It is 2008. It is the part that comes in most Mountain Goats sets where the band takes a break in the green room while John Darnielle performs a few solo acoustic songs. He is grinning and gregarious, possibly a few drinks in, describing a road trip where his fellow passengers tried to change the radio station when the song “The Sign” by Ace of Base came on: “And I said ‘No, wait, wait wait wait … that’s Ace of Base.’ And they were like, ‘What?’ And I was like, ‘No … that’s my favorite band.’” He makes them pull over at a Sam Goody to buy the album, which he already owns at home, and plays the album on a loop for the rest of the drive.
He has told this story dozens of ways. For years, the cover was a staple in his live set. He always includes a different bit of minutiae: a detail about the band’s home city of Gothenburg, the story of their ill-fated recording contract, etc. It’s classic John Darnielle: Where other people see a fluffy, sentimental pop song, Darnielle sees only joy—a song that he has memorized every trivial detail about, only to come away more impressed with the simple, pure power of a singalong song. You see this all through Darnielle’s own work: the fixation on the power of a single song, a collection of details that amount to more than a sum of their parts, and an electric joy.
Despite the decade or so of acoustic cassette recordings, many of Darnielle alone at the boombox, the Mountain Goats have always been a band. In the liner notes to the 2013 reissue, Darnielle notes that all previous recordings were “to larger or lesser extents, collaborative, featuring other musicians and singers.” Darnielle was frequently accompanied by a bassist/second vocalist, in addition to contributions from friends like Franklin Bruno of Nothing Painted Blue and New Zealand songwriter Alastair Galbraith.
Darnielle’s preferred method of recording for the band’s first decade was a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox. He would simply insert a cassette into the machine and hit “RECORD.” Many early songs are punctuated by the audible click of Darnielle stopping the tape. The internal condenser mic did not actually condense, and it was positioned so close to the machine’s moving parts that it captured a low, droning wheel-grind. Darnielle refers to the boombox as a “second performer” on these early recordings. The limitations and failures of the Panasonic RX-FT500 become a central component of the Mountain Goats sound.
The first albums were cheerfully ramshackle collections of recordings from home, live radio sessions and friends’ studios. By ‘99, the first releases—cassettes with hand-drawn cover art—had become impossible to track down, and Darnielle partnered with the label 3 Beads of Sweat to re-release this early material across three CD compilations. Even the first proper Mountain Goats full-length album, Zopilote Machine, has the vibe of a compilation or mixtape: Recording quality and volume varies widely from song to song. The earliest Mountain Goats releases feel like someone recording in a bedroom during a house party, guests rotating in and out, communal and rowdy, consumed with trying to capture the energy of creation in a single take.
2002 marked an epochal shift for the Mountain Goats. In February, All Hail West Texas was released. It was the final album recorded directly into the RX-FT500 (until 2020, anyways, but more on that later). The boombox had developed an erratic clicking noise that was ruining recordings. This would be its last rodeo. The album cleanly divides the band’s discography into two eras: the “lo-fi” era from 1991 through the release of All Hail, and the full band, “studio” era starting with Tallahassee, released later that year.
All Hail West Texas is both the culmination and the most singular release of the lo-fi era. It’s a classic Mountain Goats collection of short stories, but it’s just a little quieter, a little more contemplative—fitting, given how it was recorded. As Darnielle says in the album’s liner notes, “All Hail is really the only [album] that fits the ‘one guy recording alone in his house’ description.”
With his wife away at hockey camp, Darnielle would return home in the early afternoon from his new job orientation with lyrics scrawled in the margins of the day’s handouts. He spent the evenings wandering the house with his guitar, muting the TV when an idea felt like it was gathering momentum. If a song didn’t come together quickly, or if a knock at the door or the ringing phone interrupted too many takes while recording, it was abandoned.
