Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

The Top Twenty Quest: The Mountain Goats

October 15, 2010

It’s fitting that The Mountain Goats‘ latest album, The Life of the World to Come, features songs exclusively titled after Bible references. (“Genesis 3:23,” “1 John 4:16,” “Ezekiel 7 And The Permanent Efficacy Of Grace,” etc.) The inspired fervor with which I adhere to these music makers notches one step below religious.

I have now seen John Darnielle and co. three times, each time alone. This is because I have found five people who even like the band, much less love them. This is not for lack of trying; I have tried to get almost every one of my friends to listen to them. Their responses, even when listening to the most accessible of tracks,  range from kind ambivalence to undisguised disgust.

It is somewhat disheartening, to say the least. Not that I can hold it against anyone; Darnielle’s voice is unusual, there are catchier songs in the world, and the lyrics are erudite. The band will never be confused for an All-American Rejects knock-off. The songs take some work to get used to, and that’s just not what most people look for in music. It doesn’t even have the residual side effect of rocking that hard, which excludes fans of stately rock like The National plays.

It’s a tough sell.

That’s where the semi-religious fervor comes in, for those who invest in the Mountain Goats see returns in spades. With 500+ songs (no, really), Mr. Darnielle is one of the most prolific songwriters I’ve ever heard of. Even though many of them are little stories as opposed to confessionals (which only appeared later in his so-far 20 years of recording), a full and developed psyche is on display in musical form. It’s not always the kindest, cleanest, most organized or loveliest persona that emerges, but it’s pretty thorough.

That connection to the lyrics ties people to the Mountain Goats once they’re in. Knowing the Mountain Goats’ discography is the closest I can ever get to knowing someone I don’t actually know. But it’s not just any person I don’t know: he’s a passionate, flawed, wild, interesting, intelligent, crafty individual. John Darnielle seems like a dude who you’d want to know.

That’s expressly why I’ve avoided meeting him. I’m sure he’s different in person than he is in his songs, and that would be disappointing at this point. So I’ll keep to his songs.

So I go up to his shows alone, because that’s the closest I’ll ever be to the persona that his songs create. It’s like having coffee with an old friend that you know has changed. You’re going to tell the same old stories, and it’s gonna be awesome, as long as you just skirt the surface of what’s happening now.

The ACM@UCO Performance Lab, where the Mountain Goats played recently, is pretty tight. It provided a lot of space for people to spread out and gave the Mountain Goats a pretty big stage. (I’m used to seeing them at Opolis, so anything more than matchbox-size is big in my mind.)  The Goats did not disappoint, throwing down a set composed of mostly old tunes, with only a few new ones interspersed.

While every MG set is great because I love them so much, this one was marked by two sad circumstances: Darnielle broke the piano’s sustain pedal in the first song, and he didn’t feel 100 percent health-wise. This turned some songs into alternate versions (“Dance Music” was played at about half-speed without the piano leading, which made it explicitly not dance music, which was very confusing). “No Children,” which hangs on the jaunty piano line, was a little subdued, but it is what it is. Some days don’t go your way.

Honestly, it didn’t really matter what was played. I wasn’t specifically there to hear anything (although “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” and the ultra-obscure “Waving at You” were pretty amazing, as I’d never heard either live). I was going because I get the songs. I haven’t heard all of them, but I relate to the passion and sentiments behind 75% of MG music (excluding songs about the alpha couple, as I’m not an alcoholic). And it’s hard to find anyone that you relate to 75% of the time.

Even if it’s a slightly unreal persona constructed of songs, I’ll take that. And I’ll keep going to Mountain Goats shows.

photos/Stephen Carradini, Oct. 26, 2006. Opolis, Norman, OK.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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