Part of what makes the Mountain Goats the best band ever is the depth of material, which lends itself to various circles of obsession on par with the most fiendish Grateful Dead acolyte.
John Darnielle, otherwise known as the Mountain Goats, was never going to be in a band like R.E.M., or U2, or Radiohead. When compared to arena-topping bands of that ilk, it feels a little ridiculous to label them as THE Best Band Ever – they’ve only been a “real band” for about half their existence. Everyone has different gauges and metrics for what makes a band the best: perhaps your own Best Band Ever is in that spot because they’re envelope-pushers, or because they effortlessly reinvent themselves, or because they’re lyrically far smarter than anyone around them. With the exception of folks like Bob Dylan, few people who are defined solely by their lyrics ever ascend to the levels of “Best Ever” because of those lyrics alone. But Darnielle – who has over 800 known songs to his name and was once referred to by The New Yorker as “America’s best non-hip hop lyricist” – holds a true and legitimate claim for the title. If I’m honest, this is less about the best band ever, but more about the songwriter behind that band, who we’ll focus on.
For a little bit of background: the Mountain Goats is always John Darnielle (“Hi, we’re the Mountain Goats!” has been his onstage greeting since it was just him), and for a while it was just him, and sometimes bassist Rachel Ware, later Peter Hughes and the whirr of a cassette deck. Early recordings of the band were recorded straight to tape on a Panasonic boombox (namechecked in “No I Can’t,” best found on the collection Bitter Melon Farm). Today, Hughes still plays bass, alongside Superchunk drummer/Tom Scharpling sidekick Jon Wurster, as well as multi-instrumentalist chameleon Matt Douglas. As recently as this year’s In League with Dragons, the band has settled into a more band-like groove, but this sadly isn’t a substitute for the urgency of a man sitting in a room playing guitar the best he can and yelping directly into a tape deck.
Just what is it that makes him so good? Many, many things. It’s his ability to pen album-length autobiographies about his own harrows, namely an abusive stepfather (The Sunset Tree) and crippling drug addiction (We Shall All Be Healed), with profound grace and strength, mining every aspect of those hardships for ways to emotionally connect with the listener. The Mountain Goats started as Darnielle looking to add music to poetry he’d written, full of vivid imagery and heavily obscured meanings, a treasure trove for anyone dedicated enough to pick his songs apart. He’s penned album-length explorations of goth subculture (Goths), wrestling (Beat the Champ), and the Bible (The Life of the World to Come). From his earliest songs, he’s written about everything, from death (“Shadow Song”) and love (“02-75,” “It Froze Me”) to loneliness and isolation (“In Memory of Satan,” “Get Lonely”), even the plight of a shitty dysfunctional couple destroying each other across America – the Alpha Couple, the subject of too many songs to name as well as the whole of Tallahassee – all explored with empathy and an unimpeachable interest in mapping out the human condition.
This essay could simply be a series of paragraphs just talking about how damn many great songs he’s written; anyone could probably write 800 mediocre songs given enough time, but Darnielle has a superhuman batting average. Every Mountain Goats fan has lines they use to keep themselves alive, and ones they avoid because they speak too much to the fragile parts of our souls. It’s in things like “On the day that I forget you/ I hope my heart explodes” (“Twin Human Highway Flares”) or “Throw your better self overboard/ Shoot him when he comes up for air” (“Heel Turn 2”), or even tattoo-worthy ones like “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive” (“Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1”) and “Feast when you can/ And dream when there’s nothing to feast on” (“Steal Smoked Fish”). He’s also hilarious sometimes, penning couplets such as “I’m perfectly aware of where our love stands/ But the plain fact is that you owe me eight grand” (“Alpha Desperation March”), but he’ll also make you cry harder than just about anybody: who gave him permission to write things like “Die hard/ Die kicking/ Old habit of mine” (“Waving at You”) and “I thought of old friends/ The ones who’d gone missing/ Said all their names three times/ Phantoms in the early dark/ Canaries in the mines” (“Maybe Sprout Wings”)?
Part of what makes the Mountain Goats the best band ever is the depth of material, which lends itself to various circles of obsession on par with the most fiendish Grateful Dead acolyte. Those seeking more than just what Spotify can deliver can fall down substantial rabbit holes: much of Darnielle’s work does not exist in (legally) digital form – his earliest work, put solely on teeny runs of cassettes and 7”s are out there if you want to dig further in past his official albums; we’ll cover this below in the “Deep Cuts” section.
Then there’s his substantial catalog of unreleased works, either played live a handful of times or put out as one-offs via one of his many blogs or his sporadic email newsletter, “The Mountain Goats Almanac and Star Chart.” Various torrents and zip folders exist in the seedier parts of the internet, and even these have a tendency to be incomplete – good luck tracking down “For the Krishnacore Bands” or “Washing My Face” unless you know the right old fan. Worry not, though, even if you don’t want to download Soulseek, you can still access hundreds of great songs on your preferred streaming platform.
I know what you’re thinking: “This sounds absolutely dizzying.” And you’d be correct – it’s just too much to take in all at once. It took me years to appreciate the hiss of his lo-fi material, vast swathes of which require some internet sleuthing. But if you’re intrigued, follow my lead:
Start Here: This all depends on your feelings about recording quality. If asked, most fans of the band will give one of two answers: The Sunset Tree (hi-fi) or All Hail West Texas (lo-fi), each considered the best representations of what a Mountain Goats album sounds like. If you want to pursue a dark horse beginner’s point and don’t mind a little tape hiss, Full Force Galesburg is one of his best, containing indispensable gems like “Masher,” “Maize Stalk Drinking Blood,” and “Minnesota.”
