Back in 2003, most of my time on the internet was spent between watching porn (pterodactyl porn, that is) and trying desperately to find a left-handed Fender Jaguar. But in between all that excitement I somehow managed to find some unimportant, unassuming little music blog where some unimportant, unassuming dude who probably had a beard posted a big play list along with an MP3 and paragraph or so about each song. I didn't listen to all of them. Even at 18 I was a busy man. But one caught my eye: "No Children" by a band called The Mountain Goats, whom I had never heard. The song was from their newest release, 2002's underrated Tallahassee, and all it took was one listen: I was hooked. I was at the mercy of a band called the Mountain Goats.
Welcome to the world of John Darnielle, who since the early 90s has been churning out at a rather alarming rate some of the best nuggets of writing you'll ever find from a musician. Whether he's writing about a teenage death metal band from Denton, Texas, a guy who spends his life-savings on flowers and mobiles, H.P. Lovecraft's xenophobic nightmares in New York, or a truly beautiful account of what went through his mind when he find out that the man who made his childhood a living hell died of a heart attack, the most important thing to realize about John Darnielle's lyrics is that he writes like a writer, not like a musician trying to be a writer. The point of the song is always underlying, with the real power coming from the minute details he bestows upon his characters that elevate them beyond the simplistic, melodramatic stick figures you see in most songwriting. John Darnielle does not write for the girl that is looking for the one quotable phrase which really sums up how she feels about life that she can get tattooed below her left breast. John Darnielle is barely even quotable. Setting and lush characterization don't make for quotable songs. But then again, he also rules at writing ANGRY! lyrics. From the song "Baboon" off of The Coroner's Gambit:
"Daisies on the hillside like cancer on the skin,
pretty little yellow eyes that flutter in the wind,
I'd be grateful that my children weren't here to see this
if you ever saw fit to give me children.
And my defenses may be working with a skeleton crew
but i'll be skinned alive before I take this from you."
More than 20 albums and 250 songs later (with plenty of back-catalog that I don't have), I am still frequently amazed at the level of detail Darnielle displays around every corner. Believe it or not, up until 2005's terrific The Sunset Tree, he had never written a song about himself. In 14 years of purely fictional songwriting, Darnielle accomplished more real, honest emotion that a lesser writer (read: pretty much any musician) could ever hope to if given a lifetime heart-on-my-sleeve-and-I-cry-on-stage shit. But in recent years, Darnielle has turned his borderline anal-retentive attention to detail inwards, and produced two deeply personal albums; The Sunset Tree, which focuses on his childhood and abusive stepfather, and Get Lonely, which finds Darnielle for the very first time singing about his own heartbreak. But, true to form, Darnielle avoids the cliched pitfalls of this type of writing and instead hons in on the day to day minutia involved in getting back on track. From the song "Woke Up New"; "The first time I made coffee for just myself/I made too much of it/but i drank it all/because I know you hate/when i let things go to waste." Using the term "literary" when referring to lyrics is usually pretty trivial and a sure-fire way to make you look like a jackass, but I think the term fits here. John Darnielle embodies what it means for lyrics to be literary. A favorite of mine is his "Going to..." series of songs, which each find our narrator at some location, be it Georgia or Bolivia, dealing with issue of post-adolescent wander lust and feelings of displacement in the world.
Until 2002's Tallahassee, Darnielle stuck to pretty militant lo-fi standards, going so far as to have recorded all of his previous albums on an old Casio boom box. Yeah, he doesn't fuck around. But during the recording of All Hail West Texas the hiss of the boom box became a drawl, and it's days were numbered, destined to be left behind in some lonely West Texas desert. But to replace the old-friend, John hired a full-time bassist, went into a real studio, and even started using drums every once in a while.
One thing I like so much about John Darnielle is his ability to balance aspects of his music that seem to be in total opposition to one another. His early lo-fi, "slapped together" recording mantra seemed counter-intuitive to his highly thought out, fauned over lyrics. His nasal voice is there to counteract the mundane nature of his lyrics, forcing the listener to pay attention to him in way that stands in place of "instantly quotable" lyrics. His "dime a dozen" guitar talent stands in stark contrast to his ability as a writer. And even complete tonal discrepancies in songs; such as the jaded, angry lyrics of "No Children" set against the peppy, jaunty piano track, or the sugary-sweet guitar work in "Tianchi Lake" that masks the fact that the song is about a sea-monster with a horse head and sea lion body killing a bunch of kids at the beach ("No one's taking pictures--everybody's dead".) I love it.
So anyway, this is just sort of a haphazard, head-cold induced tribute to a guy I like a ton. Here, he even has a guest spot on Aesop Rock's new CD, and surprise surprise his lyrics are terrific:
I'd start with something from the studio-albums, like maybe The Sunset Tree. His new one, Heretic Pride, is really good as well. If you're feeling crazy and want to jump into his boom box albums, maybe start with Full Force Galesburg or All Hail West Texas or New Asian Cinema or Devil In The Shortwave or Ghana or Nine Black Poppies. Fuck it, just get anything you can find.
Just be careful, The Mountain Goats are one of those bands that you can really get absorbed by. You know, like AFI or Tool, minus the truck-load of gay.