Well, it happened—we posted a late episode. Roughly three days late, which is quite a delay. There wasn’t much that could be done about it (since I was editing it, the file was at the mercy of several unreliable Austin internet connections, none of which were super capable of uploading such a large file). In penance (and maybe as a sort of exorcism), here are the collected notes for both episodes—9235 words over the course of 16 albums. I can’t promise there’s anything enlightening here; again, this more about offering a peek into the process of researching for these episodes. But if you’re curious, this is what happens when an over-caffeinated Mountain Goats fan is given two weeks to ramble. Enjoy?
The Mountain Goats—Lo-Fi
So! What is the Lo-Fi Era, and Why Does it Work?
- First, it’s not entirely lo-fi—after Zopilote Machine, there’s a wide range of fidelity.
- But the iconic sound of the era is the Panasonic RX-FT500, marked by an inability to adjust to dynamics (i.e. easily overwhelmed, very sensitive) and a telltale gear grinding noise.
- It’s also important to note that all of these songs, and all of his songs up till The Sunset Tree (except for You’re in Maya) are not autobiographical (by his own claim). They are all characters, different narrators.
- Casette tape culture (Shrimper, Ajax, etc.)
- What makes it work: A uniquely aggressive and rhythmic approach to the acoustic guitar (which might explain his mutual love for Kaki King)
- The charm in his voice, that I know people hate, but that I love, oh, how I love it.
- Big thanks to Kyle Barbour (the Seth Tisue of tMG) and the Annotated Mountain Goats for helping us with quotes and the like.
- BUT in general, along with the off-the-cuff charm that haunts all of lo-fi’s ilk, what makes this era work for me is that it feels like the most idiosyncratic Darnielle on the market. If you want all the weird flaws, obsessions, off-kilter humor, shambling aesthete, the boy who loves Spandau Ballet and death metal and everything inbetween but only owns a Panasonic boombox and an acoustic guitar, this is it, pure and simple.
Zopilote Machine (1994)
- Oh god, I can’t claim to be objective here—the minute Alpha Incipiens comes on I’m in it, it all comes back, I’m sold. “THE ONLY THING KNOW IS THAT I LOVE YOU AND I’M HOLDING OOOOOONN”
- My memory of this is that it’s the most homogenous of the lot, entirely lo-fi. But it’s incredibly warm in a way he wouldn’t be again for a while.
- And here’s the thing—give me a title, I wouldn’t know what song you’re talking about. But play the song and within 10 seconds I’ll be singing along, even in this album, which I listened to the least. It’s almost subliminal at this point.
- Series represented here: Alpha songs, Orange Ball, and Going to [blank].
- We Have Seen the Enemy (“and the wild dogs are hungry”) has some really interesting dynamic shifts.
- All of this said, and this may be somewhat due to the fact that it’s an album I haven’t listened to as much, this album feels less sticky than Sweden or Galesburg. A lot of styles he did better elsewhere (like all over Ghana) are represented here, and are pleasant, but hard to remember.
- Although dang, Bad Priestess is one of my favorites and I forget about it all the time. It’s got that New Order melodicism.
- Grendel’s Mother is pretty typical, but the “I will carry you home in my teeth” line is still heartbreaking.
- Song for Tura Santana is the first appearance, for our purposes, of that god danged Casio. Your mileage will vary—occasionally I find it charming, but often it’s too tinny and repetitive to work. Case in point—I actually like this song, at its core, but I can’t listen to it.
- Alpha in Taurus: A lovely example of Darnielle’s knack for specificity.
- Going to Georgia: A Classic, a crowd favorite, a great lyrical moment. The slowing down at the beginning highlights Darnielle’s preference for immediacy and not having too many takes. Of course.
- “The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it’s you, and that you’re standing in the doorway.”
- Of course, the fact that the next line is “and you smile as you ease the gun from my hand” shows this line to be a lot less sweet than usually assumed.
- “An encore staple for the band, John has played this song many, many times live. There is a fantastic authorship story in which John was robbed on his way to buy cigarettes at a gas station on Christmas Eve, two days before writing the song, and was therefore unable to buy cigarettes, hence the aggression in the lyrics. Letters to Santa, Chicago, December 7, 2011.
- In recent years, he has repudiated the song for its purported misogynistic streak. “I don’t play ‘Going to Georgia’ any more because I can’t really reconcile how buoyant it is with how much I dislike its narrator — when I wrote it, I enjoyed that tension, but I was more of an aesthete then and now I think more with my gut. My gut tells me the whole deal with ‘Going to Georgia’ is bogus, so that’s that. A better song would be one from the perspective of the person whose former partner has shown up on the porch of his/her house with a damn gun, that’s the hero of the song whose story is more interesting from where I’m at now. “
- Quetzcoatl is Born is my favorite track on the album and, much like something like Alpha Omega or Bluebirds and Cardinals, shows just how effective Darnielle can be when he reaches out from his melodic safe zones.
Beautiful Rat Sunset (1994)
- New Star Song is another personal favorite, and almost certainly the centerpiece of the EP.
- Song for Cleomenes is a history song, like Anglo-Saxons, and works really well, if only for the sheer energy and drama of the guitar.
- The Mountain Goats release consistently excellent EPs, as is evident from how well collections like Ghana and Protein Source of the Future…Now! work as albums. Most of his best work is found in this realm, and it’s unfortunate that we can’t include them.
- Something that occurs to me as I start this—I have never ventured to listen to these albums in chronological order. I wonder if I end up noticing anything. I’m especially curious as to when the albums start feeling more like albums.
- The Recognition Song definitely feels like an opener, with a weird drama to its simple four chord progression. They sound like power chords too, making it even more stripped down.
