Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Our Man in Song

John Darnielle, aka The Mountain Goats, is getting too good to ignore. Witness the rave in this week's New Yorker as well as the sold-out show at the Knitting Factory last Thursday. SFJ dubbed him the "best lyricist outside of hip hop," but I'll go one further. The guy is simply the best songwriter around. Period.

In the last three years, the Mountain Goats have released three uniformly outstanding albums that miraculously manage to make the tired singer-songwriter genre seem fresh and relevant again. 2004's We Shall All Be Healed (title better in context) is probably my favorite album of the past five years and Darnielle's high water mark, so far. Like the best of Bob Dylan, these elliptical, dark, and often violent songs signify five different ways simulataneously. Exact meanings are hard to pin down and new details sprout with every listening. The subtexts are political, religious, chemical, and personal -- detailing self-destructive binges, betrayals, paranoia, small victories, and defiance in the face of really fucked up shit. It's a notes from underground for the Bush era.

Just released, The Sunset Tree is less dense and quieter. It's apparently Darnielle's most baldly autobiographical work, spinning out a cycle of songs about his troubled youth and physically abusive step-father. In the best Steely Dan fashion, the music is polished and tranquil while the lyrics seethe and roil beneath the surface - including the best Romulus and Remus reference in any popular song. Highlights: the inspirational "This Year" ("I am going to make it! Through this year! If it kills me!") , downright funky "Dance Music," and the trio of somber tunes that close out the disc. "Love, Love, Love" manages to make a case for both murder and suicide as acts of love while "Song For Dennis Brown" contains the immortal couplet: "It took all the coke in town/ to bring down Dennis Brown."

Thursday's sold-out show at the Knitting Factory felt like a victory lap and the rotating band (acoustic guitar and bass, augmented by occasional cello, electric guitar, violin, and drums) seemed to be at the top of their game. They switched fluidly from devastatingly quiet tunes to raved-up and rocking versions of "See America Right" and "International Small Arm Traffic Blues" off 2003's Tallhassee. The show ended with the so-caustic-it's-catharatic "No Children." Darnielle - "Everybody now: `I hope you die! I hope we all die!'" - sporting a wicked grin. Bassist Peter Hughes declared this show as "their best ever" in his engaging tour diary. Hell, my friend Dave who had never previously heard a note of Darnielle's music left the show with several albums.

I'd never seen the Mountain Goats live, but Melissa warned me that Darnielle is "kinda crazy." Not something you get from reading the funny and articulate interviews with him, but seeing him on stage I knew exactly what she meant. For a musician he's incredibly buttoned-down and studious looking but acts somewhat unhinged - an unnerving combination. He throws himself into his songs with such heedless abandon that you begin to worry for him or get a little frightened. "If people aren't afraid of me, I'm not doing my job," he told The Believer last year. Mission accomplished, although Melissa maintains he was "way crazier the last time I saw him."


Blogger Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

Nice post --- and relatively timely!

1:15 PM  
Blogger Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

And you're going to want to read this.

4:41 PM  

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