It’s been about twenty years since I first heard The Mountain Goats. Friends in college turned me on to what I’m going to refer to as “the hits”–i.e. “Going to Georgia” and “Cubs in Five,” songs that showcased John Darnielle’s lyrical range, urgent vocal delivery, and fondness for lo-fi recordings. It’s something that’s shaped how I’ve listened to them; despite the fact that it’s been fifteen years since the release of Tallahassee, there’s still a strange sense of the new when I hear music that Darnielle and the rest of the band have recorded in a proper studio.
Darnielle has written an abundance of great songs, and has gradually broadened his approach into something that has space for unorthodox arrangements, more contemplative moods, and larger structural experiments. Hell, a song that Darnielle wrote as something of an inside joke for director Rian Johnson is still incredibly catchy and, in places, quite affecting–despite that it is, lyrically speaking, utterly absurd. (The title: “The Ultimate Jedi Who Wastes All the Other Jedi and Eats Their Bones.”) The Mountain Goats are also quite deft with a cover; I’m pretty partial to their version of Trembling Blue Stars’ “Sometimes I Still Feel the Bruise.”
Darnielle’s music, and the interconnectedness between his songs–some of which share characters or settings–has long inspired listeners to dissect and discuss his work. (This array of annotations is one example.) So it’s not all that surprising to know that this year has brought with it a podcast dedicated to exploring The Mountain Goats’ body of work. In the case, it’s one called I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats, and it finds Welcome to Night Vale creator Joseph Fink hanging out in Durham, talking with Darnielle in the latter’s basement. For the first season, they’re going song by song through All Hail West Texas.
What that means is a variety of things, based on the first two episodes. Fink says early on, by way of introduction, that I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats is about “what it means to be an artist or a fan or, as many of us are, both at once.” I’ve listened to the first two episodes, and they cover a fair amount of artistic, personal, and even political territory–Fink brings up the fact that All Hail West Texas is an album with a fair amount of sociopolitical resonances, which is the one of the reasons it was chosen for the inaugural season.
That said, that blend makes for an interesting array of conversations–both between Fink and Darnielle and with other chats incorporated into the episode. John Green shows up in the first episode, making for a lengthy discussion as to whether the cries of “Hail Satan!” at the end of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” disqualify it for consideration as one of the great modern hymns of our time–which in turn veers into a dense and thoughtful conversation about Christianity, contemporary politics, and accessibility.
In the second episode, Darnielle discusses the effect that listening to the Beatles can have on songwriters, and compares it to how reading Brautigan, Bukowski, Vonnegut can cause many writers to adopt their tone, whether they choose to or not. There’s also a fascinating discussion on Durham and gentrification, and about how landscapes can inspire an unlikely assortment of art. Each episode ends with a new cover of the song being discussed, to be released on a compilation once the first season has ended. I will say that Laura Jane Grace’s take on “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is taut and triumphant; future participants include Craig Finn, Dessa, and Julian Koster.
The Mountain Goats are a logical choice for an artist to be discussed and deconstructed in this fashion: Darnielle is an affable conversationalist, with stories ranging from the harrowing to the charming, and his extensive discography gives him a lot to cover even in the more technical/music-oriented parts of the conversations. Fink and Darnielle are an unlikely pairing, but a surprisingly welcome one; so far, they’ve embarked on a thoughtful exploration into a fantastic album, with the promise of more to come.