Welcome to PLAYLIST, a reoccurring feature on Spectrum Culture where our staff creates a playlist (with mix tapes and CDs becoming so unfortunately passé) centered around one artist or band with a deep catalog. For each LP we choose one song and pick a writer to rhapsodize its virtue.
This feature is an especially challenging endeavor when facing the dense archives of the Mountain Goats; their LPs don’t tell the complete story. Those who’ve followed their leader John Darnielle since his first cassette go to great lengths to capture ancient bootlegs, unreleased songs and out of print material like they’re sacred gems that might turn to sand. Luckily, Darnielle saves his most powerful songs for his most prominent releases. Since he brings his A-game for these records, we’ll bring ours. – Neal Fersko
“Going to Alaska” from Taboo VI: The Homecoming (1991)
John Darnielle was a nurse living in employee housing in Norwalk, California when he wrote his first batch of Mountain Goats songs. Possessing only a boombox, a guitar and a stack of poetry, he began his musical project the same way many lo-fi revolutionaries did around the same period. Though when you think about the journey he’s taken from that beginning, and the anonymity many of his peers lapsed into, it’s a breathtaking fact that you’re even reading this article.
Saying Taboo VI: The Homecoming is simply a lo-fi cassette is being generous. There’s practically no sound coming through on the master recording. Despite this inaudibility, what can’t be ignored is that Darnielle possessed compelling verbosity from the start of his recording career, if not the confidence to scream and enunciate his words. Many of the bootlegs around the nascent years of The Mountain Goats are more impassioned and musically superior to their released counterpart (a lot of people claim that this is the case with all of their records and concerts throughout the band’s history).
“Going to Alaska” is the best of the early bunch of songs and the first entry in his exhaustive “Going to…” series. The crux of these stories lie in observing the glimmer of hope that comes with a fantasized escape to a distant land you know little about. From the prospect of fleeing from your problems, an emotional reconstruction occurs. Alaska can become a place where “animals can kill you in silence” and “you can go blind just by looking at the ground.” Impossibly wordy but powerfully vivid, the protagonist sings about an existence where the tundra of the 49th state is the proper destination for a person at the end of their rope. Regardless of whether its dangers are real or imagined, fighting for survival on “the soil that’s soaked through with old blood and with relatives” can be the only stage for redemption. As Darnielle ends the song with the line : “they tell me that it’s perfect for my purposes,” we silently wonder if perfection is only found in agony. – Neal Fersko
“Standard Bitter Love Song #4” from The Hound Chronicles (1992)
Of all the qualities that Darnielle possesses, perhaps the most endearing is his ability to squeeze a mountain of meaning out of a pebble of sound – which just about sums up The Hound Chronicles, the Mountain Goats’ 1992 cassette-only release that’s largely faded into obscurity for all but the most die-hard Darnielle enthusiasts. Armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a head full of poetic witticisms recorded straight onto a $20 Panasonic boom box, the Darnielle that’s revealed here is an artist in creative growth, still working out the kinks in the stripped-down approach that would characterize his early years. Like his other early-’90s Shrimper releases, this exercise in lo-fi minimalism may be a collector’s piece at best – don’t hold your breath for a Hound Chronicles reissue – but “Standard Bitter Love Song #4” emerges as proof that, even as early as 1992, Darnielle was one of the most crafty lyricists in the game.
As the title implies, the song is in many ways a standard folkie lament, filled with bitterness and sardonic humor (“What have you done with our love/ Where have you put it?“), but that doesn’t mean that this requiem to love gone sour is in any way clichéd. For one thing, there’s that voice, rich and expressive, belting out images (“Well I see you’ve left me a photograph/ Of a leopard tearing an antelope in half“) that paint as vivid a picture of the broken-hearted soul as listeners are likely to hear on any Darnielle album. There’s also an air of earnestness to this song and the record that, even in its most extreme moments of melodrama, sucks listeners in rather than drives them away. Think of The Hound Chronicles and its champion track as A Portrait of the Mountain Goat as a Young Man – a promising endeavor, and a sign of even finer things to come. – Marcus David
“Beach House” from Hot Garden Stomp (1993)
Hot Garden Stomp serves as a transitional album. “Beach House” stands out as one of the more exemplary tracks of the Mountain Goats style, and has a lot of the tenets of Darnielle’s writing that make this and all future Mountain Goats records so exciting and refreshing.
