hide captionPeter Hughes (left) and John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.
D.L. Anderson/Courtesy of the artist
Peter Hughes (left) and John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.
D.L. Anderson/Courtesy of the artist
I don't know about other bands, but I can say with some confidence that in The Mountain Goats we don't spend a lot of time listening to our own records. This wasn't always true in my case: for the first decade or so that John Darnielle was performing his spare, arresting, enigmatic story-songs under that moniker, up through the 2001 release of All Hail West Texas, my role in the band was one of friend, fan and only very occasional collaborator, and as such I listened to The Mountain Goats plenty. That all changed soon after, when what John and I initially talked about as just doing some recording together turned into a full-time job as a bassist for me, and something that's kept us busy to this day — busy enough that we don't bother to listen to our own records.
Once they're finished, I mean; there's always the initial excitement of getting the mixes back from an album we've just recorded, but once the giddiness has worn off, the nature of our relationship to a given collection of songs diverges pretty radically I think from that of a listener's. For everyone else, an album and the performances it captures are definitive: they're the primary (and sometimes sole) interface with the material, and when an album hits home with you, those particular performances can end up being a permanent part of your mental landscape. For us, the recording is almost incidental. More often than not, our relationship with a song is just beginning when we bring it into the studio. Albums then are more like collections of snapshots — baby pictures! — of songs that we'll be performing, living with and nurturing, for years to come. And just as when you live with someone you don't feel much need to look at pictures of them, so too don't we feel much compulsion to revisit recordings of songs we play every night.
Still — to exhaust the metaphor entirely — after enough time living together, there inevitably comes the temptation to dust off those old, er, albums and see where you've been. Last year, with 2012 marking the tenth anniversary of my more-or-less daily involvement with The Mountain Goats, I found myself wondering what it would be like to revisit each of the records we'd made together during that time, not just playing a song here or there as I might occasionally do to relearn a forgotten bass part, but actually sitting down and giving myself over to the experience of listening to them as albums. How would they hold up? How different are they from how I remember them?
Listening To Every Mountain Goats Album Since 'All Hail West Texas'
What struck me most about this, the first album John and I made after having toured Europe as a duo five years earlier, was how great a job producer Tony Doogan did with two guys who'd never been in a studio together. Astonishing to me now that this was all accomplished in six days — seventeen songs, tracked and mixed — that included a steep learning curve and no lack of ideological arm-wrestling between its principals about how best to approach recording and utilize the tools for the first time at our disposal. Little of that comes across, however; what I found instead is a surprisingly cohesive and distinctive vibe that permeates the whole album, a kind of haunted atmosphere that, once established by the eponymous opener, never really goes away.
We Shall All Be Healed (2004)
God I loved this album when we made it. The first of several records we would make with the production team of John Vanderslice and Scott Solter, two guys with an innate understanding and sympathy for John's songwriting and enormous personal vision of their own, We Shall All Be Healed just felt unstoppable to me at the time and remains one of my favorite of the albums we've recorded. Upon revisiting, it struck me as a little more tentative, perhaps slightly less resolved, than I remembered; some of its seams are on display in a way that suggests — understandably, I guess — that we were still learning. Still, I don't know that I'll ever not be startled by the breaking glass or creeped out by the stray laughter that surfaces in "Slow West Vultures," or thrilled to the core by the steamroller Hammond of "Letter from Belgium."
The Sunset Tree (2005)
Here's the funny thing about The Sunset Tree: we didn't actually know if it was any good. I remember John and I wondering aloud if, having fulfilled the original agreement with our label, 4AD, this would just be it, and with the conclusion of the season's tour cycle we'd be back to civilian life. It must've been a forest-for-the-trees thing, because what was screamingly obvious to me going back to this was the same thing that everyone else apparently noticed: The Sunset Tree was a giant leap for us. Confident, assured, polished, you could almost say — yes — definitive. This is what the Mountain Goats do.