- There’s an increased presence of the Black Mountain Choir and Peter Hughes on here—Some Swedish Trees and Deianara Crush (“you told me that Hercules died burning”) are within a track of each other. It’s charmingly awkward and jovial, if not as intensive as the John and guitar stuff.
- Whole Wide World is a really beautiful song that has a tendency to slip by—the whispers are some ASMR shit, and a pretty serious contrast in terms of Darnielle’s usual voice.
- Flashing Lights (“empty promises, empty promises”) follows well, with an uptick in tempo but still soft in its dynamics, sort of showing how you do this sort of thing well.
- Sept 16 (“I will do as I am told, I will keep away the cold”) feels of a piece with The Recognition Scene—although it occurs to me, are these distinctions apparent to most people? Or is it something you only start picking out when you’ve listened to these songs just so so so much?
- Going to Queens (“the ghostly sing song of the children playing double dutch”) is a good palette cleanser, at any rate, with cleaner production, the Choir, and a different approach.
- Tahitian Ambrosia Maker is the start of what generally feels like a slump in the album for me, but that has to be a matter of taste—it has a very different vibe, and I could see people loving it for that.
- Maybe I’m wrong here, actually—Going to Bolivia is a classic. And Tollund Man, with its airy guitar and chord progression similar to “Take a Picture” is really great too. I guess I just don’t like TAM.
- California Song though—and that keyboard. I can’t do it.
- Snow Crush Killing Song (“damn you, god damn you for that”)
- FM: Controversial opinion: John Darnielle does terrible covers. I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone from earlier on is a good example, but Pet Politics and Druglife are the most egregious. The desire to try something different is admirable, but the new take usually doesn’t add anything, and often makes the song worse. FM is an exception—it takes a Steely Dan song and makes it raw and propulsive.
- Cold Milk Bottle is one of his best closers, and there’s stiff competition. Almost everything great about lo-fi Mountain Goats is on this song—a deep well of (enumerate, dammit!)
Nine Black Poppies (1995)
- Another wildly fun ep. Cubs in Five is another MG staple (that, 21 years after this recording, finally became outdated!), with a great sense of humor and a wild, off the cuff feel that makes this era so great (plus, Peter Hughes on back up vocals!)
- Going to Utrecht has some lovely electric guitar that sounds a lot like Franklin Bruno, although I haven’t checked on that.
- Cheshire County has one of those great between-strum licks that would happen a lot more on Full Force Galesburg.
- Nine Black Poppies feels a lot like Hot Garden Stomp, but a little more sophisticated (or a more gothic Song for Cleomenes). Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up in the air, but there’s a lot to love here.
- Lonesome Surprise is really cute. Construction-wise, it’s fairly typical MGs fare, despite being a cover of a Refrigerator song (evidence of Darnielle’s habit of subsuming whatever he covers), but Allan Callaci singing the chorus over the phone is fantastic. He sounds weirdly bluesy here, less strained than he does on record, and the whole thing has a tossed together, friendly fun kind of feel. Apparently this was recorded at a Swedish radio station, and Allen really was on the phone. Pretty great stuff.
Nothing for Juice (1996)
- I almost never listen to this album—it has a reputation of being one of his more hi-fi works from this period, but personally I’ve just always found it weird and spotty—but let’s see how this goes.
- Heights is a good early indicator of my vibe for this album—dark, minor key, off-kilter.
- The redone Alpha Double Negative is fine—breezier, as the black mountain choir stuff often is. But it lacks the more desperate feel of the original. It’s a good test case for the lo-fi vs. hi-fi debate though—because it is lovely, and has a soft beauty that isn’t in the original. But it also feels less, in every sense of the phrase.
- Bloodless is the word I’m looking for. Everything feels muted. Fun, charming, generally inoffensive, still, and John Darnielle has enough personality that I would follow him to the ends of the earth. But it doesn’t grab me.
- Oh, that’s right—I hate Moon & Sand. It’s cheesy and sounds like the trailer theme to a romance novel. I get that that’s probably the point, but that doesn’t make it any nicer to listen to. (Note: it’s apparently a cover from a Chet Baker album. Nothing excuses it.)
- It Froze Me is the first song I actually genuinely like on this album—and it’s track 9.
- Full Flower is another interesting test case—the distorted guitar feels like an attempt to reach that same overwhelming quality you get with just John and the Panasonic, but it feels a bit hollow, still. Loud without power. God I really don’t like this album.
- Going to Kansas is yet another example of going heavy electric for ill effect. It just doesn’t quite work, John. It’s weird to call a song from as old a tape as the Hound Chronicles a better version, but it really is.
- Waving at You is maybe the only stone-cold classic on here. Scary, heartbreaking, haunting, hypnotic.
- I take it back—Going to Reykjavik is gorgeous, and the combination between Panasonic voice and studio instrumentation is really interesting and works surprisingly well.
Full Force Galesburg (1997)
- New Britain gets this going with a bang, a great combination of that tumbling-down-a-mountain guitar pattern and some unique open chords.
- Snow Owl is where that acoustic New Order album comes from, really—the “solo” part feels very Sumner.
- With West Country Dream and Masher the pattern continues, aggressive lo fi song into slower hi fi song, although that descending 12 string line in Masher (“I am losing control of the language again”) continues the New Order thing. It’s a favorite for me.
- All the way up to Down Here and every song is wonderful. Ontario (“there was nothing in it but pain for me”) will always make me think of Spring.
- Twin Human Highway Flares is a Darnielle favorite that’s since become one of mine, the lyrics are just so warm and evocative. Him playing this the first (or second? Jeez) time I saw him was a such a joy.