Next Steps: We Shall All Be Healed is perhaps the most cohesive album he’s put out to date, challenging and painful (this is his drug addiction record) and containing more than a couple songs that simply couldn’t exist anywhere else. If you find yourself gravitating towards his more stripped-back and fuzzy material, The Coroner’s Gambit is your best bet for exactly the same reasons. These two can push back against you for many reasons, but are probably the most rewarding.
From there… whatever floats your boat? This year’s In League With Dragons is his best in years, and albums like Heretic Pride and All Eternals Deck contain tMG classics like “Heretic Pride” and “Estate Sale Sign,” a song I never miss an opportunity to plug. For the lo-fi lovers, debut full-length Zopilote Machine and its follow-up Sweden – “Grendel’s Mother” and “Going to Queens” are classics.
Deep Cuts: Darnielle has written and released over 800 songs, leaving no shortage of deep cuts. Many of his best songs await those patient enough to dig past his albums, tucked away in EPs and the rarities collections of Soulseek hoarders. YouTuber NotAsFarWest has done miraculous work to catalog many of his rarities and unreleased songs for the general public, including EPs and cassettes not available on streaming services. Devil in the Shortwave’s “Commandante,” Isopanisad Radio Hour’’s “Cobscook Bay,” and New Asian Cinema’s “Narakaloka” are all essential, as are unreleased songs like “You Were Cool,” “Scavenger Babies” and “We Shall All Be Healed.”
Approach with Caution: With the Mountain Goats, there aren’t any bad records, just ones you may not like as much as others. Your interest in wrestling, goth subcultures and the Bible will influence your tolerance for Beat the Champ, Goths (which the band released proudly proclaiming “NO COMPED VOCALS, NO PITCH CORRECTION, NO GUITARS”), and The Life of the World to Come, though each of these are still very easy to fall in love with. The Life of the World to Come is the most difficult of the hi-fi records, a lonely and sometimes isolating collection of Darnielle’s interpretations of various Bible verses, each confusingly named for the passage in question (good luck trying to remember “Hebrews 11:40” or “1 Samuel 15:23” without having to double-check the lyrics to jog your memory).
See Also: Oh, gosh, where to begin? Musically, you should pick up Martial Arts Weekend and Undercard by The Extra Lens (also called The Extra Glenns), Darnielle’s band with Franklin Bruno of Nothing Painted Blue. You can find him on “Coffee” by Aesop Rock from None Shall Pass, too. If you know where to look, there also exists a practice tape of the Seneca Twins, his 1995 band with his wife Lalitree – it’s by far the most primitive tape of his, and was never actually released. And if you’re feeling sneaky (and like defying Darnielle’s requests), you can track down the unreleased Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg, his sequel to Sweden.
If you enjoy Darnielle as a writer in general, however, you’re in luck – he has three books to his name: Wolf in White Van (the story of a reclusive young man who created a mail-in, turn-based adventure game), Universal Harvester (in which the bored employees at a small-town Iowa video store unpack the mystery behind several eerie tapes), and a 33 ⅓ volume about Black Sabbath’s Masters of Reality, written in epistolary form. Oh, right, and there’s “I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats,” his podcast with “Welcome to Night Vale” creator Joseph Fink, in which he dissects All Hail West Texas and In League With Dragons song-by-song, or “Last Plane to Jakarta,” his old blog for miscellaneous writing, album reviews (his track-by-track review of Radiohead’s Amnesiac is worth an afternoon’s worth of reading), and various other musings (my personal favorite: “101 THINGS TO WHICH YOU CAN COMPARE INTERPOL BESIDES JOY DIVISION”), which is way better than it sounds. Also, his Twitter account is very active and often hilarious.
If you find yourself sucked into this world and need as much information as you can get, many resources exist to assist with the addiction. The aforementioned NotAsFarWest is an invaluable resource, as are Kyle Barbour’s The Annotated Mountain Goats (which contains song-by-song annotation for everything through 2011’s All Eternals Deck) and the Mountain Goats Wikia (which contains everything from stage banter transcripts and lists of shows where each song has been played). Beware, though, these resources will put you on the path to the vast galaxy of live bootlegs that exists within the Internet Archive, allowing you to listen in on his songs can change when played live, and how charming his stage banter can be. I say this as someone who is bored by the idea of bootlegs of shows I didn’t see: if not for the ability to pursue these recordings, and hear shows like his 2014 Farm Sanctuary benefit show, the Somerville Theater in 2009, or Holocene in 2017 – the show I attended that made me hunt down a recording to hear those songs again – I may not have written close to two thousand words about the man’s work.
The wonderful thing about all of this is that, no matter how daunting it all seems, there is no wrong way to approach his music. If you go no further than Full Force Galesburg and The Sunset Tree, you’re doing just fine. And that’s really what makes the band the Best Band Ever: they ask you to dive in however feels most comfortable, from casual listenership to frothing obsession. However you approach it, the end result is the same: you’ll immerse yourself in some of the most brilliant, witty, and feelings-intensive songwriting around, which beats the pants off of even the best arena rockers any day of the week.