The music scene today is impossibly vast.
The sum total of radio stations, even more open-minded ones like The Current and Radio K, cannot absorb the sheer magnitude of cult favorites, local secrets, and promising upstarts that flood the orgy of blank stimulation known as the Internet.
As such, a band like The Mountain Goats can excel both critically and commercially enough to headline a show at First Avenue last Sunday (April 19), while many will have no idea who they are.
Here’s a quick introduction for curious souls.
The Mountain Goats
Indie. I know that’s not really a genre, but they’re hard ones to nail down. They might qualify as folk rock, but only in ways that term does not apply to Mumford and Sons.
Who are they?
Officially the Mountain Goats were “formed” in California in 1991. However, that basically amounted to singer/songwriter John Darnielle arbitrarily choosing a name and then recording onto a boombox in his college dorm.
The band achieved cult status long before evolving out of the college demo phase, making them one of the defining lo-fi underground acts in modern music. Darnielle’s songwriting vacillated between short stories and poetry, which he shouted into any recording device he could get his hands on regardless of quality. The draw was simple, unpretentious songwriting expressed with intensity of feeling instead of studio dollars. Over many years close friends evolved into classmates who evolved into a local fanbase who evolved into national acclaim.
That story could apply to any number of bands. What’s unique in this case is that it’s really unclear when any of this happened. It could be argued that every Mountain Goats fan, even today, is part of a close-knit tribe of misfits. Seminal hit All Hail West Texas, released well after the band was a distinct entity getting raves on Pitchfork, was recorded from Darnielle’s home in Ames, Iowa between part-time nursing shifts.
Today’s Goats are comprised of Darnielle, longtime bassist Peter Hughes, and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. They’ve moved away from fuzzy recordings in living rooms but remain one of the more stripped-down, unconventional outfits in modern music. Darnielle still writes lyrics like a young poet making sense of the world. His skills as a wordsmith were further evidenced by his excellent novel Wolf in White Van which was released last year and spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list with a National Book Award nomination.
Why should you care?
All of this you can learn on Wikipedia, but back story is somewhat important in this case.
I’ve had a few friends try and fail to get into the Mountain Goats. Their complaints centered around John Darnielle’s voice, which admittedly is unconventional and nasally and immediately drowns out everything it comes into contact with. For fans this isn’t something to muscle through. It’s the appeal.
It ensures this band will never ever be cool. You’ll never hear a Mountain Goats song on a commercial, even though I’m not sure they would be opposed to the idea. The closest thing I’ve seen to media crossover was the use of “No Children” on Adult Swim’s Moral Orel. These are stories or poems, individual units with little resale value beyond the warm feeling they bring to their fans. The subjects–drug abusers, disillusioned youth, bad marriages, and occasionally aliens–are maladjusted misfits, and to be a fan is to embrace that same defiantly individual spark in yourself. They refer back to when music was something you held in your hands, displayed on your shelf, and incorporated into your identity.
For better or worse, music today is something you click on and encounter during commercial breaks. What’s fascinating about the Mountain Goats is that their appeal transcends the internet. Fans don’t care about instant critical consensus or immediate pop recognition. They’re odd birds evolved from the dinosaurs who scrambled for bootleg recordings and rarities on cassette. I thought the new Sufjan record was miraculously good, but strapped for cash and forced to choose between the two big concerts this week, I didn’t think twice about which tickets I would buy.
Once you’re initiated into the cult, there’s really no such thing as a bad Mountain Goats record. It’s all just story, told by someone with a real knack for the telling. They can still be discovered accidentally, and there are always Goats tapes out there evading the internet, containing the kind of discontented guitar beat poetry fans crave.
Beat the Champ (Merge Records, 2015) is the first new album since 2012’s Transcendental Youth. The subject here, more specific than fans are used to, is the professional wrestling Darnielle grew up watching as a kid. Sometimes the stories are about his experience idolizing larger than life figures on TV. Sometimes they’re about the less satisfying lives these figures lived behind the scenes.
If there were such thing as a “minor” Goats record, this would be it. That definitely doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just doesn’t hit the full gamut of experience like their best work. Anyway I tend to judge their albums by tracks that would inspire my curiosity if I weren’t already a fan. “Foreign Object” falls into that camp. It includes the lyric, “Gonna jab you in the eye with a foreign object!/I will personally stab you in the eye with a foreign object!/Foreign object, foreign object, foreign object!”
That would definitely get my attention.
Where should you start?
All Hail West Texas (Emperor Jones, 2002)
You could try digging through a decade of lo-fi singles, but I don’t recommend it at first. All Hail West Texas is Darnielle’s last truly homemade production and it’s also his best. It might actually be the best album the Goats ever released. Texas pokes fun at the notion of a concept album, with a cover that reads, “Fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a lost treatment facility for boys.”
In other words the “concept” is life. There are more compelling characters and memorable stories on these fourteen tracks than most bands get to in a decade.
There’s the poor injured high school quarterback who discovers too late that “selling acid was a bad idea, and selling it to a cop was a worse one.”
There are Jeff and Cyrus, a pair of antisocial dreamers who “believed in their hearts they were headed for stage lights and leer jets and fortune and fame.” When one of them is sent to a correctional facility, Darnielle shouts in their defense, “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you! The best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you!” followed by a “Hail Satan!” for good measure.
And summing it all up is heartbreaking “Riches and Wonders,” where one sad loner admits, “I am healthy, I am whole, but I have poor impulse control. And I want to go home… but I am home.”
Goats fans learn to love that kind of desperate, unselfconscious admission of guilt. Darnielle has a seemingly bottomless capacity for empathy, and there’s not a song here lacking for moments that just bowl you over with their raw, incisive humanity.
This one also got a solid reissue from Merge in 2013 which I highly recommend checking out.
The Sunset Tree (4AD, 2005)
But Texas isn’t actually my favorite. That honor goes to Sunset Tree, in which Darnielle addresses his own life—specifically growing up with an abusive stepfather. This is probably the most recognizable to nonfans. The frustrated “This Year” was the band’s biggest radio hit, and it still gets trod out every New Years despite having nothing really to do with that season.
“Love Love Love” is my favorite track, exploring Darnielle’s complicated childhood through literature, current events, and pop mythology. It’s a simple monument to storytelling and the elusive subject it keeps grasping for unsuccessfully. I also love closer “Pale Green Things” in which he learns his stepfather has died and picks out one fond memory like a flower among weeds.
The Life of the World to Come (4AD, 2009)
This is the Mountain Goats’ most difficult album and also their most unique. By this point the current incarnation was fully formed, and they’d long-since transitioned from makeshift home setups to lush studio arrangements. However Life is anything but orchestral. Silence is a legitimate instrument here, and I don’t recommend listening while distracted. Every track is named after a verse in the Bible, but good luck guessing which ones without the track list handy.
I don’t think Darnielle is necessarily coming to terms with his Christian heritage. I think he’s just going back to an older kind of folk storytelling, much like his own, and finding some modern significance there. In any case it’s a bit maddening at times but also one of the more unique albums you’ll ever hear. It also rewards repeat listens.
When that’s through…
The Coroner’s Gambit (Absolutely Kosher, 2000)
Tallahassee (4AD, 2002)
Heretic Pride (4AD, 2008)
Transcendental Youth (Merge Records, 2012)
Photos Courtesy of: 4AD and Merge Records