In typical Darnielle fashion, there is a story, but it is told loosely, even abstractly. The protagonist sings about hearing his partner or friend visiting a part of a beach he considers dangerous. The song begins with Darnielle’s character mentioning that he receives letters about the subject, and he would “strongly suggest to you that you not hang out there anymore/ “Cause the seal is a…vicious creature.” The deceptively simple song speaks volumes: in the lyrics, the protagonist continues to warn about the viciousness of seals, and their tendency to attack. On the surface this seems particularly loopy, but as with all Mountain Goats songs, there’s far more beneath. The feelings and concern for the song’s subject are evident, but Darnielle paints the protagonist as waffling, perhaps even afraid. He goes on to cite Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary for the definition of “vicious,” and provides a list of synonyms. This is not only concrete proof of Darnielle’s highly literate lyric writing, but also an ideal example of his creative wordplay.
“Beach House” is also a typical Mountain Goats song in its short length- 2:18. It’s always allowed Darnielle’s writing to stay focused and brisk, and this song is no exception. The pounding, rhythmically staccato acoustic guitar, combined with Darnielle’s high, strained vocals reiterates the emotions lurking in the cold simplicity of fact. By reciting from a dictionary, the character masks his care, perhaps out of fear, rejection or maybe even just smugness. But he cannot hide it from us. – Rafael Gaitan
“No, I Can’t” from Transmissions to Horace EP (1993)
Salvaged, along with the rest the 1993 Transmissions to Horace EP, “No I Can’t,” resurfaces on the1999 compilation Bitter Melon Farm, joining refugees from Songs for Petronius (1992), Songs for Peter Hughes (1995) and a host of previously uncollected tracks. One of these songs happens to be a later version of “No, I Can’t,” which has the effect of putting it up for display against itself, two versions separated by three years and some slightly improved recording methods.
Fundamentally, there’s not much to be gained by comparing the two versions. In the interim, Darnielle got a little better at singing and lot better at recording his songs. Otherwise, not much changed, and the relationship is the same between the two recordings. The newer version, sounding remarkably less scruffy, adds a few new lyrics and a thudding Rachel Ware bass-line, scrapping the self-addressed introduction of the original. In both cases, “No, I Can’t” stands out for its singular devotion to a slim concept. Darnielle’s songs have always been remarkable, from his earliest days, for their deceptive confidence in themselves, running over with an emotive stream-of-consciousness and stupid jokes, stridently minimalist in equal measure. But “No, I Can’t” is an especially dry stretch of road. Dropping the usual expressive theatrics for a spare, deceivingly clever repetition scheme, he compiles a list of everyday items, ranging from books to a filing cabinet to a puppy, then offers thanks for them, linking this to a “now I have everything I need,” refrain.
The picture that results doesn’t seem like much, but with the help of a vaguely sketched last verse, it amounts to one of Darnielle’s more subtle portraits of bitter disconnection, hinting at the usually more overt focus which had and would dominate his lyrical style. Whether interpreted as a cataloging of a break-up’s spoils or a register of gifts received from a departed lover, “No, I Can’t” is a rare study in mysterious ambiguity. – Jesse Cataldo
“Going to Georgia” from Zopilote Machine (1994)
Zopilote Machine proudly stands as the first Mountain Goats album to be released in compact disc form. Darnielle mostly stuck to his tried and true boom-box recording method, so the album retains its lo-fi sound, but Zopilote Machine works hard and well to establish the Mountain Goats’ long-form ambitions. Amidst the tape hiss Darnielle really starts expanding the “Alpha series,” which he began hinting at in The Hound Chronicles. The album carries two of the “Quetzalcoatl” songs and two of the “Orange Ball” songs. Zopilote Machine also continues the “Going to…” series, the thread of songs throughout the Mountain Goats’ career touching on travel and escapism. “Going to Georgia,” the third of such songs on Zopilote Machine, is one of the more unbridled tracks on the album. It shows early on the type of Mountain Goats song that we’ll be hearing for the next five to seven years: Darnielle yelling powerfully over the backdrop of his urgent acoustic guitar. In just a little over two minutes, it perfectly illustrates how even the simplest of Darnielle’s songs can emote raw power. The song is succinct and nestled toward the end of the album, long after the crackle has faded under Darnielle’s captivating lyrics and enthusiasm.
“Going to Georgia” is not the saddest or angriest track on Zopilote Machine, but it does have staying power as one of many Mountain Goats tracks to later be covered by another artist (in this case, Atom and His Package). Originally released on Ajax Records, Zopilote Machine was re-released more than 10 years later on 3 Beads of Sweat. By that time Darnielle was just as prolific as ever, gearing up to work on The Sunset Tree, an arguably more complex and accessible album. However, Zopilote Machine remains a key example of Darnielle’s most important tools – his vocal storytelling and his songwriting. -Melissa Muenz
“The Monkey Song” from Philyra 7″(1994)
Like many Mountain Goats tracks, “The Monkey Song” suggests John Darnielle knows something we don’t. His cryptic – and somewhat repetitive – lyrics likely refer to tremulous interactions between lovers as much of his work does, imagery of deadly yet beautiful snakes, stormy atmospheres and cooped-up primates beneath his feet substituting shrouded emotional disclosure for a simpler exposition. Then again, maybe they don’t. Darnielle’s lyrics and brief song-structure don’t provide much to clarify these signs and portents for the listener.
