The Mountain Goats : Too Late Is Right On Time
Frankly, I'm glad I discovered The Mountain Goats too late. By the time he released his 2004 album "We Shall All Be Healed," John Darnielle (a.k.a. the man who essentially comprises The Mountain Goats) had already become an indie-rock legend, releasing underground tapes and ambitious concept albums that highlighted his nasal voice, bizarre lyrics, and knack for eerie melody.
As tends to happen, Darnielle's cult got larger, and he finally moved to a bigger indie label (4AD) which allowed him wider distribution of his music.
Now 4AD isn't exactly the Universal Music Group, but many people who once fell at Darnielle's feet started to feel he'd lost his edge as he grew from his ramshackle roots. "We Shall All Be Healed" was The Mountain Goats' second album for 4AD, and it received a score of fretful reviews like this one in which fans and critics went into paroxysms mourning the loss of a once-private musical hero. The general tenor of the responses was one of people who were diasppointed the the guy they once got to keep for themselves had been replaced by someone they had to share.
I understand their pain. While I was living it Atlanta, I loved the local-celebrity music of Jennifer Nettles. She was astonishingly good, and I got to feel really, really cool because I was one of a few thousand people who had ever heard of her. Then Nettles formed helped found Sugarland, a popular country group that has had all sorts of hits and even got a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. The secret was out.
At first, I couldn't stand the fact that Nettles had traded earnest folk-rock for shiny country-pop, though eventually I caved. Now I love Sugarland. But at first, I was inconsolable that I'd lost a secret treasure.
Similarly, I've never gotten over the broader popularity of Ani DiFranco, and I think it's caused her music to suffer. All I hear on her later albums (meaning anything past "Little Plastic Castles) is messy songrcraft and the arrogance of an artist who believes she can release any old thing.
But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm clinging so tightly to the way Ani's old music made me feel (when I was a closeted adolescent salving for my emotional crises with her angry, liberating songs) that I can't accept any change from her.
And if I had heard any of The Mountain Goats' older music, maybe I'd be as fiercely protective of them, too. But in late 2004, when I heard a track from "Healed" called "Palmcorder Yajna," I was a stranger to the group. And what I heard was exhilarating. The jangly guitar and shuffling tempo made the song sound good for driving, and Darnielle's voice was somehow both whiny and powerful. Meanwhile, the lyrics told a strange story of a teenager sitting stoned in a Califormia hotel room with his friends. Here's a bit of the portrait the track paints:
Sent somebody out for soda
Combed through the carpet for clues
Reflective tape on our sweatpants
Big holes in our shoes
Every couple minutes
Someone says he can't stand it anymore
Laugh lines on our faces:
Scale maps of the ocean floor.
I'll admit that the rest of "Healed" took some work for me to embrace, though eventually I found about half a dozen songs that I loved for the same reasons I love "Palmcorder Yajna." There's an emotional urgency in the way Darnielle sings, and producer John Vanderslice keeps all the songs stripped to essentials. Even tracks with strings and drums feel naked, like there are just three people sitting in a room and no mistake has been edited over. The music often feels desperate or anxious. It always feels alive. It compels me to pay attention as it makes one visceral statement after another.
And this from an album that's supposed to be a nadir. I still listen to it all the time, still excited by how strange and beautiful its hight points are.
Even better, since I started my Mountain Goats journey with "We Shall All Be Healed," I got to have my expectations blown away by the follow-up album "The Sunset Tree." The most explicity autobiographical of Darnielle's work, it charts the abuse, divorce, and eventual peace that defined his adolescence.
It is a stunning work of art. Flooded with feeling--everything from rage to sadness to hope-- each song is beautiful.
You can hear samples of every song here. I recommend the lush piano/drums of "Broom People" to start, in which a teenage Darnielle tries to explain to his girlfriend how her small kindnesses melt his emotional reserve. He tells her, "I write down good reasons to freeze to death/in my spiral ring notebook/but in your arms, in your arms/ I am a babbling brook."
Then try the slashing strings of "Dilaudid" and the ironic cheer of "Dance Music." The latter chronicles six year-old John's fear of his stepfather with the following insight:
I'm in the living room watching the Watergate hearings
while my stepfather yells at my mother.
Launches a glass across the room
straight at her head
and I dash upstairs to take cover.
Lean in close to my little record player on the floor:
so this is what the volume knob's for.
I listen to dance music.
In less than two minutes, we understand so much about this little boy. And I love how Darnielle trusts us to hear what's being said behind a lyric like "so this is what the volume knob's for." Rather than just saying, "I turn it up loud so I don't have to hear them fight," he expresses himself in a way that adds a level of pained sarcasm to his adult reflection on his past. We get a sense of how this memory affects him still.
And that's the kind of complexity-plus-tunefulness that "The Sunset Tree" offers on thirteen tracks. For the most part, critics agreed with me about how good the record is, though there were still plenty of older fans who compared this new music unfavorably with the past.
I'm glad I don't have to overcome a long history with The Mountain Goats to like what I hear today. I'm glad I missed their hippest indie days. Because sometimes ignorance allows me to listen freely. To listen (ahem) without prejudice.