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As the voice of The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle has released hundreds of bracing, brilliant songs. Some are defiantly low-fidelity, white-knuckle solo anthems, documented on crummy boom boxes amid tape hiss and street clatter. Others exude resignation and ache amid oddly jazzy, high-gloss production. But virtually all find Darnielle occupying the lives of desperate dreamers, angry kids, broken lovers, hopeless underdogs, and everyone else whose goals and fantasies lie well outside their grasp. Darnielle's high, pinched voice isn't for everyone, but his stories are; each song, on some level, tells the story of humanity — the way we're hardwired to fall short, keep trying, and fall short some more.
It's a little unclear what separates The Mountain Goats from The Extra Lens, given that The Mountain Goats long functioned as a solo act; that Darnielle's Extra Lens partner, Franklin Bruno, has worked on Mountain Goats records; and that both bands' subject matter is essentially identical. (To add further confusion, a 2002 album Darnielle and Bruno recorded together came out under the moniker "The Extra Glenns.") Really, it's best to think of Undercard as a Mountain Goats record — it doesn't fall outside that band's continuum anyway, in terms of sound or overall quality.
In a manner befitting its title, Undercard documents a succession of small-time failures. In "Cruiserweights," an ex-convict tries to fight his way out of Cleveland in a boxing ring. In "Only Existing Footage," a filmmaker's creative efforts are undermined by a crushing series of mundane indignities. A car-accident victim re-traces his adulterous steps in a song whose title completes the story it's telling: "How I Left the Ministry." And in "Some Other Way," Darnielle contemplates and abandons a series of suicide attempts, all in favor of "some other way to make you love me."
As always, Darnielle's strangely lovely phrasing and gift for language — "Oblivion's been knocking since I gave it my address," et al — keep Undercard from devolving into nihilistic ugliness. Instead, it's merely human, with all the messiness and strange beauty the word implies.
Undercard will stream here in its entirety on Oct. 19. Please leave your thoughts on the album in the comments section below.