Today (Feb. 19), All Hail West Texas turns 20, and the anniversary has dredged up an old question that I have spent a lot of time puzzling over: how to introduce someone to the lo-fi era of the Mountain Goats for the first time.
It can be hard to sell people on that early boombox era. The songs are blanketed in tape hiss and the wheel-grind. Darnielle’s vocal delivery at the time was strident and nasal, his lyrics were often cryptic fragments that implied larger stories, and he alternates between amateur fingerpicking and strumming so furiously that it feels like either the song or the guitar will fall apart. Darnielle’s fixations are obscure and myriad, informed by the occult menace of his favorite death metal bands, ancient history and myth, and literature ranging from pulp thrillers to translated classics from across the globe. Some songs are linear narratives of archaic historical events; others are surreal dispatches from worlds where the prophet Elijah and the Easter Bunny linger in the shadows, threatening to appear. It gets a little overwhelming.
However, this period is beloved by fans for a reason: The songs are funny, moving and deeply rewarding. Across a dozen or so releases, there are through lines, repeated motifs and recurring characters. Taken together, the songs accumulate meaning, illuminating a larger story of hope and resilience. When people ask me where to start with these early Mountain Goats records, I have always struggled to answer, unsure of how to introduce someone to all the things that make these albums great despite the boombox recording and oddball subject matter.
So here it is: a 20-song guide to the first decade of Mountain Goats music. This is a primer designed to take you step-by-step through the highlights of the lo-fi era, to give some context to the chaos, and to point out the threads that tie these albums together. If you’re already a passionate fan, I already know that you will find me on Twitter to debate my selections (this is one of the best and worst things about Mountain Goats fans, and I welcome it with open arms). But if you are a casual fan who is familiar only with the more polished albums, or entirely new to the band: welcome. I’ve made a little map for you. I hope it helps.
1. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”
I really want you to read the rest of this list. I put a lot of thought into it. However, if you were looking for one single song to sum up the first decade of the Mountain Goats, this is it: the band’s whole ethos encapsulated in a single lilting singalong. If you are strapped for time—heading into surgery or federal court, or perhaps you are an NBA player who has a game in just a few minutes—listen to this one.
“The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is a microcosm of the magic of All Hail West Texas, covering whole years and deft tonal shifts in just a few verses. Two childhood friends form a metal band and cannot agree on a name, so they simply decorate their instruments with stylized versions of their own names, which is truly badass. Their love for death metal and its occult trappings frightens the well-meaning adults in their lives, who ship them off to facilities that these well-meaning adults call “hospitals.” Darnielle, who worked as a psychiatric nurse, uses the cover of All Hail West Texas to call this place what it really is: “a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.”
In a 2008 article for eMusic, Darnielle says, “When I write a song in which a couple of teenagers vow to take revenge on the grownups who’re fucking up their lives, well, I cast my lot with the teenagers. They may do wrong sometimes, but their hearts aren’t rotten yet, and the light is strong within them.” “Hail Satan” wasn’t written down on the lyrics sheet in front of him when he recorded the song; it was an improvised overflow of righteous indignation and empathetic fury for the boys who lose years of their life, often their whole adolescence. It’s not really about Satan, it’s about the refusal to be dominated by a world intent on crushing you. It’s about, he has explained, two people being true to themselves.
Darnielle wrote about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality for the 33 1/3 book series in the form of fictional diary entries from a teenage boy who had been sent away to a residential treatment facility, much like Jeff and Cyrus. The dedication to this book serves as a fitting dedication for “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”: “To all the children to whom I ever provided care, in the earnest hope that your later lives have brought you the joy, and love, and freedom that was always yours by right.”
2. “Cubs in Five”
This is important: John Darnielle is funny as hell. The narrators in his songs tend toward the dramatic, and many songs plumb the depths of human despair in their quest for the light. But he is also really fucking funny.