- OK, I’m sick, I admit it, as I’m writing this, I am sick, hunched over in a coffee shop, trying to do work but frankly unable to do anything, and this album playing through my ears is so warm that I do not feel nearly as scared or alienated as I frankly should be.
- Maize Stalk Drinking Blood is my favorite Mountain Goats song. Probably. Ask me another day and I’ll change my mind. But this thing is beautiful and strange and I will brook no aggression towards it. I could literally cry right now. Go away, this isn’t for you, it’s for everyone.
- Alistair Glabraith (of the Bats!) really makes Evening in Stalingrad. His string arrangements elsewhere (Raja Vocative) always rubbed me the wrong way but these fit the vibe so well.
- Minnesota is another personal favorite. I don’t know why I always remembered this album as being great but spotty—thus far, there’s really not a bad song on here.
The Coroner’s Gambit (2000)
- You just can’t beat this album!
- According to an interview, the album’s theme of death arose organically, after noticing some common threads between songs on an early version of the album.
- Apparently, a lot of the more direct references to a dead friend (in Shadow Song and “Bluejays and Cardinals”), specifically the Rozz in the liner notes, refers to Rozz Williams of Christian Death
- Jaipur comes blazing out the gates, with a bid of mood setting sampling (“This House is So Haunted”) and then some just barn burning guitar work that maxes out the mic and bleeds through everything.
- Elijah uses the violin and the whispers that we’ve heard before, but they’re fuzzier than ever, the violin somewhat out of tune, something distant, peaceful, haunted about the whole experience. And the way his voice cracks on “let the incense burn in every room” just kills me.
- Trick Mirror: AND BLOOD WILL ROLL THROUGH THE STREETS OF ROME TODAY.
- Seriously Though, Trick Mirror:
- Island Garden Song is a sentimental favorite. No big themes, no death, no historical significance, just a peaceful, desperate solitude.
- Coroner’s Gambit has a parable vibe to it, especially with the direct references to death and rollicking, folksy vibe.
- Baboon is an interesting counterpoint to Family Happiness, I think, since they’re both very very aggressive songs, but Baboon, in spite of its vicious lyrics and the addition of drums, feels a little hollow compared to Family Happiness. It’s still wonderful though.
- Scotch Grove is good, especially the bit about the drawers and the smoking gun, but of the two tracks I gave up from this album early on (weird nomenclature, I know), Horseradish Road is a lot better.
Speaking of, a quote on Horseradish Road: “It’s another one of these songs I’ve been working on lately where people’s love for one another degenerates into a horrible poisonous hatred. And when they think about how much — how good it was at one point, it just — you want to say it breaks their hearts, but at the same time you know it doesn’t, because they just keep plugging along, and you keep saying, ‘Oh boy, wouldn’t it be great if somebody could just kill you because, you know, you can’t kill yourself, you know that’s wrong, and you know it would be fucked up and all your friends would be mad at you and so would your family, but if some kind, well-meaning guy would just come along and end it for you, you know, blame’s off you.’ That’s what this song is about.”
- Family Happiness is a monster, and a good example of just how maximalist Darnielle was able to make the lo-fi aesthetic (there’s a link to the Microphones here, in terms of pushing things into the red). The sound just drowns you—hell, it almost drowns him, except that he’s too spiteful to die here. The last shouted “you can arm me to the teeth, you can’t make me go to war” just KILLS me. If, for some reason, you need this era defended in one song, here it is, eat it, fucker!
- Onions is charming, and it’s work thinking about how many songs Darnielle has written about gardening, on this album and elsewhere (check the Sun Songs, etc.)
- “Bluejays and Cardinals” is a beautiful song, a great example of how much Darnielle can hit your heart with his energetic strums, as well as the sort of odd open chords he uses, things that morph and bend under the aggression of that pick.
- The Shadow Song, which, like Bluejays, is also about Rozz, is another heartbreaker, simple, sliding, campfire lament sort of thing. “If you get there before me, will you save me a seat” is yet another example of Darnielle’s knack for gut-wrenching mundanity.
- There Will Be No Divorce is a quiet love song, the kind that Darnielle can so almost effortlessly, and that we’ll see a lot more in the future with San Bernadino and Get Lonely.
- Insurance Fraud #2 is a classic piece of Mountain Goats humor, dark, half-real/half-cartoonish, with a broken heart beneath.
- The Alphonse Mambo is one of my favorite Alpha songs, next to Alpha Omega. It’s infectiously desperate, which is maybe a watch word for all these songs, but especially that line “I just wanna get this whole thing over with/I don’t wanna deal with it anymore”
- We Were Patriots is to this day the only song I know how to play on banjo. It feels like an epilogue. It’s small and sweet and beautiful and I adore it.
Side Bar on Protein Source of the Future…Now!, Bitter Melon Farm, and Ghana
- the above ^ is the ur-example of how awful Pitchfork’s concept reviews could be. “From the Pitchfork Junior High production of ‘Waiting for Darnielle’” A god damn one act play in place of a review.
- Songs I have to talk about here
- The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix’s Life
- Alpha Omega
- The Bad Doctor
- No I Can’t
- Golden Boy
- Please Come Home to Hamngatan
All Hail West Texas (2002)
- Here we are—if you know one lo-fi Mountain Goats album, it’s this one. I don’t know why—it seems more widely available, but it’s an Emperor Jones joint, so I can’t imagine that’s actually true.
- Maybe it’s because of The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton, which is the closest thing to a crowd favorite this era produced outside of Going to Georgia. It’s a great song though, charming, hopeful, quirky—all the things that make this band so great.
- The Fall of the High School Running Back is maybe the most explicitly story-like “story-song” from this era, and it works as a sad little moment with a bit of dark humor (like that Biggie line).
