Human-condition portraiture

An admirer of “gorgeous, compact phrases”: Darnielle as lyricist draws from a deep well of experience, and he captures telling details with concision and prescience. Photo by D.L. Anderson
An admirer of “gorgeous, compact phrases”: Darnielle as lyricist draws from a deep well of experience, and he captures telling details with concision and prescience. Photo by D.L. Anderson

The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle is discussing his recent decision to road test new material again despite today’s “cell-phone camera versions” that despoil new releases. He admits that even his band made concessions to the new viral order, but says that those days and “that philosophy” are now over.

”There’s also value in unmediated, unrecorded experiences,” Darnielle says by phone from his Durham home. “I say that, though I realize that identifies me as part of a generation that will be dying out soon — that way of thinking is gone.”

If it’s anachronistic, then so is Darnielle, a literate songwriter active for two decades. And yet paradoxically the Mountain Goats only seem to be picking up steam now. He’s regularly hailed as one of America’s best lyricists, and the band has built a slavish following comprised of indie kids, DIY punkers, and middle-age word-nerds. These days, their high-energy live act books time with both Letterman and Colbert.

That’s a testament to his band in part, which has for several years included bassist Peter Hughes and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. But it’s mostly down to Darnielle’s songs. He describes them as “persuasive” monologues that “sound like the voices we run on little reels inside our head.” Some call them poetry; others liken them to short stories put to music. But he sees them as a natural extension of an art form that predates prose and goes back to the Middle Ages: the folk ballad.“The thing is, I don’t think it’s archaic,” he says. “I think it’s basic. Songs are the way we put stories into pulsing, breathing places.”

Working out new ones on the fly suits that vision. It’s also a return to a time when the Mountain Goats’ experience usually included the fun of “playing songs that didn’t have their legs under them yet and watching them stand.” Over 15 full-length albums, that aesthetic has served Darnielle well, from the era of ultra lo-fi boom box-recorded solo cassettes to his post-millennial full-band studio arrangements.

Whatever the mode of delivery, Darnielle’s talent for human-condition portraiture has never wavered. He draws from a deep well of experience — he’s lived in almost every corner of the country as well as the middle — and captures telling details with the concision and prescience of the best writers (no wonder cameras and their metaphors appear often in Mountain Goats songs). He admires author Joan Didion’s “gorgeous, compact phrases” for their resonance, as well as her knack for tapping into “this Greek notion of a predetermined and undesirable destiny for people that they can’t possibly see before they’re already embroiled in it.”

That inevitability colors much of The Mountain Goats’ catalog in dark hues, although chronicling it often in up-tempo pop feels an awful lot like catharsis (“I am gonna make it through this year / If it kills me,” goes the defiant sing-along chorus of audience favorite “This Year.”) But then Darnielle has had much to work through. He grew up with an abusive stepfather in California — a topic that colors much of 2005’s The Sunset Tree — and spent hard time on the streets of Portland doing drugs “you wouldn’t take recreationally,” he says.

He later worked as a psychiatric nurse and chronicled what he saw with a pen and acoustic guitar. (His 2008 book, Black Sabbath: Master of Reality, was part of the 33 classic album series; the protagonist is a 15-year-old mental patient.) Early Mountain Goats LPs largely featured Darnielle frantically strumming his guitar and spitting out clever wordplay-torrents with a preacher’s zeal and a vocal range somewhere between a rusty hinge and helium junkie. (The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones suggests he may be “the least self-conscious singer alive.”)

In their hyper-neurotic delivery, you could see madness lurked in those early songs. Little surprise then that the handful of new songs from the as-yet-untitled new LP feature, Darnielle says, a cast of “pretty deeply psychologically damaged” outliers in “a festival of one-act plays” (he loathes the idea of concept albums). Like Michael Apted’s Up film series, the new songs could be seen as a sequel of sorts to 2004’s lost-kids-on-the-street character studies on We Shall All Get Healed. As Darnielle says of this new damaged lot, “the inability to function when you have bills to pay is a little more pressing than if you don’t.”

Darnielle left the street long ago, and whatever adult difficulties he’s had haven’t kept the Mountain Goats from flourishing. He and his wife just welcomed their first child, too, and Darnielle could recently be seen cradling his months-old son in one arm while working out piano melodies for these new songs with the other. “That was awesome, because these are really dark songs and really dark shit goes down in them,” he chuckles, “written with this little creature who’s just full of love and life in my other hand.”

— John Schacht is a freelance writer and editor in chief of Shuffle Magazine.

who: The Mountain Goats (with Nurses)
where: The Grey Eagle $16 advance / $18 day of show.
when: Thursday, Feb. 2, 9 p.m.

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