The Mountain Goats: The Pen Is Mightier
By Bryan Reed
The path that led John Darnielle, counselor at a mental health facility in Ames, Iowa, to becoming John Darnielle, leader of the Mountain Goats and one of contemporary popular music’s most respected lyricists, is well-trod in profiles such as these. Through a string of homemade recordings and vacation-time touring, Darnielle told his stories to audiences, which grew gradually in size and fervor.
All Eternals Deck, is Darnielle’s 13th Mountain Goats LP since he started the project in the early 90s. And following suit with The Mountain Goats’ evolution, it is also the most musically adventurous and full-sounding Mountain Goats LP to date. Darnielle, whose bleating voice has often suited his moniker more than unacquainted listeners’ ears, is more bard than balladeer. But here his instrument is confident, even refined, without losing its bite. It’s polished enough to support the medieval-sounding backing chorus of “High Hawk Season,” powerful enough to carry the punchy rocker “Estate Sale Sign,” and controlled enough to captivate through the spare arrangement of “For Charles Bronson.”
But let’s be honest: Talking about The Mountain Goats is almost never a musical discussion as much as a lyrical one. Darnielle’s standout quality is the novelist’s eye that has, for about two decades, given short, rhythmic songs the gravity of literature. Mountain Goats albums are not unlike books on tape. And damn good ones, to boot. Darnielle is a thoughtful sculptor of drama, character and imagery.
“I want things to have stories behind them,” he says. “I want objects to have some sort of physical presence, like, when I see a book, I think of the person who wrote it and I think of the people who printed it and I think of the stuff that went into making it. It’s everything, really everything. I wonder if it really goes back to how connected I was to my stuffed animals when I was a child, that I infused them with personalities and stories and imagined that they had private lives when I wasn’t in the room.”
As a child, he dreamed of being “a writer whose work reached people.” And through The Mountain Goats, he’s achieved some semblance of that goal. But the heart wants what it wants. Roads diverge. Darnielle published his first novel, inspired by Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, an entry in Continuum’s acclaimed 33 ⅓ series, in 2008. A second novel is in the works. It seems reasonable to wonder could John Darnielle, author, usurp John Darnielle, Mountain Goat?
“The Mountain Goats have been such a huge part of my life for so long now that it is difficult for me to imagine not having that at the center of what I do. But then again, 10 years ago, it would have been difficult for me to imagine the Mountain Goats being the absolute center of everything I did.”
Perhaps, for the fanatic Mountain Goats fan who prefers prose set to melody, there’s solace in the different approaches songs and novels demand, and which Darnielle is especially aware of. “Books are different from songs,” he says, because it bears reminding. “A book is a journey you take over a period of time, whereas a song is a splash of water in the face.”