“Translation is my favorite subject.” Mountain Goats front man John Darnielle tells this to Night Vale podcast creator Joseph Fink near the end of I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats in a conversation about the landmark 2002 album All Hail West Texas and the nature of different Biblical translations. So it’s perfect that one of the album’s strongest aspects is that each song’s episode gets a matching cover by everyone from the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn to Night Vale collaborator Erin McKeown to Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!

The nature of I Only Listen means that cohesiveness goes right out the window. All Hail West Texas works structurally as a collection of man-with-acoustic-guitar-and-maybe-a-Casio tracks, but freeing songs from the shackles of genre can make for a jarring experience. Compare this to Tallahassee Turns Ten, Crooked Neighbor’s Tallahassee anniversary celebration, which maintains relative cohesion by at least partially sacrificing genre-agnosticism. Each artist here uses their All Hail West Texas tool kit differently. Grace delivers a completely straightforward delivery of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton,” which is the only cover that keeps the original song’s structure, while Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel performs “Jeff Davis County Blues,” in a way that will make you wonder “What the fuck was that about?”

Fortunately, the album’s more moderate approaches, in which artists play with Darnielle’s form rather than completely shattering it, are where a lot of the magic comes into play. Nana Grizol swaps the whispered vocals and Casiotone of “Blues in Dallas” for a horn-laden shouter, while Loamlands nearly quadruple the length of “Fall of the Star High School Running Back” while still maintaining structure. Even this convention isn’t true, though: Ibibio Sound Machine’s “Color in Your Cheeks” is a dance floor-ready electronic number that turns Darnielle’s soothing vocals into something sultry, which is a trick similar to the one that Dessa from Doomtree plays with “Balance”, the collection’s sole banger. There’s something for everybody here, and for better or worse, every artist here makes their chosen song their own.

Unfortunately, due to the genre-bending nature of these covers, it helps to listen to I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats (the podcast) to hear each artist explain where their particular take came from. Koster’s track flawlessly demonstrates this: it’s a perplexing listen that goes out of its way to be 100% unlike the source material–he abandons all lyrics entirely and explains on the corresponding episode that his version came to him in a dream. One might argue that you shouldn’t need to do your homework to enjoy a cover version, but since the album concept was born out of a willingness to dig deeper, it’s no surprise that doing the same for the covers may enhance their listening experience, especially when they stray so far from the source.

If you’re a devotee of the Mountain Goats and know All Hail West Texas, both this collection and the podcast that spawned it provide crucial context while examining Darnielle’s work through 14 diverse lenses. Some of these lead to great things (Andrew Bird’s spot-on Lou Reed impression on “Distant Stations”), and some fall flat (Mothers’ lethargic “Pink & Blue”). A front-to-back listen can be trying, but there’s still a lot of material here that even the purest of Mountain Goats fanatics will enjoy.

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