John Darnielle is a former psychiatric nurse who now works with disturbed children four days a week. He is the proprietor of Last Plane to Jakarta, one of the more elegant and thoughtfully considered music zines on the Internet, and an occasional contributor to other publications on the subject of popular music. He has a Ph.D. and lives in North Carolina with his wife, a lab technician who specializes in plant pathology. He is also one of the most prolific and gifted singer/songwriters of the last decade. His band, The Mountain Goats, are a cult favoritesmall enough to still be playing the Empty Bottle after 10 years, big enough to sell it out with fans who know every word to his songs.
Until 2002’s Tallahassee, his major-label debut, virtually all of Darnielle’s songs were recorded on a 1992-vintage Panasonic boombox. This marked each Mountain Goats track with the distinctive hum of grinding tape wheels set too close to the built-in micthe kind of inscrutability that indie kids eat up, though not the kind that suggests the purity of instability (Daniel Johnston) or of the potential sociopath (Jandek). Darnielle was clearly too stable and well-adjusted for that; his gift for the clear, compressed narrative set him apart from not only primitive obscurists like Jandek but from willful obfuscators like Pavement.
The best two songs off his masterpiece, All Hail West Texas, are both narratives that eschew the fragmentation and emotiveness of his peers for a storytelling approach. The product proves Darnielle is a determined realist with a gift for compression. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” possibly his best song, is a two-minute short story that works not by poetic summation but by editorial compression. Humanizing details about the two protagonists (“one was named Cyrus, and the other was Jeff, and they practiced twice a week in Jeff’s bedroom”) are followed by wry, almost patronizing observations (“in script that made prominent use of a pentagram, they stenciled their guitar and drumhead with their names”) and remarkably poignant biographical details (“this is how Cyrus got sent to the school where they told him he’d never be famous”). By the end of the song, a line that should be too clever by half, particularly carried by Darnielle’s folky, nasal voice”Hail Satan! Hail Satan, tonight!”becomes, perversely, too touching to be a joke. Incidentally, Darnielle loves death metal. On any skinny, acoustic guitar-toting nerd with a Ph.D., this should be an affectation, but for Darnielle, through sheer force of will, it’s not.
This is why Darnielle’s shitty Panasonic RX-FT500 was ultimately so important to his artistic project. Part of the reason people think Ben Folds is such an asshole is that his work sounds too pristine and too cloying to be anything but a put-on. You know: (Tape hiss) x (amateurism) + acoustic guitar = sincerity. This has a lot to do with traditional definitions of roots music, the blues tradition, and other things that musicologists and pretentious music reviewers talk about. Play along for now.
The Mountain Goats’ new album, We Shall All Be Healedtheir second on England’s 4AD labelcontinues Darnielle’s journey away from this aesthetic. It’s probably for the best; if All Hail West Texas hadn’t been so carefully observed, it might have been kitsch. For one thing, they’re a full-fledged band nowwith a bassist, drummer, pianist/organist, and violinistand they have the basic sonic experimentation to prove it. Furthermore, Darnielle is leaving behind his much-loved narratives for a fragmented, expressionistic approach. It’s not just a concerted departure; it’s more appropriate for the content of WSABH, a song cycle about Darnielle’s speed-freak friends from California, who, according to him, are “probably dead or in jail.”
WSABH, as a result, is paradoxically his least accessible work yet, despite John Vanderslice’s clear production and Nora Danielson’s sweet violins. Even the album’s anthemic first single, “Palmcorder Yajna,” which has all the drive of a Bruce Springsteen road-trip song, sounds like the soundtrack to a Denis Johnson short story. “And I dreamt of a house,” Darnielle sings, “haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out/and the headstones climbed up the hills.” It’s a disturbing, claustrophobic album, loaded with fervent imagery: “Yeah, we’re all here/chewing our tongues off/waiting for the fever to break.”
Recorded on a tape player, this would all be some scary Requiem for a Dream shitmore affecting but too intense for consistent listening. Instead, Darnielle has moved his source of critical distance from the narration to the language the music. When it works, as on “Palmcorder Yajna” and the tender “Linda Blair Was Born Innocent,” it’s beautiful. When the lyrics are weaker, as on the surprisingly clichéd “Cotton,” Darnielle can’t get by on sincerity alone.
In concert, though, even the weaker songs gain strength. My friend who attended the Mountain Goats’ Empty Bottle show commented that if Darnielle isn’t a speed-freak, it’s only because he doesn’t need to be. In person, he’s possessed of a consuming intensity and a disarming candor, a passionate geek amazed at the love people have of his music.
In a small venue, with no one in the audience more than 30 feet from him, his genius makes more sense. Amateurishnessas in lack of pretense, not lack of talenthas always been at the center of Darnielle’s appeal and is best appreciated in person. The Empty Bottle crowd brought him back for two encores, culminating in a (sincere) sing-along cover of Ace of Base’s “The Sign.” The gawky Mountain Goat and his bassist then departed to the cheers of a couple hundred tweakers with their hands out.