“Best Ever … ” is funny in its own right, but there are songs scattered throughout the lo-fi era where the climax is also a punchline. “The Anglo-Saxons” is a straightforward list of anthropological facts delivered like stand-up: “A sub-literate bunch of guys / Although some sources say otherwise.” “Golden Boy” extols the virtues of a brand of packaged peanuts that can’t be found in hell (so better not go to hell). It’s a style that Darnielle doesn’t deal much in anymore; about “Golden Boy,” he said, “When the joke stops making me laugh, something goes missing. So it’s a retired player, but when I hear this, it’s like a picture of a now-submerged island. Farewell, little island! You had some nice trees!”
“Cubs in Five” is the best of these songs. It has some great trees. The song’s premise is a bit that transcends itself and—as the narrator makes sarcastic predictions about what will come to pass before he ever loves the song’s recipient again—genuine emotion spills over the edges.
3. “Some Swedish Trees”
Before Darnielle’s longtime collaborator and current Mountain Goats bassist Peter Hughes officially joined the band, Rachel Ware of the Bright Mountain Choir added bass and vocals on the first few albums. The rest of the Choir also popped in from time to time (most recently on 2008’s Heretic Pride). Ware was a friend from childhood, and although she departed the band as soon as it became clear the Goats would be touring quite a lot, she and Darnielle have a playful energy that shines through many of those first releases.
There’s a meme that circulates every once in a while with a picture of a cutesy, colorful house labeled “MUSIC” next to an uber-goth, all-black house labeled “LYRICS.” John Darnielle is the king of this. “Some Swedish Trees” is one of the earliest examples: a cheerful, bouncy song that belies ominous lyrics. As the song builds toward its final chorus, Darnielle sings “The berries throw their hooks into the soil” with the conviction of someone professing their love or challenging their rival to a duel, and then concludes with a steely eyed fatality: “Felt the blood between us churning thick as motor oil.” The song churns on its merry way, a candy-colored train hauling freight cars filled with explosives.
4. “Maize Stalk Drinking Blood”
There are many raucous and dramatic Mountain Goats songs. There are accusations and threats and betrayal and inescapable, unhappy fates. However, one of the first ways that Darnielle’s songwriting began tangibly evolving was in the quiet moments. In an article about the song “Waving at You,” Darnielle points to a moment where he gets quiet at the end of a line: “To me, that’s the signal that I’m getting so involved with the plotline that I can’t really tell the difference between myself and the narrator any more. That is really the point at which I feel like I’ve succeeded in getting somewhere.”
The narrator in “Maize Stalk” speaks quietly, not railing against his fate as much as plaintively accepting it—or at least coming to terms with the fact that he has no other choice. The warm sun only serves to make the devastation more clear, the cardinals cannot bring themselves to sing for sorrow, and as the narrator surveys the scene, he softly laments, “This is an empty country, and I am the king / And I should not be allowed to touch anything.”
“Jenny” was the first Mountain Goats song to knock the wind out of me, the first time I heard a Mountain Goats song and felt—unexpectedly and deeply—moved. On the surface, so little is happening. The guitar is barely there except to accentuate the chord changes. The “events” of the song take place in only a few seconds. It is a single scene from a film. One figure enters the frame on a new black and yellow Kawasaki and pulls into the driveway, where a second figure climbs on and the two roar off out of frame together, cheering, “Hi diddle dee dee! / Goddamn! / The pirate’s life for me!”
There are countless Mountain Goats songs that do this: freeze a single moment and zoom all the way in until we can make out serial numbers and count eyelashes. “Jenny” is the most arresting. It zeroes in on the scene where all the longing and joy has swelled until the air is hot and heavy with it, and discards the rest of the story because everything essential has already been communicated.
