The Mountain Goats at the Empty Bottle
Chicago, February 28, 2004
When the Mountain Goats rolled into town on Saturday, they brought with them a wave of mild weather that lasted the weekend. A 60-degree February day in Chicago is the kind of miracle that the Mountain Goats can conjure up.
I’m a newcomer to the cult of the goat, a fan since 2002’s All Hail West Texas, which blew me away, but the sold out crowd at the Empty Bottle contained folks who’ve been keeping an eye on John Darnielle for nigh on a decade. He and bassist Peter Hughes didn’t disappoint any of us. With a set heavy on songs from their two latest releases on 4AD, Tallahassee and this year’s We Shall All Be Healed, but reaching back to the early days with an obligatory encore of “Cubs in Five,” the duo seemed to enjoy taunting, teasing and pleasing the packed crowd.
Darnielle played his acoustic guitar sitting down the whole time, alternating drinks between Newcastle, Jameson and champagne. Hughes hovered above, looking like Daniel Day Lewis, occasionally swigging whisky from a flask. The emotional intensity of Darnielle’s performance was what you’d expect if you listen to the records. There’s a manic exuberance in the way he reels off his stories of bitter love and hopeless situations.
He gets a lot of credit for his lyrics, and critics are quick to point out the fact that Darnielle is also a writer of prose. His stuff is far too often described as “literate,” which is true, but obvious. (“Nasal” and “bleat” are other words that seem to show up in every article.) Sure, the lyrics are great. But the music has a subtle eloquence that usually gets overlooked. In a recent interview with Magnet magazine, Robyn Hitchcock describes what makes the best songs great is “the feel of the song.” Hitchcock singles out “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Visions of Johanna” as examples of this: “I don’t know what it’s about, but when you hear it there’s an emotional truth in it.” Darnielle’s best songs have this emotional truth in them, even the ones with obtuse lyrics. There are plenty of Mountain Goats songs that I have never figured out, but I connect with the feel of them, or a line or two hits me particularly hard. Like in “Riches and Wonders” when he sings, “I want to go home, but I am home,” it just gets me. And even though I don’t know what the rest of that song is about, and couldn’t quote another line from it if my life depended on it, the song resonates, makes sense on a non-verbal level, and just works.
There are lots of moments like this on the new album, We Shall All Be Healed. There’s not a lot that I personally connect to among all the bathtub speed freaks who populate this album. But I catch glimpses of “all you tweakers with your hands out” as the “headstones climb up the hills” and I feel it. Adam Yauch wrote, “If you feel what I’m feeling then it’s a musical masterpiece / If you can hear what I’m dealing with then that’s cool at least.” I’m not sure whether or not We Shall All Be Healed is a musical masterpiece, but there are moments when you absolutely feel what the narrator is feeling. In “Your Belgian Things” when he sighs, “A tiger’s never going to change its stripes / I guess / I guess, but Jesus what a mess,” you momentarily give up all hope for any relationship you’ve ever wanted to make better. It’s a tough album to listen to for the toll it takes on your psyche. It’s not easy-listening music. But it’s worth it.
In concert, Darnielle tempers the emotional damage with humorous anecdotes, comically autistic intros and blatantly genuine appreciation for the ovations his audience showers upon him. He knows we’re rooting for him and for his doomed cast of recurring characters. Whether he’s singing tender lullabies for abusive junkies or scolding an enthusiastically wasted fan for jinxing the Cubs, Darnielle’s almost sociopathic faith in his own words is palpable. You feel the intensity of a religious zealot. The dingy punk rock bar is transformed into an old-time revival as the congregation raises their hands above their heads and shouts out in a fervor. Hallelujah! And as the Mountain Goats pray over us and call upon the Holy Spirit to come down and put a tongue of fire on each of our foreheads, we are all healed.
Be sure to check out the Glorious Noise interview with John Darnielle, and Johnny Loftus’ review of a Mountain Goats show from March, 2002. You can download “Palmcorder Yajna” and “No Children” and lots of other mp3s. There’s also a neat We Shall All Be Healed microsite.