The Mountain Goats

Turning The Klieg Lights Around

Music Features The Mountain Goats
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(Above [L-R]: The Mountain Goats' Peter Hughes and John Darniellle. Photo by Steven Dewall)

The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle is a projector.

When he sings, his torso stiffens, his eyes pop and you can veritably see the celluloid light bursting from his possessed throat, condensed images flickering upside down between parted teeth. Stridently strummed acoustic guitar motors the film between reels, and dazzlingly precise lyrics conjure details in the air.

“Window facing an ill-kept front yard / plums on the tree, heavy with nectar,” he sang, opening 2002’s Tallahassee, a concept album about the so-called Alpha Couple he’d chased for a prolific decade through the lo-? underground, subject of a dozen songs on countless compilations, an overflowing handful of EPs and a bushel of full-lengths. The Alphas’ love, he sang, was “like the border between Greece and Albania, trucks loaded down with weapons / Crossing over every night, moon yellow and bright.”

Until signing with 4AD for that recording, Darnielle—the band’s sole permanent member—primarily recorded at home on a boombox, gears audibly grinding beneath slathered analog hiss. So just as the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass evolved partially because it cut through Appalachian radio static, Darnielle developed a unique delivery, howling his words with spitfire nasal clarity. You’ll just have to forgive him for begging off a phone interview because of recurring throat problems.

“Thanks especially for not telling me to try hot tea with lemon and stuff like that,” he emails from a club in Arkansas. “People are always bustin’ out with the folk remedies. They mean well, but good intentions, etc.”

Darnielle is on the road with bassist Peter Hughes, promoting new album The Sunset Tree, on which he does something remarkably new: he sings about himself. Most dudes with acoustic guitars wouldn’t bat an eye. But as Darnielle has long made clear, he’s not just a dude with an acoustic guitar.

“I think my fairly long history of writing about various non-autobiographical stuff suggests that I wouldn’t do something like The Sunset Tree unless I thought it was worth doing as craft,” he writes.

Darnielle’s scope has always been so broad that the question of autobiography was never necessary. He sang of belittled metalheads, speed freaks, mythological characters and myriad imploding relationships. Like fiction, his songs were true because the author said so, his lucid accuracy allowing his ever-growing audience to experience the words with aesthetic clarity.

It’s with some surprise, then, that The Sunset Tree declares that it was “made possible by [his] stepfather, Mike Noonan (1940-2004),” contains a dedication to “young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them,” and finds a centerpiece in “Dance Music.” During that song, a “5 or 6 year old” Darnielle watches as his stepfather “launches a glass across the room straight at [his mother’s] head.” Darnielle escapes upstairs to his record player. “So this is what the volume knob is for,” he notes.

“People have been accusing me of writing autobiography for years, so if I actually start doing so, a lot of people won’t even notice a switch has occurred,” Darnielle predicts.

Regardless of the fact that he’s “gone hi-? in the textual sense” (as he endearingly puts it), The Sunset Tree feels consistent with the world Darnielle has previously constructed, the Alphas living, perhaps, just across town. And, even in that world, the album is Darnielle’s most optimistic, filled with triumphant choruses, gospel swells (courtesy of John Vanderslice and Darnielle’s accumulating regulars) and the happy ending that the singer has lived to sing about it.

As the proprietor of LastPlaneToJakarta.com, as incisive a blog on death metal, dance music and the meaning of life as one is likely to find, Darnielle is an acute student of pop history. “I am surprised as you are about how natural it feels to talk about this album in these kinds of terms!” he writes, shocked that an album about resolution could, when put into the world, actually provide resolution.

“I got a lot of personal satisfaction out of writing this stuff,” he admits. “I found some feelings I didn’t know were in there, and was able to draw connections between various parts of my life.”

In John Darnielle’s grand plot, the second reel has only just begun.