[media-credit name="Courtesy of The Mountain Goats" align="alignright" width="980"][/media-credit]I admit that a few nights ago, after walking barefoot into my kitchen in the dark and planting my heel on what turned out to be a mouse—killed, instantly—I felt like a character in a John Darnielle song. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve had that same feeling driving through the far western portion of my home state, past a few of the places Darnielle references on his best album, All Hail West Texas. Going north from Jeff Davis County, you cross the mountains at Wild Rose Pass, where there are no roses. You descend to Toyahvale, where there is nothing but a post office and a spring-fed pool. Further north, in Pecos, there is not much to see, but driving alone past creosote and cacti, it’s easy to join Darnielle in wishing that “the West Texas highway was a Möbius strip.”
Darnielle is the front man for rock band The Mountain Goats and was in town last Saturday and Sunday for solo shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music, in Lincoln Square. The Mountain Goats itself is, largely, a solo show. Since Darnielle started recording under the band’s name in the early ’90s, it’s written over 500 songs. Most of these—almost all of the songs released before 2002’s Tallahassee, the band’s first major-label album—feature Darnielle alone, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and the fuzz of the Panasonic boom box he recorded into.
Darnielle, now 47 and a father, still has a fine voice: soft in the upper register, occasionally sharpening to a high, nasal snarl. His songs are almost exclusively stories, and most of them are tragic. Strangely, few are really depressing. The opening song of All Hail West Texas chronicles two high school boys whose death metal band “never settled on a name,” and never got a chance to—on account of the band, one boy is sent to a school for troubled youth (or something like that). He and his friend develop “a plan to get even,” and the song ends with a refrain of “Hail Satan!” The album’s next track tells the story of William Stanaforth Donahue, a star high school running back who averages “eight-and-a-third yards per carry” until he blows out his knee, falls in with the wrong crowd, and does “federal time” for selling acid to an undercover cop. They’re two of The Mountain Goats’s most exuberant, danceable songs, but they’re still not the sort of thing you’d play at a party.
Most of The Mountain Goats’s songs are like this: good headphone music, or good as a soundtrack to a long drive. I didn’t get into the band until I was going through a bad time a couple of years back, and I imagine this is true of a lot of people. It’s easy to listen to its songs—the second half of All Hail, say, which features tracks about breaking and wanting and waiting and yearning—and feel that they were written for you, and only you. The specifics of the songs’ geography certainly help. A friend of mine, from Tampa, prefers Tallahassee; another, from Long Island, likes “Going to Port Washington,” one of at least 45 “Going to…” songs that Darnielle’s written.
There is no “Going to Chicago,” though, and I suppose that this far into the band’s career there doesn’t need to be. Onstage at the Old Town School, Darnielle could choose between, as he said, “funny and kind of sweet, or desperate and kind of languid,” cutting loose from geography altogether. Most of the songs he played on Saturday night were deep cuts, demos and B sides, and unreleased tracks like “Bride,” inspired by The Bride of Frankenstein, or “Thank You Mario but our Princess Is in Another Castle,” which straddles those funny-sweet and desperate-languid categories.
As with almost every other The Mountain Goats concert, he ended his set with “No Children,” the centerpiece track in Tallahassee. The song may be the centerpiece track of the band itself. Like all great The Mountain Goats songs, it’s sad as hell yet still demands a foot tap, if not full-on dancing. A couple, we learn, is falling far out of love. “I hope I lie,” Darnielle belts. “And tell everyone you were a good wife.” The crowd sings with him, and Darnielle steps away from the microphone to let it take over. About half of the crowd is happily coupled. At least three-fourth knows all the words, and everyone knows the refrain: “And I hope you die./ I hope we both die.” These are death metal words, but Darnielle is strumming and singing, not shredding and screaming.
It’s an exuberant moment, more powerful in the Old Town auditorium than on the record itself, and singing along I’m quietly glad that I don’t feel like a character in the song. It may be only a matter of time before that changes, but these things happen, and there’s a song for that.