But that’s the kind of abstract writing that makes early Mountain Goats recordings as interesting now as when they first were released. First released on the Philyra 7″ and then compiled on Protein Source of the Future…Now! is the first of three collections of singles, tape-only recordings and compilation appearances, and its treasure trove of songs cast from this mold. Both Bitter Mellon Farm and Ghana offered more pieces of Mountain Goats creativity to sample, but Protein offered some of the brightest and most quirky. Darnielle includes a scattered mix of tracks with varying instrumentation, but they all have a similar sense of lyrical playfulness.
In the case of “The Monkey Song,” that playfulness focuses on saying everything while saying nothing at all. Darnielle runs down the list of omens – “the planets in the heavens are perfectly aligned” and “the powder burns on the eastern wall” – finally ending on a refrain of “there’s a monkey in the basement/ Where did the monkey come from?” As a curious audience, we’re not sure why he’s singing about a monkey in the first place, and what all these happenings are telling us, but we get a vague sense that’s it’s probably not good. Either way, that refrain’s cadence is nothing less than grin-inducing; it’s hard not to laugh with an artist that poses a question about monkeys, repeats it, and lets his words pitch up until you want to yell back “I don’t know!” Laughing or not, I’d still love to know the answer. – Michael Merline
“Whole Wide World” from Sweden (1995)
For an artist that for some time used only acoustic guitar and a tape recorder to craft his songs, John Darnielle rarely sounds timid. Even his softest Mountain Goats songs, lush tapestries of imagery and story barely supported by a few strums of the guitar, highlight a subversive strength in Darnielle’s nasal voice. “Whole Wide World” is actually not one of those tracks, a rare moment in his discography – besides many of the atypically delivered gems on the heartbreaking Get Lonely – where Darnielle never musters strength in his broken whisper. The shrill and emotionally intense delivery typical to Mountain Goats tracks just never surfaces here.
Nevertheless, it’s a song about finding strength to face the world that surges around us, even when we feel as weak as Darnielle sounds. And really “Whole Wide World” is better for it, standing out from the tracks around it. “Whole Wide World” falls near the middle of Sweden, a highlight among the early Mountain Goats albums. Aside for the notable absence of contributions to the Alpha cycle, Sweden is mostly a lengthy collection of successes – including two “Going to…” tracks and a fun cover of Steely Dan’s “FM.” But of all the quirky stories and traditional lover’s tales on Sweden it’s the soft meditation of “Whole Wide World” that ends up being the album’s highlight. It doesn’t sound grand, or even consider its theme in a large and encompassing manner. Nevertheless, Darnielle’s two minutes of reserved delivery ends up being the song that dominates Sweden, a beautiful melody giving voice to a powerful whisper. – Michael Merline
“Going to Scotland” from Nothing for Juice (1996)
Nothing for Juice is Darnielle’s final album with backing vocalist Rachel Ware, and as the final track on the album, “Going to Scotland” plays as a particularly nostalgic farewell. Most songs in the “Going to…” series are tinged with sadness or desperation, but this is not the case with “Going to Scotland.” While the lyrics imply that bad times may be ahead, the moments in the song are free of the destructive escapism that seem to invade the other “Going to…” tracks.
“When a pack of dogs went silently past us,” Darnielle sings, “We knew we’d been given fair warning/ But that was the only thing we knew.” The rest of the lyrics speak only of young love and a reckless night, making them seem a bit more innocent than other Mountain Goats songs from this era. Yet “Going to Scotland” still has the same energy as Darnielle’s more aggressive songs. The track makes a pleasing closer to one of the softer early Mountain Goats’ albums.
There’s not a lot of variety in Darnielle’s early albums – most of the tracks wear a simple guitar-vocal uniform. Even the two covers on Nothing for Juice (“Moon and Sand” and “Hellhound on My Trail”) fit in seamlessly. However, all of the material from this era is intense and prolific. Darnielle’s guitar serves as a mere vehicle for his lyrics, which are astounding in both volume and story.