- Color in Your Cheeks is a firm favorite of Mountain Goats fans across this great nation. The idea that, after years of songs about travelers, there would be a song shining a light on the couch they come to sleep on, on the temporary home, is a pretty brilliant one, and it holds all the pathos you’d expect.
- Jenny confirms how youthful this album feels to me, which is funny, since I don’t think I bought it until I was like, 17. “The pirate’s life for me”, you know? I feel it.
- Fault Lines is not an Alpha couple song, but sounds like one. It also has a vibe to it that Darnielle would call out later on in that Smog song “Anniversary”, the idea that goddammit, we’re stuck here together, we’re miserable together, we aren’t getting out of this one, we’re together.
- I don’t care for Balance. It feels like a weaker return to that Gambit sound.
- Pink and Blue is another very sweet song, although it feels a little slight, and together with Balance feels like a mid-album slump, sorta. Good chorus though.
- Riches and Wonders, though, along with Mess Inside, represents the peak of this album for me, the most gorgeous and hopeful ballad, next to the most triumphant and despairing call to arms.
- Jeff Davis County Blues keeps it going though, sleepy traveler music again, with a stretch of hopelessness, and dreaming. Good horizon-scanning music.
- Ok I’m gonna retitle that stretch to Riches and Wonders through Distant Stations, and I’d stretch it to the marvelous Source Decay if I could, but dangit, Blues in Dallas is in the way, and though it’s charming I really have no patience for this casio stuff.
- Ugh, I take it back, Blues in Dallas is perfectly charming and fits really well here pacing-wise, and the casio is just in the background being smooth.
- This is an album for driving on an empty Texas highway late at night. I should know—I did that a lot, and this album always worked in that context.
- This is also the shortest MG album we’re covering today, at 14 tracks, and I still feel like it could be brilliant if it were shorter. Why don’t I feel that elsewhere?
- Like, cut Balance and Blues in Dallas, and this would so much better. But maybe I’m cranky. I’m definitely cranky.
- The Sign (Ace of Base Cover)
- Alpha Incipiens
- Going to Georgia
- The Recognition Scene
- FM (Steely Dan Cover)
- Cubs in Five
- Lonesome Surprise
- Waving at You
- Snow Owl
- Evening in Stalingrad
- Family Happiness
- The Alphonse Mambo
- The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix’s Life
- Alpha Omega
- The Best Death Metal Band in Denton
- Color in Your Cheeks
- Golden Boy
The Annotated Mountain Goats
Some preliminary notes, or things to bring up
- And it begins! With John Darnielle, Peter Hughes, and John Vanderslice in a studio, cutting a record about the Alpha Couple.
- The start isn’t too jarring—a lovely, repetitive bassline, gentler than Hughes usually does, under a very Mountain Goats chord progression, and—a big addition—the sudden appearance of space.
- It does something to the album, the space—where before Mountain Goats were all bluster, sound, fullness, an intimacy born of unfiltered delivery—here there’s an incredible loneliness. John Darnielle has never sounded so, well, small.
- I can imagine it being weird to see this band on 4AD, but on this song, it makes sens.
- First Few Desperate Hours feels more akin to the hi-fi work done before, with a more propulsive, jumpy bass, some light percussion, etc.
- Same with Southwood Plantation Road, which feels a lot like a Nothing for Juice song, but more chilled out. Structure wise, it’s the most classic Mountain Goats song to yet appear, wild strumming and yelp cadences.
- The twinkling reverbed guitar and brushed cymbals on Game Shows Touch Our Lives again add a new sonic palette, a more spacious and lonely one, that makes a great set of lyrics really feel at home
- And that’s another thing—the lyrics seem to have jumped up a bit, with less use of clichés and much more specificity. Is it because these are all about the Alpha Couple?
- The House That Dripped Blood shows the first real weakness of this style of production—it can’t smolder and burn like it used to. When I talked about hi-fi era sounding anemic next to Family Happiness, this is what I mean—the fuzz bass and harmonica can’t compensate.
- That said, the dueling, wheezing harmonicas at the end are pretty cool.
- Idylls of the King is a personal favorite. The soft jazz vibe works so well, and is an aesthetic touch that fits this kind of MG song that he just couldn’t do before.
- No Children is, of course, a classic, my first Mountain Goats song and a live staple, often for encores. The lyrics are fantastic, of course, but it’s worth looking too at how odd a song this is at this point for the MGs. It’s jaunty, almost, with heavy piano, following a more complex descending chord structure in the interludes than ever before. And while the verse is safe ground for them, the chorus has a warmth and drama that he’s just never done before. It really is a landmark for them, and would be even without “I hope you die/I hope we both die”
- A brief memory of hearing this song as an iTunes clip at first and, because of where the clip started and ended, thinking that the sentence was “In my life, I hope I lie and tell everyone you were a good wife and I hope you die.”
- See America Right is the beginning of what MGs would do often when they wanted to approximate the fury of the lo-fi era—stomping drums, distorted vocals, very heavy bass, etc. It often comes off pretty cheesy and out of place, but here it actually works. A lot of credit here goes to Peter Hughes, whose bassline really carries it, and it’s production, which never allows it to really spike. While this flattening effect would be a detriment elsewhere, here it gives the song a really unique quality that offsets its more Lovecraft in Brooklyn
- Peacocks is lovely, in an effortless way that hi-fi Mountain Goats would soon become known for.
- International Small Arms Traffic Blues is a classic MG exploration of one conceit over a sleepily winding guitar line (see Please Come Back to Hamngatan). It works, if not quite as well.
- Have to Explode sounds like Distant Stations, like, almost exactly, and it’s only the next album. The lyrics save it though.
