I’m not normally tempted to write about deluxe reissues of classic albums but I’m making an exception for Merge Records’ remastered new edition of The Mountain Goats’ 2002 album All Hail West Texas, on the grounds that a) it’s a bit of a masterpiece (possibly my favourite record released in the last thirty years, even) and b) no-one I know has ever even heard of it, much less listened to it. And it’s such an unlikely candidate for the buffed-up audio treatment anyway, in addition to its relative obscurity. Goats leader (and on this collection, sole contributor) John Darnielle has in the past been indifferent verging on the hostile to the idea of revisiting his past recordings, preferring always to concentrate on maintaining his ferocious output of new material, and this particular album is also notable for being as lo-fi a recording as can possibly exist in this century: Darnielle recorded all these songs in his front room using only his voice, an acoustic guitar, a couple of unreliable cassette decks and on one track only a cheap Casio keyboard. There are no overdubs but there is plenty of audible tape hiss and grind – on a first listen, you wouldn’t even class these recordings as sophisticated enough to qualify as demos. One would reasonably assume the scope for remastering to be limited.
However. These fourteen tracks may be unapologetically basic in form (and Darnielle’s confident reliance on tried and tested chord sequences and strum patterns straight out of a play-in-a-day guitar primer makes the compositions sound at a first listen as unsophisticated as the recording) but I’d struggle to think of another set of original songs as rich and evocative and unshakeably memorable given a chance as these are. By the time Darnielle hit the record and play controls on his boom-box to capture this batch he’d already been releasing records and tapes and CDs for ten years and had garnered literally hundreds of songwriting credits, and all that woodshedding of his craft pays off with interest here – all of these pieces set brilliant, moving, sometimes funny and sometimes devastating lyrics to catchy, flowing melodies that stick with you like araldite once you get past the surface sketchiness and fuzz of the sound. The album’s subtitle “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys” should give you an idea of the type of characters that populate Darnielle’s songs: outsiders, drop-outs, people whose lives have become derailed through bad choices or lack of opportunity or arbitrary turns of fortune. He gets inside and articulates the pain and longing and occasional mad euphoria of those trapped in the margins like no other songwriter I know and he does it without ever becoming precious or patronising: the opening The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton, which the current line-up of The Mountain Goats still tend to end their sets with, tells a tragic of tale of two teenagers’ shattered dreams before ending with a rousing refrain of “Hail Satan!” where one might have expected a moral, or a finger-wagging indictment of institutional authority. Pretty much every track on the album hits the spot, usually in under three and a half minutes – right now, I’ll recommend Source Decay, Pink And Blue, Distant Stations and Riches And Wonders (which may be the greatest love song since Love Will Tear Us Apart) but it’ll probably be other tracks if you ask me next week. Only the sweet but slight Blues In Dallas, which features the one appearance of keyboard rather than guitar, comes off as less than essential.
So this new edition then. To be honest I’m not sure I can notice much difference in the sound quality to before, but there are a couple of good reasons for proud owners of the original CD to upgrade (and if you’re strictly old school in your listening habits you’re catered for as well: the album’s now being issued on vinyl for the first time). Firstly, Darnielle has managed to unearth seven bonus tracks, despite throwing a tape containing a lot of unreleased material recorded at the same time as the album into the garbage in a fit of pique years later, and not only are six of them previously unheard songs of a quality that damn near matches the fourteen main attractions (the seventh is a redundant alternative take of Jenny) but they sound pretty good as well, with if anything less hiss and tape noise than those on the original album. And secondly, the booklet contains a fascinating essay by Darnielle outlining his working methods at this time – basically, he’d write lyrics at work during the day, set them to music in the evening and record them straight away, ditching anything that didn’t seem to work immediately. Hence, every song on this album was recorded only hours, or even minutes, after it was composed, with many unlucky casualties rejected in between.
All Hail West Texas turned out to be the last Mountain Goats album to be recorded outside a conventional recording studio. John Darnielle continued (and continues) to be a bewilderingly prolific songwriter – the next album, one that a lot of fans rate as their finest work, Tallahassee, came out only a few months after this one – but this, in the probable eternal absence of a Best Of album, may be the best place to start if you’re curious. Hail Satan!
Tracklist: The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton, Fall Of The Star High Running Back, Color In Your Cheeks, Jenny, Fault Lines, Balance, Pink And Blue, Riches And Wonders, The Mess Inside, Jeff Davis County Blues, Distant Stations, Blues In Dallas, Source Decay, Absolute Lithops Effect. Bonus tracks: Hardpan Song, Answering The Phone, Indonesia, Midland, Jenny (alt. take), Tape Travel Is Lonely, Waco