chanson du bon chose
Every now and then The Late Show with David Letterman offers a segment entitled "Is This Anything?" Some peppy music is played, a curtain is pulled back to reveal something - a man on a unicycle with a sparkler between his teeth, a squirrel on stilts - and after a few seconds, the cymbals crash, the curtain closes, and the audience applauds. Dave shakes his head, leans over his desk, and asks, "Paul, was that anything?"
Paul, being Canadian and possibly deranged, often thinks that what he has just seen was, in fact, something. Dave, being paid to be sardonic, is a tougher customer. The more he rolls his eyes, the more the audience howls. "Aw gee, Paul," he'll say. "I dunno, that wasn't anything." And... cue commercial break.
It's hard, these days, to tell when things are anything. Something may seem like something, until it's cut down into a blog-sized bite and crammed onto a pop-up window; Lindsay Lohan's breasts have become bigger than Everest, and Seinfeld repeats his trivia into rerun infinity. It is exhilarating and terrifying and dizzifying, this erasure of perspectives and parameters, but then when the hot bright lights hit you and you are asked is this something? it is hard, sometimes, to know the answer.
This is where the Mountain Goats come in.
A great artist is one who can create an entire world, an environment that is consistent yet complex. Ideally this world can serve as a microscope platform upon which various specimens can be examined at length. Ideally the metaphor of glass can be extended further, to include mirrors, the kind that let you see yourself as much taller or smaller or more distant than you really are. In a well-built world like this we can understand more easily the truth of the things that are something, and the truest somethings are held up to a light even brighter and purer than the kliegs of CBS.
In the world of the Mountain Goats - and here I will dispense with the plural forms, because while the Mountain Goats often involve the participation of many talented musicians, it is ultimately the work of one John Darnielle - nearly everything is something, and relentlessly so. A rearview mirror, a windowsill, a letter, the Cubs' losing streak: these details take on an aching, exquisite weight, and Darnielle sings as though he can hardly bear them. He has a novelist's nose for evocative themes (traveling, usually by car and on the weekend, often with someone he loves or is losing; motel rooms; calendars; the Aztecs; futility) and a surgeon's precision with language. There are over 400 songs currently catalogued here, and the titles alone are better than any poetry I've read in the last two years of The New Yorker or any other publication printed between glossy covers.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, I've done some archaeology and recalled that the first Mountain Goats song I ever heard was "The Window Song," which appeared on Shrimper Records' Abridged Perversion compilation. I would later learn that it contains some favorite Mountain Goats themes, love/loss and the loss of language or an inability to speak. The recording was poor, the vocals nasal, but somehow it felt like a secret communique from a potent planet, or, to use another Darnielle-ism, it felt like a rare bird had landed on my windowsill.
I have never met (in person, at any rate) anyone who shares my Mountain Goats obsession. These records are among the most beloved in my collection, but also the least-borrowed, least-admired, and I rarely bother putting a Mountain Goats song on anyone's mix CD. I've been told that the relentless acoustic guitar strum-patterns and the emphatic vocal delivery are "off-putting" or "weird" or "not really my thing." Fair enough, but to be equally fair, critics should take the time to thoroughly investigate the Goats catalog, which contains many songs of gentle, restrained beauty, plinked strings and bare whispers. Darnielle has, in the past, eschewed anything resembling high technology; if All Hail West Texas sounds like it was recorded on an ancient Panasonic boombox, that's because it was. No wonder I spent such a long time thinking of Mountain Goats songs as diamonds in the dirt, gems made all the more perfect by their humble surroundings. Lately, however, Darnielle has moved toward cleaner recording techniques and more intricate arrangements. Perhaps this is the result of his extensive recent collaboration with John Vanderslice, or a desire to add dimension to the worlds he's already built. Perhaps both. Meanwhile, as New York City continues to jolt my understanding of somethings I find the Mountain Goats a necessary solace, the sound of a man amidst the roar of the subway and the screaming sirens on 7th Avenue. It's not loud enough to drown it out, not quite, but it's something.
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Favorite songs from the back-catalog, if I am forced to choose: "Weekend in Western Illinois" from Full Force Galesburg, "Going to Port Washington" from Ghana, "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" from All Hail West Texas.
For more recent work, please obtain either of the last two albums: We Shall All Be Healed (featuring the "radio hit" "Palmcorder Yajna," aka "the song that even people who don't like the Mountain Goats like") and The Sunset Tree. Either of these may be the best place to start, if you're skeptical or averse to very stripped-down arrangements featuring mostly voice and guitar.
Exhaustive official site here.
John Darnielle's music e-zine: Last Plane to Jakarta.
NB: New Yorkers can see the Mountain Goats at the Knitting Factory on Thursday, May 5, or at Northsix on Saturday, May 7. But you shouldn't go to the Northsix show - you should be at the Man in Gray/Unsacred Hearts show at the Luna Lounge.