- Oceanographers Choice is a great climax, bringing us back after a bit of a slump. It has the most Vanderslice influence in it, with backwards guitars and a lot of heavy panning.
- Alpha Rats Nest Works on me in ways I don’t understand.
We Shall All Be Healed (2004)
- A step closer to The Sunset Tree—not about John himself, but about real people he knew in his youth. All these tweakers
- A more energetic start, with some nice atmosphere in the weird wailing string part in the background. Again, the lyrics seem to be providing most of the energy here. “Get in the goddamn car” adds a lot to the mood of the song that all the broken glass SFX in the world can’t manage.
- Palmcorder Yajna gets the energy and pacing that Tallahassee grasped at weakly, with a confidence and swagger that See America Right couldn’t hope to fake. A genuinely enjoyable pop song. A genuinely good song that only hi-fi Mountain Goats could pull off.
- Listening to this album in the early afternoon, on a couch, with the light through the windows, bored and doing work, feels especially appropriate. Casual, everyday, lined with desperation.
- Linda Blair Was Born Innocent is another format that is a hi-fi Mountain Goats staple—terse strumming, string plucks, a bass line that seems meant for a different song, but works
- Letter from Belgium feels like it’s reaching for Palmcorder but can’t pull it off, save, again, for John Darnielle’s lyrics and singing. I’m starting to understand their reputation for being a lyrics-first band—in this era, there are a lot of weak songs that are completely saved by them.
- Literally the words here stick more than any actual hook—the “we could always use more electrical equipment” line specifically.
- The weird noise at the end kind of emphasizes how little the odd production touches really add.
- That said, as negative as I’ve been song by song, I do dig the vibe of these albums, and listen to them with joy.
- Young Thousands brings us right back, in another quietly triumphant song about losers. Classic Darnielle.
- Your Belgian Things could pretty easily fall by the wayside, but I dunno—it’s lovely, casual, charming. It works.
- The fact remains that, while many bands share aesthetics with hi-fi Mountain Goats, there’s still no one else that sounds quite like this
- It reminds me of REM that way, although with more immediate and approachable points of reference.
- Mole continues this neat trick Darnielle has, of sounding so familiar without ever sounding like, “Oh, I know this song”
- The verse also sounds a bit like I Remember You by the Silver Jews, and a bit not.
- All Up the Seething Coast sounds like a new kind of song for this band, and that’s still worth callin gout everytime it happens. Jazzy, lonely, speak-sung. It sounds the most like the desert at night
- Oh jeez, I forgot about Cotton, but I adore this song. This song is for the people who adore this song, which includes yours truly.
- This is something strange, an album that doesn’t come alive till the back half. But while the first stretch only really has Palmcorder Yajna, from Mole on every song is gem.
- I’m not sure what it is—age, space, context—that causes Darnielle’s lyrics to stretch out so in this era. But he continues to create a great deal with such limited tools.
- Biggest surprise? Maybe! Get back to me in two days when I’m mostly dead.
The Sunset Tree (2005)
- I’m going to be digging into this more tomorrow, but, hm, it did not hold up as well as I was hoping. The lyrics, in particular, are really bad throughout, a sharp decline from We Shall All Be Healed.
- I’m coming at this again, from the back seat, with the annotated notes. I’m going to get this album or die trying.
- You or Your Memory is a great first track, story start, prelude, setup, etc. It has that same sort of pensively locomotive rhythm as Slow West Vultures—the feeling of building up steam. And the scene setting is perfect, even better than a lot of We Shall All Be Healed.
- Broom People starts to lose me, lyrically. Musically, it’s great, with a surprisingly overdriven bassline from Peter Hughes and some gorgeous piano.
- But lyrically it feels almost parodic. The scene setting takes his penchant for listing surrounding objects to an extreme, and then populates it with not terribly evocative items, then caps them off with some teen angst (“Friends who don’t have a clue”, “I write down good reasons to freeze to death”) and some just awful awful romanticism (“But in the long tresses of your hair I am a babbling brook” may be the worst line he’s ever written).
- I can see the argument that this comes from him trying to embody a teenage mindset, and a teenage voice, but if that’s the case it comes off more like a pose than verisimilitude.
- The story he tells about it on stage is better. Where are those details dude?
- And furthermore, why am I treating this like a writing workshop?
- This Year is Springsteen as fuck, and actually makes good on the first-person teenage voice. As a twist on Born to Run, it works really well, in a way that it wouldn’t in a different context.
- Dilaudid is fine, if a little problematic, lyrically. Musically, it is trying so hard for drama that it just feels confused and overbearing.
- Dance Music is charming as heck, it just is.
- Something that occurs to me, reading that John had to drink to get through the sessions—like, yeah, the lyrics aren’t as good, or as well-written at least, as before. But maybe that’s because he couldn’t spend time with them. Maybe it was all he had just to get the basics on paper. Maybe I’m being condescending, I dunno. I will say now, however, that if I end up hating the album, it won’t be because of the lyrics
- Dinu Lipatti’s Bones is a wonderful song, with one of my favorite chord progressions from John and a really delicate vocal take. And again, just utterly gorgeous piano work.
- Up the Wolves, meanwhile, is perfectly fine, but a little dry, and really similar to a lot of other songs without anything (a melody, a line, a production trick [outside the organ]) to help it stick out.
- Lion’s Teeth, while lyrically very intense, again feels a little musically ridiculous. I don’t know if it’s the production or what, but so few of these songs really hit the mark, sonically.
- Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod is the kind of simple, forceful story that feels like it would fit really well in the lo-fi era. Here, again, it doesn’t stand out much, but I enjoy it.