Nothing for Juice finds Darnielle’s writing full of yearning. His acoustic tunes suit his reflective and impassioned stories, and “Going to Scotland” leaves us with a memory so attractive that you want to revisit it over and over again. For an album that runs the risk of being repetitive, Nothing for Juice ends on a note that is both unexpectedly pleasant and powerful. -Melissa Muenz
“Weekend in Western Illinois” from Full Force Galesburg (1997)
Picking a standout track from Full Force Galesburg was one of the more difficult decisions for this playlist, and not just because most of the album’s songs are arranged similarly and can only be distinguished by their singular content. Rather, because several songs, by virtue of the vast range of emotions they provoke, were worthy of consideration, picking just one was a no-win situation. Leaving out panic-stricken closer “It’s All Here in Brownsville” was no easier than passing up the frantic guitar strumming that characterizes “New Britain” and “Maize Stalk Drinking Blood” or the foreboding electric guitar-organ combo that drives “Down Here;” but while omitting these tracks left us feeling far from guilt-free, it seemed like Mountain Goat heresy to even consider excluding “Weekend in Western Illinois,” one of the most deeply poetic and emotive songs in the entire Darnielle catalog.
There’s an unmistakable joie de vivre that makes the song unique among its Galesburg counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t- like much of Darnielle’s music- be viewed in various lights. On the surface, it feels like a tribute to the border towns that Darnielle has professed to love so much, where “the land’s opening up like a blanket,” the dandelions are thick, the rain warm, the fields evidently endless and where “some of our promises were binding/ Up here where our dreams take form.” But even while it’s easy to envision a rural Midwestern paradise, a less utopian vision surfaces as well: two lovers, “going under” and “burning up all of our choices,” bleeding and friendless, futilely seeking a romantic rejuvenation as “the sky’s opening up like an old wound.”
More than anything, though, “Weekend in Western Illinois” plays out as a love song, a musical, world-be-damned, two-and-a-half minute Love in the Time of Cholera. Even while “the ground underneath us shakes in the crackling thunder” and the dogs “howl as though the world were ending,” the characters are “hotly in love with one another,” not troubled by rumbling skies, open wounds or any other worldly grievances. Of all the images that Darnielle paints, the couple appears to relate most to the excitable Galesburg hounds, as their inexplicable world-wonder seems to mirror the youthful hopefulness they feel within themselves: “We love these dogs that roll on the lawns here in Galesburg/ Because they seem to know something nobody else knows/ It is written on the smiles on their faces/ And it rings in their high young voices.” What that “something” might actually be, perhaps only Darnielle and the dogs will ever know. But it very well might be the sound of purest joy. – Marcus David
“Golden Boy” from Object Lessons: Songs About Products EP (1998)
The internet places “Golden Boy” as part of the now-forgotten compilation Object Lessons, a 1998 themed collection of songs about products. Later collected on 2002’s Ghana,the last of three compilations scraping up reams of uncollected material, “Golden Boy” is one of the final tracks featuring Darnielle’s early personalized, cassette-recorded format, where songs are introduced and individually dedicated. “Golden Boy” goes out to Paul, who along with us is promised a better take because Darnielle has now put on his boots. The song follows this pattern of irreverence, playing at seriousness via fire and brimstone iconography interpreted through the lens of the title peanuts, which can only be obtained at pan-Asian supermarkets and thus are not available in hell.
Darnielle has recorded a lot of this mock-grave silly material, but “Golden Boy” is one of the best examples, elevating its pure ‘these are some good peanuts’ sentiment into a histrionic plea to the listener’ s very soul. Tonally, it fits in with a good portion of his mid-’90s material: vocally bare, tinged with reverb, his acoustic strumming struggling to keep up with the words. Catching isolated bits of the song, it’s easy to mistake it for another spirited evocation of emotional distress. Biblical language is used. The March of Dimes is invoked. The peanuts become the synecdochical representation of all the good things in the world.
With so much emotional barn-burning going on, both in Ghana and throughout Darnielle’s oeuvre as a whole, it’s refreshing to hear a song that is fundamentally and entirely about the pleasure promised by a bag of good peanuts. Regardless of context, the song is a small delight, itself offering a musical counterpoint to Darnielle’s prediction: “you’ll find that your efforts have brought you great joy/ When your spirit is munching on that Golden Boy.” – Jesse Cataldo
“Family Happiness” from The Coroner’s Gambit (2000)
“Family Happiness” is a road song from a lyricist who has written his share of such gravel-on-wheels numbers, only this time the road is paved with suspicion, paranoia and imminent violence. Although the long-gestating The Coroner’s Gambit represented a subtle step toward the polish and high fidelity of 2002 masterpiece Tallahassee – a handful of songs were actually recorded in a studio and included strings, electric guitar and other instrumentation – “Family Happiness” mostly follows the sparse musical blueprint Darnielle has relied on throughout much of his career. Built around a pounding acoustic guitar and the singer’s manic-pace vocals, the track showcases Darnielle at his most lyrically biting and observant.
