As this decade wanes, some of the chaos in the world of music seems to be settling, as those looking for new sounds grow tired of bottomless discovery. It’s exhausting, really, this omnivorous accumulation of songs. How many albums have been downloaded only to languish somewhere in the catacombs of sprawling hard drives? Yet everything hasn’t devolved into ringtones and novelty singles. The furious dismantling of the pillars of corporate greed (so long, $18.99 CD!) hasn’t hurt enduring grass-roots indie musicians like John Darnielle, who records under the moniker the Mountain Goats. In fact Darnielle’s work, idiosyncratic and acquired-taste though it may be, is more popular than ever, and his latest, perhaps most welcoming album sees him poised to break through to even more new listeners. It’s notable, especially given that he’s been making his music for more than 17 years.
Darnielle made his name in that most 90’s (and least ambitious) of genres, lo-fi bedroom folk-pop. He released hundreds of songs on dozens of tapes, 7” singles, LPs, and even those newfangled CDs. He played in basements and rec halls from coast to coast for tiny crowds of self-selected connoisseurs in love with his literate narratives and nasal balladry. When he signed to mini-major 4AD in 2002, some fans worried that he’d lose his charm and end up sounding, well, average. Yet the full-band-backed and studio recorded Tallahassee was a revelation, and Darnielle’s dense lyricism, his complex character sketches of clerks, junkies, and lonelyhearts in tales of suburban dread, literary obsession, and baseball (among so much more), seemed to gain even greater life alongside the richer instrumentation.
Since then, each Mountain Goats release has outsold its predecessor, and Darnielle has gained tens of thousands of fans. And his work since Tallahassee, to allay the fears of the diehards, has been anything but average, from his 2005 concept album The Sunset Tree, a chronicle of his youth in an abusive home, to 2006’s quiet, intense exploration of the short end of romance, Get Lonely. At their best moments, the narratives in these albums are touching, or awful, or funny, but Darnielle’s writing never lapses into cliché. He proves that pop songwriting has more facets than heart-on-sleeve weepiness or caveman banality. He once wrote: “I have spent … years waging war against such facile, reductive, post-romantic descriptions of what it is that songwriters do, but since the war has proven futile, to hell with it: these songs are all pages ripped from my diary, which drips blood.” He may have given up the war, but of all those 90’s tapers, he’s still standing, and that says something.
With rhetoric like that bloody diary bit, it’s unlikely Darnielle’s wordy thickets or breathless, often snarling high-pitched vocals will seriously threaten Starbucks-approved crooners, yet the lustrous backing instrumentation and colorful, sprawling stories on his latest, Heretic Pride, in stores today, provide the best introduction possible to his world of music. His lyrics remain, at times, cryptic and fragmentary, but the words are still the point, as is the honesty of his approach. Musical wallpaper this is not, but listening doesn’t feel like drudgery either, which, respectively, often feel like the only speeds of trendy pop on the one hand and arty pop on the other.
Heretic Pride is balanced with a gentle pop sensibility, Darnielle’s acoustic backed by Peter Hughes on bass and John Wurster on drums, with just a few additional touches provided by like-minded indie stalwarts like Franklin Bruno and St.Vincent’s Annie Clark. Producers Scott Solter and John Vanderslice (a famed home-taper himself) maintain a clean yet weighty sound throughout, with the vocals always squarely on top. The places Darnielle goes with his songs require little embellishment, but what extra flare there is is always measured and employed to help the words along rather than obfuscate them in pelting rhythm or virtuosity.
A good example is album opener “Sax Rohmer #1,” which spins a romance out of a spy-filled foreign port with a prodding, low-end drum thump alongside gliding acoustic chording (Rohmer was a pulp spy novelist and the creator of Fu Manchu). Gently mourning strings frame the outpouring road-trip narrative “San Bernardino,” where the youthful narrator recalls the gorgeous countryside the day his girlfriend gives birth in a motel room. The album, already forceful and quick, catches fire on the title track, with a languorous, pretty piano line threading through an epic folk-rock storm, while a would-be martyr marches toward his death, noting the scents of flowers on the air. “New Zion,” with a whining organ and gently groovy, almost reggae instrumentation, sounds like a Crowded House slow-burner, only it’s about cult indoctrination.
Yet, as ever, Darnielle manages to make such an outlandish conceit sound humane and only a little bit funny. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” sounds twitchy, paranoid and rageful as it uses the sci-fi writer’s xenophobic experience moving to Brooklyn as the basis for scenes of alienation. “Tianchi Lake” tells of a Chinese lake haunted by a dragon in a tender, impressionistic, and pretty tale. On “Sept 15, 1983,” Darnielle sings alongside more gentle reggae-ish melody about Dub Reggae producer and singer Prince Far I, the date being that of his death. Final track “Michael Myers Resplendent” is a valentine of sorts to slasher movies, a tender yet epic homage to horror.
The comic-book-style liner notes for Heretic Pride open with the statement “I have always had a sort of religious awe of geography.” Anyone familiar with his work knows this to be true, since his songs have traveled the globe many times over, and Darnielle himself has been somewhat of a rolling stone, reflecting time spent in many parts of the country and the world. It’s there too on his crucial, brilliantly written weblog (once a printed zine), titled appropriately “Last Plane to Jakarta,” home to probably the best music writing happening anywhere on or off the web (just another feather in Darnielle’s cap). Yet while his narratives pick up exoticism or drama or gravitas from locations far and wide, his songs remain defiantly human-scale, which is a welcome thing in an age where every “smart” band seems either lost in mask-wearing self-mythologies and whale song or awash in post-modern vagueness and Talking Heads worship.
A New York record executive recently said to me of Darnielle: “Contrast him with say, Kimya Dawson [formerly of the Moldy Peaches, whose songs were featured in the Oscar-bait indie movie Juno], who is eating up the fame right now. John isn’t like that. He’s cool just plodding along with his idiosyncrasies and writing 33 1/3 books on the band Masters of Reality. It’s really a one fan at a time approach that he’s had since putting out albums on cassette and playing fucking weird places like Lodi, Texas. But in many ways, that’s why he’ll have a career that outlasts that dude in the Decemberists.” Which is to say, Darnielle’s work opens a space that listeners must step across to embrace it.