- Magpie, on the other hand, is another weird minor key bit with random flourishes that just doesn’t at all work for me.
- And on the other other hand, there’s Song for Dennis Brown, is both a song that could fit in the lo-fi era and a song that I really genuinely love either way.
- It’s also lyrically very different in tone which, along with You or Your Memory, might explain why they hold up better for me. This just captures the world John is trying to convey so well (so does Tetrapod, actually, while we’re at it).
- Love Love Love has a conceit that I remember being really into when I first heard it, and that I really hate now. Especially with the Cobain reference at the end, which feels cheap.
- Pale Green Things, on the other hand, is one of my favorite closers, a beautiful memory that takes on so much from the album that comes before it, recorded exactly the way it should be, and the way John dips into his lower register for the chorus gets me every time.
- A bit of Pitchfork actually saying it best as a side note: Brandon Stosuy, in an otherwise somewhat insufferable review of this album, makes a really good point about the Mountain Goats that I think will go a long way toward explaining Andrew and I’s different affections: “Something I subconsciously learned when I was younger that I’m just now understanding is that the Mountain Goats sound best after obsessively replaying each track until they become as familiar as your own personal memories.”
Get Lonely (2006)
Heretic Pride (2008)
- Here we go motherfuckers! An album I remember loving, and an album I have not revisited at all since (unlike Get Lonely). Let’s see how it goes.
- This is the first album (I believe) with Jon Wurster as an official member, and he does an incredible job, adding an energy that complements John and Peter’s well rather than mimicking John’s strumming pattern the way drums often did in the past.
- Sax Rohmer #1 busts out the get unlike any MG opener before it, save for maybe Jaipur. I remember how genuinely excited I was when I popped the album in and this came on, and I still feel it now.
- San Bernadino is a slow second track, Elijah style, but the frantic note picking gives it a nervous energy that compliments the story well—and it’s a beautiful story. Something we maybe didn’t get into last week, is how much genuine affection John seems to have for the characters in his stories. That’s something he has over, say, Stephen Meritt.
- That said, the shit about Eden is actually, genuinely cheesy. C’mon dude.
- Heretic Pride is another stunning showcase for Wurster, and was a revelation to see live. The idea behind the song, of “enthusiastic role acceptance” and the idea that no one lives life to the fullest like a martyr is infectious. But it’s genuinely propulsive, reaching skyward, in a way that the band just couldn’t do before. Progress!
- After this my memory of the album gets murky (an issue that comes with what I think at the time I thought was frontloading), so I’m hesitant about what’s to come. Autoclave is a great word though.
- Yeah, right off the top, Autoclave is great—the chord progression almost sounds like a more positive Interpol song. The solidity of every string here, too, the love of treble, the organ line. Shit, I love this song, how did I forget this?
- The organ line in New Zion gets me in a weird nostalgic way. It feels like, even ignoring the drums, that the arrangements have a huge jump in quality here. They add a lot of dimension to some basic song constructions.
- It’s a sunny afternoon in Kentucky, let’s sing about cults John! I’m into this, I have a Sonic cup full of ice crying out for porch sitting.
- So Desperate feels more like a slow song from Sunset Tree, although not as thin. The plucked strings are nice, and John’s melody in the chorus takes some cool turns. Too pleasant to skip, but not a favorite.
- In the Craters on the Moon brings us back. A semi-typical palm-muted seethe-fest, but Wurster’s toms add a lot of presence to it, and the sliding, almost nauseous strings are effective context. And the build at the end is great too.
- Lovecraft in Brooklyn was a bit of a shocker to me—the band hasn’t really used electric guitars like this since Nothing for Juice, and they’re way more nervous here. The chord progression is a little melodramatic, but that fits the theme, I think.
- Or maybe I’m just a sucker for that kind of Boys of Summer verse melodrama! Anyway, the bridge is great, they sound like they’re having a blast, and again, it’s infectious, especially when John starts losing his shit at the end.
- “Woke up afraid of my own shadow/Like genuinely afraid” is a fantastic line, the kind of quick, casual humor that seemed to disappear for awhile.
- Tianchi Lake has a piano that just sounds utterly shimmering, and I guess that’s all I need.
- How to Embrace a Swamp Creature is, along with the last song, a track that I completely didn’t remember—like, title and all. I don’t know what my deal was. The palm muted chord progression in the verse is fantastic, and the doorbell sounding melody in the chorus is too. It’s a really good song, I don’t know how I missed it, except I’m starting to think I never listened to this album all the way through.
- Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident is fine, but I’d probably cut it, or skip it in the future. There’s just nothing here that sticks to me, the image isn’t super compelling, the strings are like they are elsewhere. It’s fine though.
- It’s also not about a rapist, as explained by the man himself on the site.
- Sept 15 1983: Ok, I do remember this one, the one with the reggae vibe and relative minor verse. It’s that same organ from New Zion, but a little more propulsive, and the guitars have a good vibe. If Marduk didn’t come right before it, it wouldn’t feel like such a dip. It’s a genuinely good song.
- It’s an album where I don’t care about the lyrics. Following several where the lyrics were the saving grace, that’s a pretty cool thing to happen.
- Michael Myers Resplendent is a Mountain Goats closer, until the drums come in, and then it’s a fucking good Mountain Goats closer. I dunno, I’d hold up a lighter, wouldn’t you?
- Toolshed is an iTunes bonus track. The chorus line is great and has a cool story. It is also a bonus track, and that’s as far as I’m going with it.
- Right now, listening up to All Eternals Deck, this is my favorite of the era, and maybe second favorite overall.
The Life of the World to Come (2009)
- The beginning of what I’m calling, for some reason, the Conceit era.