It is perhaps the darkest song on an album defined by an overt sense of fatalism and a fixation with death. A concept album of sorts loosely held together by an overarching biblical storyline, Gambit presents the listener with a series of lives on the skids and “Family Happiness” undeniably fits within the album’s overall tone. Driving in the dead of night somewhere along the Canadian border, its narrator comes across as wild-eyed and several degrees beyond pissed off. The song unfolds like an ugly examination of a relationship in complete shambles, accompanied by the types of subtle narrative details that make Darnielle’s music so compelling: a passenger incomprehensibly mouthing Tolstoy into a recorder, “innumerable evergreens,” a few impotent pot-shots that won’t make a damn bit of difference in the long run (“I mouth my silent curses at you“), the type of resignation that should feel melodramatic but somehow works (“I hope the stars don’t even come out tonight/ I hope we freeze to death.”)
“Family Happiness” is equally notable for the details it leaves out, a quality that has always separated Darnielle’s story-songs from those written by less talented lyricists. We never find out who the narrator is or who he’s doing battle with – hell, maybe it’s himself – nor do we know exactly how this drive will end. Darnielle’s intense vocals on the line “do what you brought me out here for” are impossible to miss though, and it’s clear this rotten Canadian trek sure as hell won’t end well for at least one person. In an album littered with songs about loneliness and desolation, “Family Happiness” ranks as The Coroner’s Gambit’s most jarring and memorable track. – Eric Dennis
“The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton” from All Hail West Texas (2002)
All Hail West Texas was the last Mountain Goats album recorded on a boombox. That’s a hard sentence to spit out for a lot of people; for purists, something about the band died as they made their transition to high-quality studio recordings. While Darnielle had alternated back and forth between grainy tape recorders and expertly-produced tracks, the bulk of his output was lo-fi. Many had felt that with the medium gone, his esoteric messages would evaporate with it.
Those fans are partially right. Even towards the end of their lo-fi period, the Mountain Goats used less obscure cultural references and more luminous storytelling. That transition should be celebrated because it showed a great deal of maturity for Darnielle and a willingness to admit that certain emotions can’t be explained through allusions to food or forgotten mythological figures. Some tales are too fraught with emotion to be kidded with.
“The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is one of those stories. Like every song on this record it takes place in Texas, but it’s such a common chain of events that you’ve probably known someone who lived a variation of it elsewhere. There is something appropriate though about setting it in Denton, an open-minded college town which clashes with Christian conservatives among their ranks. Our heroes, Jeff and Cyrus, face a similar tension. They form a death metal band to escape the stymied reality that has been forced upon them. Since the group only consists of two introverted friends, it’s also apparent that this is most likely the only death metal band in Denton. But their actions are less about the music and more about the dream of being embraced for defiance against a community that asks them to think small and repress what sets them apart. Sure they imagine themselves spitting hell-spawned fury one day, but for now they’ll “stencil their drumheads and guitars with their names.” Death metal will free them from their adolescent misery, and just talking about it makes this band, which “never settled on a name“, awesome.
Then the other shoe drops. Cyrus is sent away to another school and is told the music they worship is worthless. The banal adult world has stepped in but all is not lost. They inwardly plot a grandiose revenge through survival. Jeff and Cyrus will hold fast through the oppression and triumph over their enemies. Darnielle says he didn’t write down thrice repeated lines “Hail Satan!” at the end of his lyric sheet. The circumstances of his characters overwhelmed him. A metal addict himself, who worked with young people in his former career, Darnielle knows the true stakes of such a battle. In the face of oppressively cruel goodness, an avenging evil is the only antidote for powerless young men. – Neal Fersko
“No Children” from Tallahassee (2002)
After years of recording lo-fi songs for an entire salad bar of labels ranging from the obscure (Shrimper, Emperor Jones, Absolutely Kosher, Ajax) to the incredibly obscure (Nursecall, Oska, Theme Park), the Mountain Goats finally found a permanent home on 4AD. John Darnielle marked the debut by bidding a final farewell to his old friends, the Alpha Couple, whose drunken misadventures were thought to be over after he penned “Alpha Omega.” While that song is the end of their saga, Tallahassee takes place before its conclusion. The story outlined by evocative liner notes from Darnielle explains how the Alphas have fled to the other side of the country in the hopes of redeeming their destructive relationship. The house they’ve bought, sight unseen, quickly becomes their tomb.
