It was probably inevitable that John Darnielle would become a novelist. The singer/songwriter and founder of The Mountain Goats has made a career out of building entire worlds from simple or humble means. In their earliest days, The Mountain Goats consisted of just Darnielle, a guitar and a basic tape recorder, capturing his poignant narratives with the most low-tech means available. And yet the results, like 1995’s Sweden, still managed to be among the best indie music around.
That’s because John Darnielle is easily one of the best lyricists of his generation. Whether writing from a deeply personal perspective on 2009’s The Life of the World to Come or 2005’s The Sunset Tree, or in more escapist concept albums like Goths (about goths, naturally) or Beat the Champ (about professional wrestling), Darnielle always treats his subjects with empathy and humanity. Even when singing about people at their worst, he gives these figures a kind of dignity and relatability that adds depth and makes these stories so much more compelling.
And yes, that did eventually lead to his writing a number of books—first in 2008 with his entry in the 33 1/3 series, a novella based around Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, and then later 2014’s Wolf in White Van and 2017’s Universal Harvester, all of which are highly acclaimed. And it makes perfect sense as to why that is—Darnielle’s a storyteller above all, and with The Mountain Goats returning to San Diego this week, here are five songs that show why he’s one of the best lyricists in the game.
from The Sunset Tree (2005)
"This Year" is probably the best-known Mountain Goats song, and for good reason. It’s unbelievably catchy for one, returning to the refrain, "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me" with an uplifting energy that practically compels one to sing along. But that affirmation takes on a more intense quality given the context. Darnielle is singing as his 17-year-old self, living with an abusive stepfather and doing everything he can to retaliate against him. It’s a fairly simple narrative: He drives away from home, meets a girl, drinks alcohol and comes home to face the life he so desperately seeks to escape. "The scene ends badly as you might imagine," he sings, "in a cavalcade of anger and fear." Yet there’s a sense of hope and determination that drives him, and a light at the end of the tunnel as he says, "There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year." He just has to make it through this one first.
from Tallahassee (2002)
The entirety of 2002’s Tallahassee is about a fictionalized "Alpha Couple," about whom Darnielle narrates an ill-fated saga that finds them parting acrimoniously. "No Children" is only track seven, however, and by this point in the sequence, things have already pretty well hit the fan. There’s a sprightly barroom strum to the song, which immediately gives the illusion of being upbeat or even happy. In reality, it’s a stunning symphony of meanness and ill-will, a first-hand account of the moment that everything boils over and a marriage becomes a complete disaster: "I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow, I hope it bleeds all day long/Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises/We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong." It’s at its core a sad, angry song, but Darnielle delivers each dagger with such infectious glee that you can’t help but relish every moment of bitterness.
"Woke Up New"
from Get Lonely (2006)
The Mountain Goats’ 14th release Get Lonely isn’t often regarded as their strongest, in part because it’s among Darnielle’s most restrained and insular works. Yet, as with any of his collections, it contains some utterly stunning moments, "Woke Up New" chief among them. On its face, it’s a simple breakup song about someone trying to get on with their life, but Darnielle gives it an aching intimacy by focusing on the smallest of details in his protagonist’s life: "The first time I made coffee for just myself, I made too much of it/ But I drank it all/ Just ‘cause you hate it when I let things go to waste." It’s more than a breakup song, it’s about the slow and painful process of figuring out who you are after you’ve let your identity be wrapped up in that of someone else, and being haunted by the ghost that lingers, which only makes it that much harder to move on.
from The Life of the World To Come (2009)
John Darnielle has a gift for emotional devastation. It’s, admittedly, a niche interest, and there are certain Mountain Goats albums that require being in a certain frame of mind to listen to, lest one end up followed by an unrequested gloom. He’s also a warm and funny narrator just as often, but The Life of the World To Come is one particular album where the ache supersedes all else. Written as his mother in law was dying of cancer and his own experience of taking a break touring just to be able to say goodbye, "Matthew 25:21" is a rare, purely autobiographical song. And yes, it’s sad, but it’s also a beautifully written depiction of an inevitable truth, one that you can’t truly prepare for, try as you might: "I flew in from Pennsylvania/ When I heard the hour was coming fast/ And I docked in Santa Barbara/ Tried to brace myself/ But you can’t brace yourself when the time comes/ You just have to roll with the blast."
"The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton"
from All Hail West Texas (2002)
Many of The Mountain Goats’ early albums are extremely lo-fi, recorded on a practically nonexistent budget. So essentially everything from All Hail West Texas and earlier might be a tricky proposition for listeners not used to the tape hiss and vocal static. That being said, they’re rewarding—West Texas in particular—well beyond their production budget. "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton" might seem, on the surface, to have a silly premise, but it showcases the kind of empathy and affection that Darnielle has for the characters in his songs. The death metal band in this case is just a couple of teenagers with big dreams and not much else, which are rewarded with one of them, Cyrus, being institutionalized. It’s in part inspired by Darnielle’s own time working as a psychiatric nurse in a hospital in Norwalk, but the central message is best summarized just before the song ends: "When you punish a person for dreaming his dream/Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you."
Other recommended shows this week
Kaelan Mikla (September 11 at SPACE): I recently caught this Icelandic trio at the Pasadena Daydream festival, curated by The Cure’s Robert Smith, and I, for one, am converted. The group is still pretty green, but their synth-driven darkwave pop is perfect for easing into goth season, a.k.a. fall.
Hexa (September 12 at Whistle Stop): Speaking of goth season, local group Hexa are releasing a new album titled Sigil Sine, and they’ll be playing those gorgeously gloomy songs at this release show. Hexa’s been one of the city’s best bands ever since it was just vocalist/keyboardist Carrie Gillespie Feller, but they’ve only added more intriguing layers and elements since expanding to a trio, and then eventually a quartet.
Jay Som (September 12 at Che Café): Jay Som’s breakthrough album Everybody Works presented the Bay Area singer/songwriter as an up-and-coming indie talent worth watching, but her latest, Anak Ko, only offers a deeper and more nuanced showcase of her talents. Her style of pop runs the gamut from fuzzed-out anthems to daydreamy, laid-back tunes, a perfect backdrop for summer’s slow transition into fall.
Sure Fire Soul Ensemble (September 14 at The Casbah): Speaking of local release shows, here’s another one worth cruising to. Earlier this year I did a rundown of Sure Fire Soul Ensemble songs that were inspired by various locales throughout our city, but their ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired funk and soul grooves are best experienced in person, dancing optional (but recommended).