“Jaipur” is a much different kind of story than “Jenny.” Instead of a slow-motion moment heavy-laden with emotion, we join a whirlwind journey, catching glimpses of the scenery as it rushes past. As previously mentioned, the Panasonic’s condenser mic does not actually condense; if one sits too close to the boombox and plays emphatically, the recording begins to break up and distort. “Jaipur” weaponizes this distortion. The song is a searing, wide-eyed stomp down the East Coast, the narrator spitting ominous warnings through his teeth: “I am the killer dressed in pilgrim’s clothing … I am the landmine hidden in the sand.”
“Jenny” is a moment of pure and powerful emotion, rendered clearly and truthfully. “Jaipur” is true in a completely different way: “Jaipur” is myth. Darnielle loves myth; he studied Latin, the Bible and works of Greek antiquity, and mythological figures from Hercules to Quetzalcoatl pop up in his lyrics. The literal truth of these stories is unimportant, as their spiritual truth is apparent. “Jaipur” takes the basic premise of a homecoming and draws the narrator as a massive figure, striding from state to state on his way toward a familiar place that no longer offers a friendly welcome.
7. “Going to Port Washington”
Over 50 songs in the Mountain Goats’ catalog include the phrase “Going to” in their title, almost all of them written in the first six years of Darnielle releasing music as the Goats. These songs are not from the same story, and they do not necessarily share any characters. They are all, however, animated by some kind of journey. Usually, there is the implication that the characters are physically traveling to or from somewhere; some songs depict a moment of transition. The characters in these songs are often caught in liminal spaces, trapped between the pull of their memories and their fear of the future, or struggling against the heavy anchor of their past toward the hope of their destination. “Going to Port Washington” finds its two characters crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge into New York as fall prepares to make way for winter, sun pouring in through the windshield, the narrator sure in that moment that “I had never loved anyone like I loved you.”
8. “Alpha Incipiens”
If you sort Mountain Goats songs alphabetically, there is one other big cluster of similarly titled songs. Unlike the loose thematic connection between “Going to” songs, every Alpha song is about the same couple: alcoholic, unhappily married, and on a lurching journey from California to Tallahassee, Florida. Some songs find them trying to save their marriage; on others, they are trying bitterly to outlast each other. Their relationship, as well as their home, goes up in flames on Tallahassee, a concept album about the Alpha couple released just eight months after All Hail West Texas. “Alpha Incipiens” is one of the “Trying to Save the Marriage” songs.
“Alpha Incipiens” is the first song on The Mountain Goats’ debut full-length, Zopilote Machine. During a 2005 show at the Knitting Factory, Darnielle said, “This song was not the first song about the Tallahassee people but it’s the one in which the moment is born, where they’re going to drink each other into the ground, dissolve their marriage, and burn a house down.” In the distance, everything is ominous: hounds bay, the cool breeze is just a portent of a brewing storm, and the two of them are so thick with vodka they can barely understand one another, but the narrator clings to the only center they have: “The only thing I know is that I love you / And I’m holding on.”
9. “Alpha Sun Hat”
A mere two songs later on Zopilote Machine, the Alpha couple has already given up on holding on. “Alpha Sun Hat” is the first mention of Tallahassee, the first hint toward the inevitable end that was, at the time, still eight years away. Rather than explain why this song kicks so much ass, I will here transcribe the song’s chorus in full, as its excellence is self-evident:
“1, 2, 3, 4,
That’s not music you hear, that’s the devil
That’s not the sun up in the sky, it’s a human heart
If you’re planning your escape, you know I’m all for you
As I watch the sun come up again over Tallahassee, Florida”
10. “Horseradish Road”
There are many Mountain Goats songs about two people who were once in love, or thought they were, whose “love for one another degenerates into a horrible poisonous hatred,” as Darnielle put it at a show in 1998 while introducing “Horseradish Road.” Two years later, his introduction was even more to the point: “It’s about people who are evil to one another.”