Tallahassee’s songs are much bleaker than the goofy and occasionally frightening Alpha series that preceded it. A downbeat pathos hangs over the couple and the years of self-loathing have taken a terrible toll on their ability to discern if feeling haunted or angry are the only options available to them. They are a destructive unit of nuclear proportions, and “No Children” is their final waltz with Armageddon. Framed as an anti-cathartic screaming match, they conclude that all life is a meaningless free fall and the world should plummet with them in one final lingering act of senseless mayhem: “I hope it stays dark forever, I hope the worst isn’t over/ I hope you blink before I do/ And I hope I never get sober.” When faced with the decision of eternal suffering or divorce, they swallow the suffering whole. It’s the only reasonable choice for people addicted to the pain of destroying themselves as man and wife.
Still it is very catchy. Darnielle implores us to know its steady rhythms and pleasant melodies along with the hateful lyrics. “No Children” deceptively concludes many Mountain Goats concerts with a joyful sing-a-long. It’s great fun, often because fans rebel against the story and find an uplift in embracing Darnielle’s horrific humor from a distance. As a downbeat and taciturn song, it would be a slow ballad about two people trapped in a waking nightmare while trying to drink themselves back to sleep. From the way it’s performed by the Mountain Goats, it could be the national anthem. – Neal Fersko
“Cotton” from We Shall All Be Healed (2004)
If the Mountain Goat became the Mountain Goats on the career-defining Tallahassee, introducing listeners to an uncharacteristic full-band sound, then We Shall All Be Healed completed the transformation, showcasing musical arrangements every bit as lavish as the Shrimper recordings were organic. Still, it’s one of the album’s more stripped-down tracks that’s perhaps most noteworthy here. Not that “Cotton” is overly reminiscent of Darnielle and company’s early ’90s endeavors, but plenty of the old, familiar Mountain Goats vibe does resurface; dripping with emotion and strife, the singer’s vocals are placed high in the mix over a mostly acoustic-driven backdrop, while the deceptively complex content, like the best of Darnielle’s catalog, leaves plenty of room for interpretation.
Although the value of lo-fi Darnielle vs. hi-fi Mountain Goats may be an issue for infinite debate, at least one aspect of “Cotton” is without contention: the song reveals, yet again, a lyricist who can conjure a variety of emotions, from dread and despondency to empathy and hopefulness, without ever resorting to hastily chosen wordplay or cheesy theatrics to get his point across. Taking the familiar “this song is for the …” folkie routine and turning it upside down, the singer evokes “rats who hurled themselves into the ocean/ When they saw that the explosives in the cargo hold/ Were just about to blow,” family members who apologize to their loved ones without really meaning it, useless seeds dropped in toxic soil, driver-less cars on empty highways and irrelevant stick pins and cotton swabs abandoned in an old desk. Not exactly the most uplifting of subjects, even by Darnielle’s standards.
But despite the narrator’s resignation that there’s nothing to do with the drowned rodents and lonely drivers of the world but “let ’em all go,” this song is as much a catharsis as a lamentation: “I saw you waiting by the roadside/ You didn’t know that I was watching/ Now you know.” The world may be full of impotent soil and the desperate sensation that “something has got to give,” but in the singer’s own deceptive way, he seems to be telling us that we might not be so alone after all. Darnielle’s music had changed by 2004, but the emotional roller coaster that he takes listeners on remains as heartfelt as ever on “Cotton.” – Marcus David
“Lion’s Teeth” from The Sunset Tree (2005)
John Darnielle continued to expand the lush, big sound he began with Tallahassee and We Shall All Be Healed on The Sunset Tree, the album that is arguably his masterpiece. Long gone are the days of the tinny four-track recording, replaced by exciting dirges and quiet ballads fleshed out with percussion and strings.
Most of The Sunset Tree’s songs center around Darnielle’s relationship with his abusive stepfather, the album’s title coming from a scene in Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, where a clergyman beats his son for stuttering. Like Tallahassee, the album is a harrowing experience, spawning some of Darnielle’s best songs such as “Dilaudid,” “Love Love Love” and “This Year,” which features the mantra “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.”
Perhaps the most traumatic track of all is “Lion’s Teeth,” a song Darnielle has called a “revenge fantasy.” Much like the Biblical Daniel cast into the lion’s den, Darnielle re-imagines his own foray into the mouth of danger, this time the lion’s den being a parked car where his alcoholic stepfather is passed out. Darnielle’s protagonist sneaks into the car and jumps the sleeping “lion,” bringing his mother and sister rushing out of the house from all the chaos as the lion’s “paw hits the horn.”
