The guiding voice and often the only voice (writer, composer, guitarist, pianist, and vocalist) behind the low-fi rock of the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle today is an acclaimed author whose early autobiographic rock songs turned into bizarre lovecraftian poetry and extended narratives and great acts of empathic projection into the inner lives of his protagonists.
1991 to 1994 Cassette Mumbling
If there’s a criticism of John, it’s his voice. It’s too mumbly. His early recordings bore that out. The poetry is all there, the lyrics, but if you were to hear it you would be able to pick out the words. What didn’t help was that most of recordings themselves were on cassettes (with the attendant low sound quality)
1994-2006 Golden Years
1994’s Going to Georgia (Zopilote Machine) was a turning point, a clear, driven rock song with an intensity to it. An stalker song, built on ugly emotions, but identifying human and redemptive, Darnielle’s early career would be defined by a series of ‘going to’ songs, each trying to conjure up the specific emotion of a character going to the indicated place for a measure of some import.
In addition to the ‘Going To’ series that marked the early years, Darnielle also wrote about the ‘Alpha couple,’ a pair of mismatched, codependent lovers whose 2002’s No Children (Tallahassee), as well as the larger album marks their relationship’s climax, a rollicking anthem for every doomed relationship.
My first exposure to Darnielle as an adult was in the his low-fi groove of Blues in Dallas from 2002’s masterpiece, All Hail West Texas, while I was lonely in a study abroad program in Cambridge, England. “I will wait, I will wait” seemed the perfect platonic ideal of what I needed to do and what I’d be forced to do and so it was what I’d do.
The opener to All Hail West Texas thrums energy, detailing a down and out amateur death metal band’s trajectory and ultimate import in the dreams of its members, which, after all, were the important part. The song ends by earning its ending ‘Hail Satan! Hail Satan! Tonight! Hail. Satan. Hail Hail.’ promising that the memory of the band will outpace and outlive, and making it true by virtue of the strength of the song itself.
Darnielle’s greatest productive period of the early 00’s continued with The Sunset Tree (2005). I regret that I can’t cram in the dusty energy of ‘Broom People’ or the driven, driven, despair at being ‘held under’ by an abusive parent, but hoping, hoping, like the Tetrapod, to someday reach dry land. Or even the wonderous energy, perfectly prophetic, of ‘Up the Wolves,’ one of my favorite songs about the return to the civilized world of the ‘wolf’ that sired Western modern civilization in the form of suckling Romulus and Remus to found Rome in the form of an orgy on institutional destruction “I’m going to bribe the officials./ I’m going to kill all the judges./ It’s going to take you people years/ to recover from all the damage./
But the mvp is ‘This Year,’ a brutal, brutal look at a difficult year. As a teen, I felt this song in my bones. To just survive, no matter what, for a set amount of time. To not let this year and whatever it can throw at you defeat you.
“I drove home in the California dusk/
I could feel the alcohol inside of me hum/
Pictured the look on my stepfather’s face/
Ready for the bad things to come/
I downshifted as I pulled into the driveway/
The motor screaming out stuck in second gear/
The scene ends badly as you might imagine/
In a cavalcade of anger and fear./
There will be feasting/
In Jerusalem next year/
I am going to make it/
Through this year/
If it kills me./
Which is not to say that Darnielle’s strength comes only in his albums. His single songs, often lost or overlooked, are some of his best work, spare and uncompromised portraits of his difficult relationship with his abusive stepfather through the poetry of
My window looked out upon nothing/And nothing looked right back at me/ of You’re in Maya (1999)
(The chorus is in Gaelic, and it means ‘the milk of the cow is alright for the calf’, but the juice of the barley for me.”)
2006-Present Couple Bad/Really Good Albums
After Darnielle’s productive period game a slew of alternatingly good and bad albums. The Satanic Messiah EP was a quiet masterstroke, one of my favorite albums of all time that gets politics and gets politicians and sings beautiful, beautiful history in Gojam Province 1968 where it details all the factions in the Ethiopian Civil war and how the people themselves are the least and last of them.
Then all at once here comes the motorcade/
Slow and steady down the beaten track/
And as we’re bashing out the windows of the limo/
We notice there’s nobody in the back/
And the helicopter lands atop the palace/
The royal guard assembles at the gate/
The country’s gonna burn/
And we’ll still have to wait our turn/
Last among contenders of the super-featherweights/
Darnielle also did other work, partnering with Franklin Bruno for the bands ‘Extra Lens’ (formally the ‘Extra Glenns’ (both have good music on itunes under those respective band names)). But his EPs have been phenomenal. My favorite themed album of all time is 2009’s Moon Colony Bloodbath.
“Some of the songs have something to do with a loose rock opera/’concept album’ idea about organ harvesting colonies on the moon and the employees thereof, who spent their off months living in secluded opulence in remote American locations. Concepts like this are actually more fun when you abandon them but leave their traces kicking around, so that’s what we did.
A couple of themed albums in recent years have been hit and miss, the high note of which is the deranged sound and optimism of Beat the Champ’s Foreign Object (2015)
But my favorite song of his of all time is a meth dream, and an anthem, called Palmcorder Yajna, off of We Shall All Be Healed (2004). It’s driving and intense and lets you know the stakes aren’t going to get any higher for this species and for this moment while also there is absolutely nothing to do.
And I dreamt of a house
Haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out
And the headstones climbed up the hills
And the headstones climbed up the hills
“This is a song about how, when sometimes, sometimes you find it necessary to rob the safe in the restaurant where you work. And they, and it’s funny, because your friends who, like, have good jobs, say: ‘What good can come of that?’ And here I quote your friends: ‘They only have about two thousand dollars in there.” If you were honest with your friends, you’d say “Look, two thousand dollars will buy me a quarter pound of peanut butter crank, and I’ll be going for a good ten days off that, unless I meet up with some friends.’ Then you may stop to think to yourself, that you’re likely to meet up with some friends. New friends! People you didn’t really know, until word began to spread in the neighborhood. ‘John robbed the safe! And he took all 2k, and he bought a quarter pound! He’s in room ten, 253 North Broadway, you can’t miss it. Faces Broadway at an angle across from the Colosseum.’ And so there you are with your new friends, listening to King Diamond as you do, high for three days and beginning to talk nonsense, and you may think to yourself ‘I wish I had a song to sing.’ You may only hold this thought for a second or so, but I heard you, when you thought that, and that’s why I wrote you this song.”