- Less about concepts, and album lengths stories, and more about fun ideas to build an album around, Stephen Meritt style. So here, all the songs are named for biblical passages.
- In the car I had to turn this off half way through because it was putting me to sleep. Let’s see how it does on headphones.
- This tour was the second time I had seen them live. That performance of 1 Samuel 15:23 is what really made the song hit home for me—I believe it was just John and a piano (I may be conflating this with the All Eternals Deck show).
- As smouldering songs go (and he’s done many) this is maybe one of the most effective. The verses aren’t all that intimidating, but few lines are as evocative as “Go down to the netherworld/Plant grapes,” especially in this musical context.
- Psalms 40:2 is a great track, a great single, and the first sign that the band that made Heretic Pride is here to stay (a possibly erroneous assumption). Special note goes to Peter Hughes, whose bassline here is one of his all-time best and completely makes the song. Alternately driving and incredibly melodic, occasionally dipping into soft hypnosis, it’s a brilliant thing to hear, especially in the climax at the end
- Genesis 3:23 has a lovely, casual feeling to it, a combination of Dance Music and Mole that carries the album forward well. A really good, charming track 3.
- Philippians is good, dependable, has a nice turn. The piano is back, and sounds good, and from here the album is pleasant, with some very moving moments.
- Such as Genesis 30:3, which works much better than this sort of slow solo piano song often does. Or Matthew 25:21, wherein watching someone die is stretched over travel, detail, sign posts, in a beautiful way.
- But while this album has some beautiful moments and a lot of really good songs, it’s a bit of a slog—7 slow songs in a row, essentially, and the run causes a lot of them to lose the power they would have on their own.
- Really interesting to hear that bonus track Enoch 18:14 is about Odin’s Sphere—I was just playing that! And it is great!
- Ezekial 7 is beautiful and heartbreaking and just a very good closer, yet again.
All Eternals Deck (2011)
- Conceit: A fake tarot deck, ostensibly, but the thread is so loose as to be meaningless. Fine by me!
- The start of, in my opinion, The Mountain Goats’ “Yo La Tengo” stage of their career, where every album is consistently good, with just enough variation to make them worth getting, so that every new album feels like a welcome return from an old friend (rather than a cause for concern, like a visit from an old friend who was really into ketamine and you’re never sure what they’re gonna be like when they get back). It also makes them, perhaps, boring. Lord knows it’s been a long time since anyone’s been excited about a new album from these boys. They should be, though.
- Damn These Vampires is a classic, and (along with Birth of Serpents) feels like an apotheosis of the style from the first three records, with better production, more variation, more confidence, more charm. It’s a wonderful thing. It feels good to listen to.
- Birth of Serpents has some of my favorite lyrics ever, a solid and beautiful song.
- Estate Song is another galloper, and an effective one (it feels weird to be judging these on efficacy but here we are). The refrain works, as do most of the chorus lines on this album.
- Age of Kings belongs to a group of songs I have a hard time explaining why they’re grouped. But In the Hidden Places is one. Cotton is another. It works
- The Autopsy Garland is a good piece of ominous dread, with a lovely
- Beautiful Gas Mask is a different kind of propulsive, maybe similar to Autoclave. So far every song is good in the least, and the pacing is well composed.
- Oh but wow is Outer Scorpion Squadron gorgeous, at times sounding almost like a lush Radiohead arrangement, and the strings do incredible things, they do.
- For Charles Bronson, too, becomes incredible about two minutes in. Again, just gorgeous.
- That said, High Hawk Season annoys the living hell out of me.
Transcendental Youth (2012)
- In the car, this was a clear favorite, easily, one of my favorite listening experiences of the trip. Let’s see how it holds up!
- Amy starts us off well, with some of his best lyrics and a great, choppy propulsion. Wurster continues to be MVP, bringing out so many different angles of John’s playing.
- Lakeside View Apartments Suite is a fun spin on the old piano driven smolder (see 1 Samuel 15:23) thanks to some great drumming and some interesting twists of cadence. There’s something just endlessly pleasing about hearing John sing “for my whole crew.” The drama of the story pops, too, in a Lifter Puller sort of way.
- I remember there being much ado about the horn section that this album adds, but Cry for Judas is the first time it shows up. It adds some interesting vibes to it, and the song keeps the pace up, with some interesting beachy vibes.
- Harlem Roulette continues what feels like one of the most consistently great four song stretches of any of his hi-fi albums save Heretic Pride, with great lyrics (although the scene setting is super on the nose, if necessary). That skipped snare beat in the verse, too—rightfully called out by John Davis—just works on me. Variations in beat weren’t things that the Mountain Goats did before. And yeah, “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never gonna see again” is a classic Darnielle line, one of his best.
- White Cedar is our first downshift, an actual slow piano song. The horns acquit themselves well here, adding a subtle glow that I don’t usually expect from, y’know, brass. My favorite bit though, by far, is about two minutes in, when there are two snare hits out of nowhere. They never come back. I love them.
- Until I am Whole probably shouldn’t come next. If there’s anything John’s prolific nature does wrong, it’s showing how often he relies on common tropes, and this one starts off with a big one, making the verse awfully dull. The underwater vocals that come in for the chorus with the piano are great, beautiful even, and keep the song from being a complete chore.
- Night Light is fine, has a good vibe and aesthetics. And when it comes down to it, the varied aesthetics really do a lot for this album, carrying some old tropes into some new places. It feels fresh.
- The Diaz Brothers brings us screaming back from a mid-album slump. John’s attacking the piano like he would a guitar, the drums give it a great Billy Joel feeling, and the horns enhance that.
- Counterfeit Florida Plates is a genuinely different track, a different rhythm, some weird, clipped feelings.