But rather than focus on the details of revenge, “Lion’s Den” is more about courage as Darnielle sings about holding on “for dear life” over the song’s staccato rhythm. However, the incredible odds the protagonist faces when he attacks his aggressor are clear in the song and the terror is palpable. “And my arms get sore/ And my palms start to sweat/ And the tears roll down my face/ Till my cheeks are hot and red and soaking wet,” Darnielle cries as his grip loosens, leaving only “great big you and little old me.” We can do nothing but watch helplessly and pray he continues to hold on for dear life. – David Harris
“Woke Up New” from Get Lonely (2006)
The Mountain Goats’ early discography is marked by moments of overwhelming empathy. Darnielle gave a voice to drug addicts, heartbroken teens, pained criminals and legendary figures, often without having any personal experience to guide his extraordinary detailed – and subjective – songcraft. This remarkable talent is likely the reason those hissing low-fi Mountain Goats recordings attracted so many passionate fans, the kind that hold up lighters and sing along to every word well after the days when those actions were the rock-fan norm. Yet it took Darnielle’s reflections on his own life to really touch a broader audience, which is really the irony of his career trajectory. That being the case, it’s fitting that “Woke Up New” became one of his most popular tracks and most well-known music video – Get Lonely analyzes every detail of one character’s personal heartbreaks, but is really the kind of song any person hears only to think it’s all about them.
However, Darnielle doesn’t record catchy singles, or at least not in the traditional “let’s turn on the radio” sense. Still “Woke Up New” sounds like a single, even on an album that’s stylistically a more traditional – if shockingly bleak – affair. If it wasn’t so damn depressing, The Mountain Goats might have found a place on mainstream FM playlists. But regardless of whether that ever happens, “Woke Up New” is a perfectly executed expression of existential pain and self-awareness. The album’s protagonist, having woken up to that first morning without a life-changing partner, addresses all the feelings that come with that event. It’s Darnielle’s lyrical prowess that makes the track’s banal premise special. He sings “The first time I made coffee just for myself, I made too much of it/ But I drank it all, just because/ You hated it when I let things go to waste.” It’s those simple observations, however trivial they may be, that cut the core of what it means to lose someone. Paired with some wonderful guitar picks and a simple chord progression, the lyrical theme provides a foundation on which anyone can hang and find their own place in Darnielle’s exquisitely detailed story. – Michael Merline
“Lovecraft in Brooklyn” from Heretic Pride (2008)
What does H.P. Lovecraft, 20th century master of the macabre, wizard of the weird and zealous xenophobe, have in common with John Darnielle’s fear-riddled protagonist of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn?” Feeling eerily similar to Lovecraft during the author’s nerve-wracked residence in Brooklyn’s racially diverse Red Hook neighborhood, the narrator finds himself freaking the fuck out as he comes to grips with self-perceived terrors of the modern world, where there’s “no place to call home anymore,” “too many bloodstains on the ground” and reality is far more horrifying than fiction.
Darnielle has always been heralded as a remarkably literary songwriter, so it’s only fitting that Heretic Pride is filled with complex and colorful portrayals of characters both fictional and real. In “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” the storyteller is hurled into a hotbed of paranoia, where he wakes up genuinely afraid of his own shadow, arming himself with a switchblade and trying to keep the wolves at bay. The listener can almost feel the anxiety creeping under the narrator’s skin as an industrial-strength electric guitar riff is accompanied by Darnielle’s nearly screeching hysterics: “Someday something’s coming/ From way out beyond the stars/ To kill us while we stand here/ It’ll store our brains in mason jars.”
Throughout Darnielle’s career, the songwriter has invoked so many emotions within us, and revealed countless sides of his own psyche, but few songs have ever reflected the fearful, ugly side of the human spirit as forcefully as “Lovecraft in Brooklyn.” On an album that features subjects like lake monsters, motel room babies, cults and dead reggae stars, it’s a song that inspires the type of bare-bones fright usually reserved for children’s nightmares and pulp horror paperbacks. It also reveals itself as a strangely empathetic, fearful nod to anyone who’s ever felt like he doesn’t belong somewhere. It may be weird as hell, yes, and far from comforting, but neither Lovecraft nor Darnielle would have it any other way. – Marcus David
“Genesis 3:23” from The Life of the World to Come (2009)
“Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” – Genesis 3:23
John Darnielle, like other songwriters, has always been fascinated by the Bible. Its influence can be felt throughout much of his back catalog, not as a pedantic influence but merely a great literary tome ripe for plunder. Darnielle is no Bible-banger, but a non-believer who can appreciate the stories and lessons in the Bible without believing it to be the Word of God.
