountain Goats can comfortably be filed in the drawer marked “niche and quirky”, despite the many good to excellent songs they’d so far released. It’s the next two albums, both released in 2002, that really mark their transition into greatness. All Hail West Texas is the final album that Darnielle made outside of a recording studio, and is the most rudimentarily produced of all of them – he discovered that his beloved beatbox had started more or less working again after a period of disuse and recorded the fourteen songs that make up this collection with it (along with another fifteen or so that will never be heard as Darnielle has a policy of not keeping out-takes). The machine is audibly malfunctioning and there’s a regular grinding sound running through the whole album, which Darnielle does nothing to disguise or edit out. This could be most primitive sounding commercial recording I’ve ever heard – it’s also one of the very best. It’s a true miracle of content over style: these are extraordinarily good songs, economical, melodic and tender impressions of fragile, sensitive and impulsive souls, and after a few listens it becomes impossible to imagine a better way of presenting them than these sketchy and sometimes ragged recordings. I was initially underwhelmed by All Hail West Texas due to its roughness and lack of sonic variation, but I can’t imagine life without it now.
The other 2002 album is Tallahassee, and for the first time we get consistently professional production values and some properly layered musical backdrops. This is a concept album, sort of, about a middle-aged alcoholic couple who take themselves off to a house in Florida and drink themselves to death watching TV quiz shows, but don’t let that put you off – while the subject matter is bleak, the music is supple and airy, sometimes moody and sometimes positively dynamic. The triumphs here are the charming Idylls Of The King, which sounds like a jazz-age standard, International Small Arms Traffic Blues (“our love is like the border between Greece and Albania”) and particularly No Children, which spits out a fatalistic lyric John Lydon might think was a bit harsh (“I hope you die/I hope we both die”) to a perky piano-led Sunday school style backing.
The next Mountain Goats album, 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed, is a respectable entry that deserves credit for multiple mentions of Belgium at least, but marks the first time that slick production undermines the band’s distinctiveness – the songs are fine, but they don’t quite cut through as they used to. The next year, however, would see the Goats release their masterpiece. After years of making up stories and taking delight in opaque song titles The Sunset Tree finds Darnielle in nakedly autobiographical mode, writing a suite of songs about his childhood and growing up with an abusive step-father. No punches are pulled (the first verse of Dance Music describes a glass being thrown across the room at his mother), but Darnielle’s judgement is so spot on that the potentially lurid material never feels gratuitous, and he doesn’t spare himself from blame for some of the harrowing experiences detailed here. Musically, the album is elegant, spare and definitely melodic, with most tracks being carried by acoustic guitar or piano (an exception is the urgent Dilaudid, which features a string arrangement worthy of Bernard Herrmann). The tracks are generally short – they make their point, then move on. This is a devastatingly brilliant piece of work that deserves far wider currency.
The Sunset Tree has so far been followed by Get Lonely (2006), Heretic Pride (2008) and The Life Of The World To Come (2009), all of which have tried, mostly successfully, to find new variations on how to present Darnielle’s material. The Mountain Goats continue to record and tour, and John Darnielle continues to churn out tender and surprising songs. He’s my favourite songwriter of the last twenty years and I hope he eventually gets his due recognition.