Get Lonely (2006)
A sentimental favorite of John's and mine both, returning to it now it seemed clearer than ever that this somber collection of songs about alienation — what producer Solter called "a root fire" of an album, burning quietly beneath the surface — was a response to the success of The Sunset Tree and the ever-increasing amount of time we were spending away from home and any recognizable sense of normalcy. There's an enormous suburban mall in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and a superficially updated hotel of the sort that caters to "business travelers" next to it, and it was while decamped here for an extraordinarily depressing four-day stretch of tour that three of these songs — the title track, the ominous "Maybe Sprout Wings," and "Woke Up New" — were written. No accident, that.
Heretic Pride (2008)
I was always surprised that this album didn't get more attention: we were a real band now, having enlisted Superchunk's Jon Wurster as our full-time drummer, and a crew of returning heavyweights that included our old friend and collaborator Franklin Bruno and cellist Erik Friedlander assisted in punching up what to me felt like our most accessible and radio-friendly batch of songs ever. Surely "Autoclave" would end up in some aughties equivalent of a John Hughes movie, right? Listening back, its idiosyncrasies and eclecticism stepped to the fore; suddenly it occurred to me that maybe not everyone knows, for example, what an autoclave is.
The Life of the World to Come (2009)
Oddly, given how subdued it sounded coming off its predecessor, this album did get a lot of attention, for us anyway. For a long time I chalked it up to the power of a catchy promotional hook: where Heretic Pride eschewed the overarching conceits of previous albums, the Biblical theme of The Life of the World to Come was tailor-made for reviewers and interviewers alike, and came in handy when John was called upon to go toe-to-toe with Stephen Colbert. (Favorite closed-caption screencap from that night: "Who is God to interfere with the free market?") Hearing them again however it struck me that the album's greatest strength lay in the songs themselves, some of the most vulnerable and emotionally naked John had ever written; it seemed almost as if the album's entire conceptual framework was an elaborately conceived feint behind which they could hide in plain view.
All Eternals Deck (2011)
This one's barely been put away long enough to forget about, even with advancing age and diminishing memory, so no huge revelations here. No less amusing to me now though that we could deliberately put together as disparate and schizophrenic a collection of songs as we could muster — recorded in four separate studios with as many different producers, encompassing a pedal-steel-driven piano ballad, sweeping orchestral strings, new wave hand claps, a male choir, and an earnest stab at lite jazz — and still have every review invariably read, "Yet another batch of literate story-rock from Darnielle and Co., etc." Tough to blame them though: pity the critic having to come up with something new to say about us when we've thrown eight new albums at them in the last ten years.
Transcendental Youth (2012)
Which brings us to the present, and an album that hadn't even been mixed yet when I embarked upon my Mountain Goats listening binge. Hard to know what to write about it that doesn't sound like hype: do I not say it's the best thing we've ever done? The writing, the arrangements, the performances, the production, all of it feels to me like the culmination of the work we've done up to this point — not just the albums, but the touring, the shows, all the time we've spent together learning to be a band and getting steadily better at it. I can still hear Tony Doogan's Scottish brogue half-seriously taunting me after a couple failed attempts at a percussion part during the Tallahassee recording: "Are you sure you can do this, Peter?" It's a long way from that to "Cry for Judas."
One more thing ...
ADVISORY: This video contains profanity.
Absent from this list of course is All Hail West Texas, the last of the old-school, pre-4AD Mountain Goats albums, now newly reissued on Merge. It wasn't included in my marathon for the obvious reason that it was also the last Mountain Goats album that I wasn't involved with, but it was no less interesting to revisit now. In retrospect, in its bare-bones, boombox-recorded orthodoxy, it seems the ultimate expression of everything that John had been doing for the first ten years of his career; conceptually and compositionally, though, it can also be read as a signpost pointing the way toward what would come next. I remember getting the CD in the mail when it came out — Tallahassee had already been recorded at that point — and hearing "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" for the first time and just thinking, oh man, I cannotwait to play this live! We've been playing it ever since.