For his 2009 album The Life of the World to Come, Darnielle titled each song after a verse in the Bible, but those afraid that Darnielle finally drank the Kool-Aid need not worry. Rather than a collection of devotionals, The Life of the World to Come features the Bible merely as the framework for hard lessons to be learned.
The standout track is “Genesis 3:23,” one of Darnielle’s most upbeat creations upon first listen. Framed by a buoyant tempo and bright melody, the protagonist of “Genesis 3:23” begins the song breaking into a house in which he used to live. Yet, rather than be a song about the inability to let the past go, Darnielle instead blurs the idea of ownership, although he hopes the people who currently inhabit the house “are better at it than” he was.
Darnielle’s voice can range from soft to intense and he gently handles the chorus “I used to live here,” keeping it away from the damage of missing one’s roots and bathing it in a casual acknowledgment. He can see past the twinkling nostalgia to recognize with weary resignation the passing of time. The song ends with a lovely metaphor that compares the stars to shark’s teeth, a jagged ending to a song that does its best to give false security. – David Harris
“Beautiful Gas Mask” from All Eternals Deck (2011)
Its title aside, “Beautiful Gas Mask” begins innocuously enough. The rollicking bass line and jangly Americana strums on electric guitar might be more at home in a song about a California sunset, a road trip or a lost love than one whose name implies a bleak No Man’s Land (and a healthy dose of gallows humor).
But this is the Mountain Goats, after all, and if you were expecting anything other than gallows humor, toxic gas attacks and “paupers hammering the walls of the castle/ Going to meet the king,” the deck was stacked against you from the start. “Come hard through the fog/ Blindfolded and bound,” Darnielle entreats breathlessly, one of two prisoners placed in a poisonous miasma given only a gas mask to make it through. And as the lyrics go, so too the music: hand-clap pops mark the launch or landing of the gas canisters and cymbals are thinned out to mimic the exhalation of their fatal payload. Full-bodied chords on acoustic blow through like a runner’s second wind, sparse organ notes light a mysterious flare in the dark, the bass line hopscotches, tumbles and falls, muted snare is struck at a lorry’s clip. Pure Darnielle, from the promises of contrarian malevolence (“Someone’s coming to reward us/ …Or crush us both like fleas“) to the slanted stiff upper lip (“I can’t hear you in the dark/ Wish I knew where you’d gone/ Know you’re there/ Off in the shadows somewhere/ Try to soldier on.“).
“Toxic shapes adorn the walls” where gentle melody and wicked prose hang in the air. “Beautiful Gas Mask,” its Lost Generation narrative set to the stylized Maxim gun rhythm of a soft rock jam, is among the loudest howling monstrosities in the Mountain Goats’ All Eternals Deck. “Never sleep/ Remember to breathe deep.” Drink the disaster in. – Joe Clinkenbeard
“Cry for Judas” from Transcendental Youth (2012)
Darnielle’s 14th proper LP is one of the simultaneously darkest and most fun records he has ever made under the Mountain Goats moniker. Themes of mortality and alienation are embodied in lyrics full of subtle humor and genuine pathos. The prolific singer-songwriter explores the full range of human thought and feeling here, writing with subtle grace and novelistic detail about the outcasts of modern society.
Darnielle keeps his sonic texture typically minimalistic throughout, although a bright, emotive horn section adds some spice now and again. These horns are perhaps best used on album standout “Cry for Judas,” one of the record’s most upbeat sounding tracks. The acoustic-guitar opening quickly leads to a danceable groove enhanced by a simple trumpet, trombone and saxophone arrangement. The jubilant tone is darkened a bit with the opening line, “Some things you do just to see how bad they make you feel.” The lyrics throughout expresses a simultaneous feeling of loss and hope. These emotions are summed up in the chorus, “Long black night/ Morning frost/ I’m still here/ But all is lost.” Dark imagery of the grove where Judas committed suicide and dark graves stand in contrast to the tune’s peppy feeling.
As with many of Darnielle’s best songs, “Cry for Judas” strikes the perfect balance between intriguing ambiguity and expression of universal emotions. When Darnielle sings, “Some people crash two or three times and then learn from their mistakes,” one might think of any number of past regrets. The lyric, “Mistreat your altar boys long enough and this is what you get” conjures up a mixture of cringing, befuddlement and nervous laughter. It’s a testament to the track that each listen brings unexpected pleasures and raises provocative questions. In short, “Cry for Judas” is both surprisingly complex and deceptively simple. In this way, it’s a typical Mountain Goats song. – Jacob Adams