You haven’t heard of The Mountain Goats. This is a bona fide certainty. If you have, and you didn’t hear about them from me, you just made my list of heroes. But for the rest, consider this an introduction.
Everyone has their own little personal music obsession, and The Mountain Goats are mine. I started with one song, then one album, then three albums. Then all of them. Every album, single, and EP. Most of these aren’t available to buy in the UK. For most of the 1990s, they weren’t even available on CD. All I can say by way of explanation is ‘God bless the Internet’.
The Mountain Goats are essentially John Darnielle, and John Darnielle is The Mountain Goats. An ex-psychiatric nurse and associate of meth addicts, he grew up in Southern California and sometimes in the early 1990s decided to set a few songs down on tape. The primary recording device was a department-store boombox. In the years since the band’s inception, they have recorded over 400, and all but the most recent 50 or so have been recorded on the boombox, and most of these released by one-man-and-his-dog indie record labels on good old fashioned cassette tape. The clarity of the recording in these cases is literally dependent on how close to the microphone Darnielle is standing. His voice often struggles to break through layers of tinny tape fuzz. And if you weren’t put off enough already, there’s the question of his voice. High and nasal, it holds desperately on to notes it barely has the breath to produce, and bleats in your ears like a sheep being kicked as he plays jarring chords on an acoustic guitar that nearly always sounds like its strings are about to break.
But I love it. And why? Because I don’t see these as faults. In every strained, stirring syllable, every frenzied, claw-fingered chord, there is an honesty, an integrity, a passion so desperately lacking in so much of modern music. John Darnielle is a human being, not an industry robot, and he does not play by any rule that Sony ever wrote. No promotion, no money, and not even a studio to record in until the last four years or so. But somehow he has built up a solid internet fanbase, and 27,000 people quietly came to one recent London show. Sadly, I wasn’t one of them, but I wish I was; I would love to stand in a crowded room, sweat dripping from my brow, singing every lyric back to the stage at the top of my hoarse little lungs.
This, more than anything, is what inspired people so much about his music. Darnielle has been called ‘the best non-hip-hop lyricist writing in America today’. To my mind that would make him simply ‘the best lyricist writing in America today’ – but that’s another story. His poetic flair, imagery and often jaw-dropping rhyme often feel like, in his own words, ‘the last best thing I got going’. While always spirited, his backdrop of acoustic indie-folk is almost inconsequential. That’s right, folk. And I don’t really even listen to folk. The only other folk singer in my regular listening is none other than Bob Dylan, and to my mind the comparison speaks for itself. Darnielle is a Dylan for modern times; the best reference point I can find for his literate lyrical urgency. And they said he couldn’t sing, either.
His 2005 studio release, ‘The Sunset Tree’, is one of my favourite albums ever written. Nearly every song contains a phrase scored indelibly in my mind. ‘This Year’ is a rousing sing-a-long of escape from your problems, through love, alcohol, or whatever comes to hand. It moves from deadbeat romance – “I played video games in a drunken haze, I was seventeen years young; hurt my knuckles punching the machines, the taste of scotch rich on my tongue” – to the dark threat of domestic violence: “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.”
The perpetrator, Darnielle’s step-father, rears his ugly head again on ‘Lion’s Teeth’, an unflinching confrontation powered by simmering strings and a martial drumbeat. They brawl in his car as the words spill uncontrollably from Darnielle’s lips: “Nobody in this house wants to own up to the truth. I crawl in shotgun, and reach into his mouth, and grab hold of one long, sharp tooth and hold on, for dear life.”
Then there’s the nervous, gasoline-fuelled death-dance of ‘Dilaudid’, the violent transcendence of ‘Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod’ and the sheer, giddy joy in the eye of the tornado that whirls through ‘Dance Music’.
Despite all my raving, most of you probably still won’t like it, and if you did, you probably can’t buy it in the shops. What you can buy is the next album, ‘Get Lonely’, which is something of a departure. On first listen, I felt let down. No fast songs, no manic strumming, and Darnielle’s voice a soft whisper neutered by its polish. Or so I thought for a few more listens. But in a dark room, over headphones, staring at the ceiling, the sad strings and gentle, unostentatious turns of phrase speak volumes. The lyrics aren’t as dense; but they are as strong, given time and space. So if you see it, it isn’t my most highly recommended – but it’s a start, if only for the lines:
“I will get lonely, and gasp for air, and send your name up from my lips, like a signal flare.”
This pointillistic heartbreak, made starker by its juxtaposition with desperate observations about the weather and the state of the concrete, sits like a stone in the centre of all twelve songs. I listened to my favourite, flawed singer with only the dark for company, and I got lonely. Will you?