Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Mountain Goats Are Cool.

*Updated with snazzy links and images.

This is a post months in the making. The Mountain Goats have a long and diverse career. At the moment, I've only listened to the last few albums and have had trouble publicly expressing an opinion about any of it, feeling uninformed and newbieish to the whole thing.

Back in April, while listening to KEXP at work (which I can't do anymore: sad), I stumbled across a rare, unpretentious, slice of charming indie rock. It was the song "Dance Music" off The Mountain Goat's latest, The Sunset Tree. An upbeat chord progression and the high, bright, voice of John Darnelle underscored a sad tale of abuse and solitude. It had something most music lacks: layers. It had pathos and glee, fun and darkness. It was so, so, literary.

My experience with The Decemberists had prepared me for so-called "hyper-literary" music, those artists who take words seriously and balk at cliched choruses. Guys like Ted Leo and Thom Yorke like to use a huge volucabulry to tell stories in the abstract. This is different. This is music with a focus on telling real stories with real characters. The Decemberists' Colin Meloy likes the third person, but occasionally, like on the brilliant "The Mariner's Revenge Song" off Picaresque he uses the first person to wondrous results. Me, I like first person. In my literature, and, apparently, in my music.

So, after hearing a seemingly slight song, I set out on the journey that is The Sunset Tree. I wasn't prepared for it. It was a full story, a portrait of a 17-year-old living in a ratty and broken home under the drunk eyes of an abusive stepfather. Songs early in the album are alive with images that set the stage, songs in the middle are passionate tales about escape, remorse, alcoholism (both the narrator and the stepfather), and finally, at the end of the album, songs about death and love, like a suicide preparing his mind for that final jump. It was a moving story, stark and true. Then, when I found out the album was actually autobiographical, I was floored. It was inspiring, how open and honest this guy could be. There was no cloak of fiction that most writers disguise their emotions in, this was so raw, it sometimes hurt to listen too.

Emotionally, most of the power is conveyed through Darnelle's lyrics and his deceptive voice. It sounds too high, too youthful, but that's the beauty. It's the voice of the sad clown. It's a beautiful girl singing sad songs about heartbreak. It's the bejeweled King lamenting loneliness. Musically, Darnelle is equipped, always, like a shield, with his acoustic guitar. And sometimes those songs that are just him and his short chords are the strongest, but the band (a loose parade of friends that differs from album to album, apparently) show up very strongly here. Violins underline songs about violence, pensive piano lines heighten tension. Songs are surprisingly short for their weight and with a lesser lyricist, this music would probably be defined as "indie pop."

I've listened to a few more recent albums from The Mountain Goats, all strong, with older work solely fiction and non-fiction showing up in the more recent work. The most effective album I've heard so far is Tallahassee, a fictional story-in-songs about a married couple who move to Florida and proceed to drink themselves to death. It is told in the first person and contains some of the most dark tales I've ever heard in music (and I use to listen to heavy metal!) The main trick, though, that Darnelle pulls is that this music is not depressing. It's heavy and thick like a great emotional novel, but it doesn't descend to the murky, kill-yourself-later darkness of such sad poets as that guy from Songs: Ohia or the manic-depressive vocal stylings of Conor Oberest from Bright Eyes. It's a subtle, almost impossible, trick that Darnelle has mastered here and, in turn, it forms a powerful, persuasive, and effective masterpiece.

One of the most powerful songs from Tallahesse, (provided for your listening pleasure through the band's label site), is "No Children" another upbeat but devastingly dark song. It's central location in the album conveys a crossroads of sorts, a realization of how far they've come in their trouble marriage and one last chance to step out of the path of an incoming train. There seems to be a future for them, here, but later in the album, as it gets surpisingly bouncier, there doesn't seem to be much hope at all. Some of the most interesting lyrics on an album of great lyrics are here, from "And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here / Someday burns down / And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away /
And I never come back to this town," to "I am drowning / There is no sign of land / You are coming down with me / Hand in unlovable hand."

To summarize, The Mountain Goats are cool. I've loved listening to them. I think you will too.


Dave said...

Whoa, funky new design! Looks nice.

(I know not the Mountain Goats, but will check them out. You kids and your crazy music.)

Elad said...

hey Dave. thanks for stopping by. :)

you know, i think whenever someone wants to start posting on their blog again after a long absence they should redo the design as a kind of signal. good idea, eh?

Shawn said...

I agree -- you're a lazy blogger (hehehehe) which is why more people should check out the group blog that is updated daily!!

bonnie said...

the best thing about the mountain goats is that its ONE person, not a group, not a they. ONE guy. He rocks even more for being a one person "band".

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