If you were to browse my music and select a song at random it would probably start with a frankly terrible sounding droning in the background before a slightly off-tune guitar and the nasal voice of middle-aged man either crept in with a subtlety tinged with sadness or burst in like a daring crusader unafraid of the enemy horde waiting within. I am of course talking about my favorite band, the Mountain Goats, and their sound whose description varies from “unique” to “not music”. Now most Mountain Goats fans will admit upfront that John Darnielle (the lead singer/songwriter and the core of the band) doesn’t have the most elegant or complex music or even musical talent. However, John Darnielle does have 3 things that make him an overall amazing and impressive musician.
First is how incredibly prolific he is. The Mountain Goats have somewhere around 700 songs with the highest estimates ranging into the 1000’s range. In fact, the reason there is no exact number is that John writes so many songs that (in addition to his preference at times) he has been unable to record them all. Since 1991 John has consistently written and produced songs under the Mountain Goats titles even as other band members shift in and out of his orbit. Throughout this time, he has produced 15 full-length studio albums as well as dozens of other B-sides, tapes, EPs or unreleased songs that have been recorded live. One factor that helps drive John’s incredible writing speed is his dedication to originality. Often in interviews he mentions how that he tries to have the finished version of a song be as close to the first time he wrote it as possible, and that if he has major issues with a song he’ll often just throw it out and move on rather than try to create something good, that in his eyes, isn’t there.
The next thing that makes John Darnielle, and consequently the Mountain Goats’ music, so amazing is the passion with which both John and the rest of the band play. To most Mountain Goats fans seeing the band live is an almost religious experience punctuated with stories about songs, back and forth between the audience and few classics that everyone sings at the top of their lungs. But even on his recording John’s passion comes through. Listen to a song like Golden Boy or Going to Georgia and although the notes may seem to scar your ear drum at a point there is no denying the intense and unmatchable passion with which John is singing. This passion doesn’t only manifest itself in fast songs like those either, it’s just as evident in slow heavier songs such as Steal Smoked Fish or There Will Be No Divorce. This intense passion with which John sings and writes helps communicate how intensely he believes and loves his songs and work and how often intense their message can be. For example, although many of the songs by the Mountain Goats deal with serious issues such as drugs, abusive relationships or an abusive parent. With such gory and gritty songs, the quality of the music almost falls on the back burner as the fans focus on John’s intense near drunkenly loud singing and shouting which can serve as a rallying call for everyone suffering while his quiet and soothing tones can help relax and calm his audience. It’s this passion for his music that makes fans take it to the deeper level even when it can be on face hard to listen to.
The final thing that puts John Darnielle over the top is his incredible ability to tell a story through lyrics in such a beautiful way. Whether it’s his series about a couple that is stuck in a mutually hurtful relationship but as John often puts it “the only thing they hate more than each other is the idea of being alone” or a secret government colony on the moon built around organ harvesting, the Mountain Goats nail the lyrical and story element of songs. In fact, despites John’s statements that songs often don’t have a specific meaning and are open to fan interpretation a favorite past time of many fans is to interpret John’s often cryptic hints about his songs such as the words “Fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys” which appear on the front of his 2002 album All Hail West Texas. However, in John’s lyrics we not only find mystery but beauty and hope as he seemingly effortlessly is able to paint images in a reader’s head of everywhere from the streets of Portland roamed by drug addicts to the burning of Rome by Nero. This ability of John’s to use lyrics so effectively isn’t surprising given his history of writing poetry but has still gone on to earn him the respect of many in the music community with Rolling Stone even calling him the “Best Storyteller in Rock”. It’s been a long journey from the 1991 days of playing small gigs in Southern California but the Mountain Goats have continued to prove themselves to be unique, fascinating and moving in their music.