Unlike the Alpha couple, the characters in “Horseradish Road” aren’t dramatic and flamboyantly evil to each other. “Alpha Incipiens” and “Alpha Sun Hat” cover opposite ends of the Alpha story, but both churn along with equal vigor. In love and in hate, the Alpha couple are a whirlwind. “Horseradish Road,” on the other hand, is deceptively gentle. Darnielle’s voice is just above a whisper. The larger story is only hinted at with a few details: Maria Callas records, inventories that keep diminishing, and $12,000 hidden in a purse. The quiet that pervades the car is filled with unspoken threats and looming shadows of inevitable violence.
11. “The Recognition Scene”
John Darnielle’s career has proved definitively that there are an infinite number of songs you can write about two people in a car. It is a well that never runs dry. Like “Horseradish Road,” the characters in “The Recognition Scene” are partners in crime, but their fate is less clearly spelled out for them. “I saw something written in tall, clear letters on your face,” Darnielle intones, “but I could not break the code.”
In Greek drama, the recognition scene is the moment when everyone knows everything, when all the lies have been exposed and the fate everyone has been trying to avoid has become incontrovertibly unavoidable. “The Recognition Scene” opens the 1995 album Sweden, and its first plucked note feels like the curtain being drawn for the opening scene of a play in medias res—beginning in the middle of the story. We don’t need to know what comes next to know how it all ends.
12. “Family Happiness”
The power of “Horseradish Road” and “The Recognition Scene” come from their terse restraint and ambiguity. The power of “Family Happiness” comes from the complete opposite end of the spectrum. It is bombastic and explosive. The wheels are threatening to come off the entire time. Death lurks in every corner of The Coroner’s Gambit, especially “Family Happiness.” In a 2001 interview, Darnielle references a song called “Tampa” that didn’t make the album—“a terribly dark song about someone who finds a body buried in the snow”—because including both it and “Family Happiness” pointed “the whole album toward the grave.”
Like “Jaipur,” “Family Happiness” was recorded close enough to the boombox that the song sounds like it is catching on fire. The recording crackles with menace. As the car cruises across the Canadian border, the final confrontation gets more inevitable with every passing mile. Darnielle careens toward the end of the song like a runaway semi, strumming the guitar more and more furiously, howling, “You can arm me to the teeth / You can’t make me go to war!”
13. “New Star Song”
“New Star Song” is the oldest song on this list. It is the best song on 1994 EP Beautiful Rat Sunset (the earliest Mountain Goats release you can still acquire without embarking on an Indiana Jones-like journey to the dark heart of the internet where the rare tape-trading happens). You can hear it in the methodical, thumpy strumming of someone who had not yet perfected their instrument. The song’s origins are mundane: Darnielle had to kill a 12-hour layover between buses in Redding, California. Like on the best Mountain Goats songs, however, Darnielle charges its atmosphere with sickening humidity, teenagers in trucks careening around corners and oozing adrenaline, and a sky illuminated by lightning. “New Star Song” is one of the sharpest examples of Darnielle’s poetic imagination, seeing past the mundane surface and into the spiritual energy that animates everything.
14. “Bluejays and Cardinals”
Darnielle’s songwriting during the lo-fi era was decidedly and emphatically not autobiographical. In the liner notes to Zopilote Machine, he refers derisively to “the old saw about one man baring his soul” and snarks about people who demand this of songwriters. He is also notoriously cagey about explaining his songs, insisting that how someone hears and interprets his music is just as essential to the meaning as the songwriter’s intentions.
“Bluejays and Cardinals” is a rare exception. Darnielle has been clear that this is a song about the loss of his friend Rozz Williams, a musician, artist and poet probably best-known for his work with metal band Christian Death. The plaintive refrain “This world couldn’t hold you / and you slipped free” echoes a later song from We Shall All Be Healed, “Quito”: “And when I wave my magic wand / Those few who’ve slipped the surly bonds will rise like salmon at the spawning.” Resurrection can be literal, as in spiritual traditions, but there is also a resurrection that happens in life. Many of Darnielle’s characters slip their own surly bonds as they move toward a brighter light. The 2012 album Transcendental Youth focuses on people at the fringes—outcasts, addicts and the infirm—and their pursuit of this resurrection in one form or another.