- This is a perfect cloudy day drive album, it’s worth noting.
- Never more so than In Memory of Satan, which is my favorite of the album, maybe of this whole period. The chord progression is genuinely different, almost jazzy in its sadness, piano drowning out the horns in an effective inversion. It feels like it could be on Adore. The horn arrangement is especially great too, actually adding counterpoint instead of just texture.
- I wish I’d seen this tour. I wish I hadn’t given up. I do. I still do.
- Peter Hughes is subdued on this album, but his bassline here, while still subtle, is heartbreaking in the notes it chooses to play.
- Spent Gladiator 2 returns to an old favorite, the pyrrhic victory, the “hold on as your death is enthusiastically ordained.” And while there’s no hard and fast concept here, the return of the “just stay alive” refrain is really effective and makes the album feel incredibly whole.
- It’s also, lyrically, a gesture towards the themes that will dominate Beat the Champ
- What board game with the sliders, though?
- Transcendental Youth is an utterly charming closer, if a little too long. Jaunty, with a progression vaguely reminiscent of the New Orleans leanings of Life in a Glass House
Beat the Champ (2015)
- Ok, this one is getting the notes treatment first off. Let’s see if that helps it.
- Southwestern Territory feels so of a piece with Transcendental Youth, partially because of the horn section. Maybe a little more cinematic, or old-fashioned. The “chorus”, about 1:30 in, hits hard, the way this band just really knows how to do.
- The Legend of Chavo Guerrero feels effortlessly punchy, catchy, inspiring, in a way that something like This Year feels like it’s forcing. The production helps each hit really pop, helps the spaces sound out. Something to be said about how, as the band evolves, they get much better at handling the sonic space that studios allow.
- It’s also worth saying that the tack this song takes towards addressing John’s stepdad works so much better than almost anything on The Sunset Tree, but it also cements the idea the said stepdad, much like John’s old junkie friends, is a constant figure now. Or maybe they all always were, and now we’re noticing, post outing. It’d be interesting, knowing more about their stories, to go back and see how John’s own might have been inspired.
- Foreign Object would maybe work better without the horns and fuzz—it’s confident enough to benefit from a more restrained, three-piece acoustic treatment, and the horns and fuzz make it sound a little farty and overblown. But the melody, and John’s more conversational cadence and willingness to embellish, pops through.
- Oh man, Animal Mask is so jaunty, that kicky drum beat, and John’s smoother lower register. It’s really explicitly folky, in that Joni Mitchell/Van Dyke Parks sort of way and just feels good. A song where the embellishments (slide guitar, harmonies, strings, rhodes) feel natural, rather than gimmicky.
- Choked Out really goes for that throttle, huh? The distorted guitar actually works here, subtle as it is, and John’s more rapid delivery is infectious. This would’ve been a really fun show to see too! Dang it y’all. Of course my last two shows would be for two albums I’m meh on and lead me to give up before two albums that I would be all over.
- Heel Turn 2 is like, nearly six minutes long. I can’t remember a Mountain Goats song ever being this long. It looks like Matthew 25:21 comes closest, and that’s a real slow burn. Heel Turn 2, meanwhile, actually develops, starting with an energetic strum with some atmospheric slide guitar under a pretty typical Darnielle rant, before hitting some gorgeous reverb-laden piano, wherein the drums and vocals completely drop out. At times, the piano threatens to sound new-agey, but usually stops just short. It’s an actual, honest to god instrumental close out, and it works shockingly well. A Mountain Goats song with no vocals, huh? You know what, it still works.
- Fire Editorial is jazzy in that Vince Guaraldi sort of way, which is, again, a new vibe from these guys. It’s a really lovely piece, with more complex piano work than Darnielle usually does. I’ll tell you this, it makes me a lot more excited for Goths.
- Three spicy potato soft tacos and a room full of cops later. Yes, this is an ersatz tour diary now. Dammit, I need something to do in the car.
- This album as a whole feels much more casual and playful than the band has felt since Heretic Pride, which is really welcome—a stark reminder of how seriously they’ve taken their albums up to this point.
- Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan works purely on John Darnielle’s vamping, but the strings throughout are absurd, and take a lot of the sting out of the intensity of the drum breaks
- Werewolf Gimmick works much better. It’s of the same kin as Psalms 40:2, but with a less straightforward execution (the rapid tom rolls especially), more snarl, less grand drama, less catharsis.
- Luna is such a rhythmically catchy song, and feels like it would fit well on Transcendental Youth. A broken record at this point, but Jon Wurster really makes this song work, and he and Hughes have some fun interplay.
- Unmasked! Is melodically a typical song, but whoa are John’s double-tracked vocals a curveball here. They don’t save the song, per se, but they give it some power it wouldn’t have otherwise.
- The Ballad of Bull Ramos is nuts! John is so sassy, and it has a real swagger, as well as some Devil went down to Georgia melodicism. Again, it’s fun, and that alone is worth something at this point, some 15 albums into their career.
- Hair Match: The double tracking works a lot better here, with a genuinely ominous closer. The arrangements are really well done here too (I almost said tasteful). The verse chord progression almost sounds like mid-period smog, which is saying something for these guys. Also, the ending (the last 40 seconds or so) is utterly gorgeous.
“Boys are Back in Town”
“Slow West Vultures”
“Up the Wolves”
“Song for Dennis Brown”
“In the Hidden Places”
“Lovecraft in Brooklyn”
“Damn These Vampires”
“Outer Scorpion Squadron”
“For Charles Bronson”
“Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator 1)”
“The Diaz Brothers”
“In Memory of Satan”
“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”
“Heel Turn 2”
“The Shadow Song”
“Mountain Goats T-Shirt Song”