Follow John Darnielle up the mountain
In the early days, through the 1990s and early aughts, John Darnielle used to take to the stage alone, hold up an acoustic guitar, and greet the audience with characteristic dry humour: “Hi, we’re the Mountain Goats.”
Darnielle has always had a way with words. Bluff and literate, passionate and wry, with plenty to say and innumerable ways to say it, Darnielle used to fill up cassette tapes by recording songs directly into a boom box, like a lo-fi poet. The guitar, never gently treated, struggled to keep up with the brio of the lyrics. These days, his writing has branched out: his second novel, Universal Harvester, was published earlier this year to quiet acclaim, a labyrinthine story of mystery and loss in our recent pre-digital history. But being in a band hasn’t been a gag for many years.
Keeping up with the Mountain Goats can be a full-time hobby: Darnielle dispenses songs as readily as athletes dispense sweat. Initially, they were mostly imagined narratives, but since 2004, and his luminescent album We Shall All Be Healed, that storytelling technique has been attached to richly personal experiences of recovery and inspirations, allied to a surge in production values. He has been collaborating with producer John Vanderslice, and a permanent band that often swells with guest stars. In doing so, his output has gained a frictionless musicality without losing the pleasingly rough surface of his songcraft. You could read the sinuous lyrics for pleasure or just clap along and whistle.
In recent years, the music of the Mountain Goats has maintained a personal perspective, usually looking back, according to organising themes. The Life of the World to Come spun 12 consoling tracks from bible verses; the vigorous Beat the Champ relived a childhood fascination with vintage professional wrestling (a salient theme for today’s juiced-up, performative politics); and this year’s album (the 16th) is Goths, inspired by a 1980s Californian adolescence listening to the delicious gloom of British indie.
But the records have always been fuel for the fire of the live show (they play a sold-out show at Dublin’s Button Factory on Sunday). The best way to listen is to be there, to luxuriate in Darnielle’s extemporary witty banter, and trenchant protest, and marvel at the energy of a band when it meets a devoted, and now expanded following.
The Mountan Goats will always have more to say.
Darnielle has always had a way with words. Bluff and literate, passionate and wry, with plenty to say and innumerable ways to say it