This is not the point but I feel compelled to tell you: Transcendental Youth is a top five Mountain Goats album. “Quito” is a top one Mountain Goats song.
15. “Chinese House Flowers”
“Chinese House Flowers,” as far as I can tell, is not a song that John Darnielle particularly loves. According to the shockingly well-maintained Mountain Goats wiki, the song only appears on two setlists, one from 1996 and the other from 2017. It is immediately followed on the album by “Ontario,” a fan-favorite that has been performed roughly 20 times in this same interval, and picking this over “Ontario” certainly goes against the general consensus. However, as I was nearly done selecting songs, I realized that any list like this cannot be complete until it veers off from the obvious standouts to include an arbitrary favorite.
As time goes on, what is most special to me about the Mountain Goats is how the songs set down in you like seeds, and then a great deal of time passes, and suddenly you realize that one has unexpectedly sprouted roots and that you carry it with you wherever you go. “Chinese House Flowers” is one of those songs for me; I carry the yearning refrain “I want you the way you were” with me wherever I go.
16. “The Alphonse Mambo”
I lived for a year in southeast China with the woman who would become my wife. In an effort to keep in touch, I would stay up late at night and call my best friend Bryan as the sun was rising in Florida. We came up with little projects that made us feel less far apart. We recorded song ideas into our iPhones and emailed them to one another. We picked unfamiliar albums by bands we liked and spent a week listening to one single album on a loop, finding new favorites we’d overlooked before.
One of these albums was The Coroner’s Gambit, and I became fixated on “The Alphonse Mambo,” a song ostensibly about one person waiting in a hotel for … something. Darnielle has described the plot of this song a few ways; my favorite is that the narrator has been lured down to Florida with the promise of affection and/or drugs. But the magic of the song is that there is no affection; there are no drugs; there is only the agonizing anticipation. The song ends right before the anticipated moment: The last time we see the narrator, they are watching from above as the person they have been waiting for enters the hotel. “It’s just gonna be you and me today,” they shout from their 16th floor room, frozen motionless but still defiant: “waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa Bay!”
17. “Blues in Dallas”
“Blues in Dallas” is an odd, quiet song, even for All Hail West Texas, which is kind of quiet and odd in its own right. The whole song is played on a tinny Casio keyboard—Darnielle stabs out a simple melody over one of the keyboard’s pre-programmed drum loops. The Casio makes frequent appearances on early Goats albums, and how welcome these appearances are depends greatly on the listener. “Blues in Dallas” is the longest song on the album but has the fewest words, and the words themselves feel more like a koan or a prayer than a story. Like “The Alphonse Mambo,” it is a song about waiting. Unlike “The Alphonse Mambo,” the narrator’s urgency has been drained. He is unable or unwilling to say what he is waiting for. He simply waits.
In 2017, Darnielle started a podcast with Welcome to Nightvale creator Joseph Fink. Each episode covered one song from All Hail West Texas, and in their discussion of “Blues in Dallas,” Darnielle said, “One reason this record is sort of the final expression of that style is I had finally learned that I can let the songs have their own space.” “Blues in Dallas” feels like an odd detour before the album’s conclusion, but it signaled something essential to Darnielle; something that made him sure All Hail would be the last of its kind; something about how his songwriting was evolving and where he needed to go next.
18. “Source Decay”
“Source Decay” is the song that follows “Blues in Dallas” on All Hail West Texas, so having them back to back on this playlist feels lazy. But the effect of one right after the other is one of the most special moments in the Mountain Goats catalog. “Blues in Dallas” is so quiet and empty that it almost disappears completely; “Source Decay” is one of the wordiest songs on the album, and one of the most winding stories. “Once a week, I make the drive two hours east to check the Austin post office box,” the narrator begins, and his long drive home gives him time to think. Time to think about his old best friend, about their cryptic postcard communications, and about the train heading south from Bangkok in 1983. The song’s subtext is murky, the hinted-at history just a shadowy outline. In a Tumblr post, Darnielle said that “the song is about how those outlines are like blurry shapes in fading light that you eventually have to just accept as they are.”
