Review by Walker Price, photos by Sophia Risin.
John Darnielle is the American master of the vignette. As such, I find it necessary to contextualize my relationship to his music in a tetraptych of my own.
I am sixteen years old. A boy I have been seeing for about a month drives me to his friend’s house somewhere in Maryland. Plastered upon their wall is a poster for 2003’s Tallahassee by the Mountain Goats. I say “hey! I know that band!” even though Tallahassee is not one of the three albums I have listened to at this point. His friend halfheartedly tries to hold a conversation with me about it and this becomes distinctly clear. I later ask him to drive me home, and we listen to as much of Tallahassee as we can. I recognize “No Children.” I think vividly about divorce.
I am still sixteen years old. My CD copy of the anniversary reissue of All Hail West Texas (2002) has just come in the mail. I force my father to listen to it as he drives us to a movie. Then already one of my favorite albums of all time, I sit in the passenger seat waiting to see the understanding I know must come flicker across his face. Halfway through “Fall of the Star High School Runningback,” it does. John Darnielle’s nasal whine, combined with the ever-present tape hiss scoring the background of the album and filling the empty space, make All Hail West Texas a slightly abrasive album. Warm, yes, comforting, yes, but abrasive. These are not overgrown gnarls to be bushwhacked through to get to the beauty of Darnielle’s lyricism, but rather equally important means of delivering that songwriting. There is very little about this I have to explain to my father.
I am seventeen years old, and have been an avowed Mountain Goats fan for almost three years by this point. The world has just shut down and I have nothing better to do, so I set myself a task. I am going to listen to every single Mountain Goats album, from front to back, in chronological order. For about a week and change, I am averaging one album a day, and trying to find what differentiates each one. I give up eight albums, or just about a third of the band’s discography, in. I haven’t tried again since.
I am twenty years old. It is early June and my closest friend has flown across the country to spend her birthday with me. We see one of our favorite bands of all time. It is the last time I will see her until the end of the year. On the eve of her departure, we listen to Tallahassee, on vinyl, in its entirety as she packs herself up in my living room. Few words are exchanged between us as we let the band’s first true studio album drown out crickets and passing cars.
I’ve seen the Mountain Goats once before, at the close of a great period of tumult in my life. I almost cried when Darnielle, jettisoning his bandmates, played “Southwestern Territory” into “Fall of the Star High School Runningback,” interluded by a deeply personal story. Hence my willingness to drag myself, nauseous and exhausted, across the bay to see them again on Friday. I arrived in the middle of opener Mikaela Davis’s second song, a beautiful, lush soundscape that persisted across the entire set. Flanked by pedal steel, bass, and alternating electric & acoustic guitars, Davis, seated behind her harp, plucked out melodies that buoyed her bright, almost punchy voice. Think somewhere between Kacey Musgraves and Joanna Newsom. I cannot say I was even a little bit surprised when she let the crowd know she and her band hailed from upstate New York. The Hudson Valley is, at the moment, one of the most thriving folk scenes this country has seen this side of the folk revival, and to cultivate a project like Davis’s is something only such a behemoth could. While clearly not occurring in a vacuum, Davis’s music feels vacuous — present and intentional use of empty space and aural experience was just as poignant as any aspect of the arrangement of each song.
When the Goats trotted onstage, shrouded in a prerecorded monologue, I was already on the verge of collapse. Pissy and convinced I was about to vomit, I was sure and thus terrified that I was about to hate this set. Then they started playing. I am not even a little bit exaggerating when I say that my nausea immediately dissipated when Darnielle’s too-amplified voice reverberated throughout the room. As the band played their first song, I watched Darnielle continuously try to alert the sound engineer to turn down his vocals, ceasing his belligerence when evidently satisfied. The first half of the set consisted mostly of newer material, material I was thus less familiar with (unsurprising for the second of two nights in the same place) but that did not detract from the palpable feeling of importance emanating not only from the stage but from the crowd as well. The Mountain Goats are a band who, like many, are at least outwardly shaped by their fans. The overwhelmingly white crowd of late-20s/early-30s former self-proclaimed hipsters found themselves in John Darnielle’s storytelling. One thing you will find about the Mountain Goats is that John Darnielle is rarely writing autobiographically. His songs, peppered with personal anecdotes and details, rarely center entirely truthfully around his own experience. Tallahassee, the album containing the band’s most famous and most misunderstood song, is entirely constructed around the Alpha Couple, a fictitious pair of lovers whose divorce is catalogued and unravelled across fourteen gut-wrenching songs. Darnielle has been happily married for more than two decades. It should come, then, as no surprise that the mastermind behind these songs is also a lauded novelist.
I, however, digress. To find oneself in Darnielle’s songwriting is not, necessarily, to find the same in the man himself. The Mountain Goats’ catalogue is filled with, pardon the pun, Riches and Wonders for anyone looking for themself beyond the strict confines of their pre-prescribed space. That is by design — Darnielle on both tape and stage creates an aura of relatability, his humanity the very thing that makes his music great, the very thing that makes your own humanity a little more tenable. During the solo portion of the evening, Darnielle interacted heavily with the crowd, throwing jabs and taking requests alike. He sang (and snorted) a song about a pig from a book he’d read to his son as an infant after decrying the incessant habit of singer-songwriters to record a children’s album after becoming parents.
After Darnielle’s brief jaunt alone, he eagerly welcomed back his band. They played, thankfully, a handful of songs spanning more than just the last decade before ‘ending’ the set with 2005’s The Sunset Tree’s legendary and neoclassical “Up The Wolves.” The set perhaps should’ve ended there, but the landscape of modern music demands the false spectacle of encore, a play with a performance for both audience and band to play. The Mountain Goats are no different. My first time seeing them, Darnielle announced his love for the Grateful Dead’s habit of playing a second set as opposed to an encore before launching into eight more songs. It was possibly the only time I’ve felt enthusiastic about a band playing an encore. This time, however, the band kept it brief. They played 2004’s “Palmcorder Yajna” before giving in to popular demand and playing the inextricably paired “No Children” and “This Year.” Both songs are beautiful, and have become popular standouts from their respective albums, but both are best understood in the context of those bodies of work. While wonderful and cathartic to hear both played live, to have them placed in the encore felt like theater twice over.
That is not, of course, to say that I didn’t scream every single word back to the stage when they did play them. Of course I did.