Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Mountain Goats. We Shall All Be Healed (4AD, 2004)

"There must be diamonds somewhere/ In a place that stinks this bad/ There are brighter things than diamonds/ Coming down the line."

The voice of John Darnielle, onetime mental hospital attendant and perennial primary personality in the Mountain Goats, can be an acquired taste, I'll grant you. His thin, nasally tenor is a close cousin to the high-lonesome wail of old-timey bluegrass and mountain music, pitched somewhere up above reedy and marked by a wavering shakiness that's pretty unsettling at times. It's a haunted voice, custom built for ghost stories and murder testimonies. But I've gotta tell you, from the first few listens of We Shall All Be Healed -- the Mountain Goats' brilliant 2004 addition to a lengthy catalog stretching back to 1991 (sixteen LPs and counting, and way more EPs and singles) -- it's a taste that I acquired, and I've come to consider Darnielle one of the best personal musical discoveries I've made in recent years.

Like I say, Darnielle has been recording as the Mountain Goats for nearly two decades. The king's ransom of his catalog is exceedingly lo-fi, in the "I've got this guitar and this boombox and I'm not too sure if the boombox's mic works right" vein.
By the time I stumbled onto them (having never really been aware of the band until coming across We Shall All Be Healed basically by chance), the Mountain Goats had a vibrant fan base of folks dedicated to collecting Darnielle's sounds as quickly as he could release them. Only rarely did other instruments or voices join Darnielle and his acoustic, and the poor recording quality gave many of his albums an almost found art feel.

With 2002's Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats acquired a major label (4AD), a comparatively sophisticated studio sound, and the occasional bass, drums, and piano to keep the still mainly acoustic guitar company. Tallahassee proved that Darnielle wasn't hiding behind the lo-fi approach, passing off crap songs as something better by wrapping them in tape hiss and background noise. We Shall All Be Healed, the follow-up to Tallahassee, saw Darnielle and company sticking around the studio, and we're all better off for it: it's as memorable a batch of catchy, quirky genius as you're likely to find.

The Mountain Goats often work unifying themes into their records (a collapsing marriage in Tallahassee, child abuse in The Sunset Tree), and the loose theme of We Shall All Be Healed is meth and meth addiction. Many of these songs focus on how meth affects its users, making them fixate on the bizarre minutiae of the everyday. Sad and disturbing, sure, but fascinating and eerily hilarious, too. "Send somebody out for soda/ Comb through the carpet for clues/ Reflective tape on our sweatpants/ Big holes in our shoes," wails the narrator of "Palmcorder Yanja" (incidentally the first Mountain Goats song I ever heard, and the one which made me want to investigate further). Later, the loping fever dream of "Letter From Belgium" talks about "Susan in her notebook/ Freehand drawings of Lon Chaney/ Blueprints for geodesic domes/ Recipes for cake," before Darnielle announces, "When we walk out in the sunlight we tell everyone we know it hurts our eyes/ When the real reason we don't like it is that it makes us wonder if we're dying."

I've mentioned Darnielle's voice, but his guitar playing and sense of arrangement are something to behold, too. He's got a straightforward, expressive style which captures the mood and tone of the songs perfectly. Check out the urgent, desperate strumming of "Home Again Garden Grove," pulling the listener along as the car barrels past the strip malls and convenience stores, as the narrator draws closer to his destination, exulting in his imminent victory/self-destruction, crowing "I can remember when we were in high school/ Our dreams were like fugitive warlords/ Plotting triumphant returns to the city/ Keeping Tec-Nines tucked under the floorboards!" Ditto the syncopated rattle of "Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of," which finds an exultant Darnielle explaining "But you're going to do/ What you want to do/No matter what I ask of you/ And you send your dark messengers to tempt me/ I come from Chino, so all your threats are empty."

There's a lot of Mountain Goats out there to discover. John Darnielle has a pretty unique (not to mention prolific) vision and talent, and it would be a shame not to check out at least some of it. We Shall All Be Healed -- in all its addled, adenoidal glory -- is a great place to start.