On an episode of his podcast, Darnielle stated that Jenny is the person sending the postcards to the narrator of “Source Decay,” but this information does little to resolve the song’s mysteries. This “clue” is probably as much of a tease as the “fourteen songs about seven people” on the album’s cover—he says on another episode that he might well have said nine instead of seven, seven just felt right in the moment. He leaves breadcrumb trails, not because they necessarily lead somewhere, but because he believes the process of trying to follow them is an essential part of how to engage with the songs. He gives directions that lead nowhere just to send you on the right journey.
Which is why I think it’s so profound that the song’s most powerful line is not about the cryptic postcards, the best friend-turned-enemy, or the song’s drama and intrigue at all. It comes from the journey, just following the ribbon of highway across the endless desert expanse: “I wish the west Texas highway was a Mobius strip / I could ride it out forever.”
19. “Twin Human Highway Flares”
There’s a song I want to mention that I didn’t include in this list. It’s called “The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix’s Life.” It does not address Jimi Hendrix’s death. In it, Jimi Hendrix takes a shower, and then he drinks a cold glass of water, and then the song ends. There are countless Mountain Goats songs that do this: force the listener to slow down and focus on the mundane details of existence, and to feel the meaning humming in all of it.
“Twin Human Highway Flares” is one of these songs. There are two people deeply in love, heading somewhere in a car together. There is so much to their story before and after this small scene, but none of that is important. For almost three minutes, the only thing that matters is the afternoon light catching in an earring, beads of sweat showing through a T-shirt, the distant sound of a train. The key to preserving this moment forever is to treat every tiny fragment of it as sacred. The beauty and the grace of “Twin Human Highway Flares” is that the narrator realizes this in the moment: “On the day that I become so forgetful / That all of this melts away / I will burn all the calendars that counted the years down / To such a worthless day.”
These little pieces aren’t details: They are the entire point. It is not about the hell you dragged yourself out of or the unavoidable storm you’re preparing to head into. It is all— everything—about this moment right now, with sweat soaking through a shirt and light coming through an earring. It is about joy and defiance and being true to yourself and surviving. It is about surviving and being alive.
20. “Exegetic Chains”
I want to leave it there, but it’s important to know that in 2020, after two decades in storage, Darnielle broke out the Panasonic RX-FT500 again. Some morbid curiosity led him to try recording with the boombox propped up on its side, which—miraculously and inexplicably—fixed the erratic click. In the midst of the first Covid quarantine, Darnielle put 10 songs to tape the old-fashioned way, complete with the click of hitting “STOP.”
The album is great—a rock-solid Mountain Goats release even without the nostalgia factor—but closer “Exegetic Chains” is the highlight. It touches on the full spectrum of images now familiar to long-time listeners: Ancient myth shows up in the figures of Hercules and Cybele; Darnielle references the grind and roar of the Panasonic hum; he reprises the timeless chorus of “This Year,” but switches from first person to second, urging the listener directly to “Make it through this year / If it kills you outright.” Say your prayers to whoever—God, Satan or your friends who have slipped the surly bonds.
Near the end, Darnielle quietly repeats a maxim that appears over and over in 30 years of Mountain Goats songs, an exhortation that sums up everything the band have always been about: “Headed somewhere better / If I have to crawl there on all fours.”
Keegan Bradford is a freelance writer, editor at The Alternative, and guitar player in the band Camp Trash. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, dog and cats. His work has appeared in Stereogum, Vinyl Me Please and Bandcamp Daily, and he can be found on Twitter @FranziaMom.