I was introduced to The Mountain Goats (that is, John Darnielle, poet, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, musician) by my roommate, Xavier, at a summer writing program. Xavier was a self-serious folk singer who wore sunglasses to the movies and patterned the walls of our dorm with Neutral Milk Hotel posters. Back then, most references to the Goats were preceded or followed by that most aggressively patronizing of declaratives: “You probably haven’t ever heard of them …” Thus was I introduced. Darnielle was a cult figure, who, like Thomas Pynchon, stayed that way due to the fanaticism of his fan base. He was extolled with such pomposity, bravado and bluster that his real value as an artist and a musician was obscured by the connotations he developed as an idol of angelheaded hipsters everywhere.
But those days are now long gone, ever since John “The Tween-Whisperer” Green, the Oprah of sad-boy lit, declared The Mountain Goats his favorite band of all time and Darnielle’s song “Up the Wolves” his choice for best song ever written. As a result, Darnielle now flirts with the mainstream as much as may be possible for any musician who relies on verbal invention and strummed guitar for a living.
Looking back on it, Darnielle is an all-too-quintessential addition to the nerdfighter tweehouse. He shares with Green a certain sentimentality about the trials and travails of misunderstood teenage boys — in Darnielle’s own words, “transcendental youth.” However, Darnielle plumbs the roots of histrionic adolescent despair with far more nuance and complexity. (Also, he doesn’t share Green’s problematic fondness for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, which is a major plus.)
He’s perfected the formula for commercial poetry a la Billy Collins, which moves seamlessly from hyper-specific image (“Masks hanging on the tomb walls where the coven grieves”) to platitude (“It gets dark and then / I feel certain I am going to rise again”) so that the former seems less ostentatious and the latter less banal. As imagists go, he strains for and occasionally reaches a certain elegiac beauty, and it’s hard not to feel a twinge of real emotion when he sings, at the opening of his opus, “Tallahassee”: “Plums on the tree heavy with nectar / Moon stuttering in the sky like a film stuck in a projector.” It’s evocative and original language that simultaneously represents the corroding relationship at the album’s center.
But there are also points at which he (like any earnest artist, nowadays) can seem an object of easy irony — the moment at which he yells out “God damn these vampires for what they’ve done to me!” on the album “All Eternals Dark,” in particular, stands out.
At The Mountain Goats’ April 2 concert at College Street Music Hall, it quickly became clear that the Goats still have worshipers rather than fans (It’s a rare musician who’s able to inject lines like “Shadows crawled across the living room’s length / I held onto you with a desperate strength” into hipster hum matrices). You could cut the enthusiasm with a spork. However, I personally found the concert proper to be rather unextraordinary despite a moving interlude, during which Darnielle’s backing band left the stage and he played some of his lesser-known works (from his early days recording three-chord folk into staticky cassette tapes). Especially notable was an a cappella rendition of a half-finished four-part harmony that the singer-songwriter wrote to benefit a pro-choice organization. His raw enunciation and ragged, untrained delivery expanded throughout the room, and there was, for some reason, tremendous emotional oomph to watching him thud out the beat on his chest.
Mine, however, was the minority opinion. As aforementioned, Goats concerts occasionally feel like trips to church, with a priest declaiming on stage to the eager oohs and ahhs of an eager congregation. The applause at the show’s conclusion was extremely enthusiastic — more enthusiastic than any other concert I’ve been to at that venue — and Darnielle and his band delivered no less than three encores. Maybe, though, the wordslinger’s reach hasn’t expanded as completely as it might immediately seem. It was, I must admit, rather sobering to look back at all those rabid fans, their faces backlit, chanting along to the songs, only to realize that I and a single African-American girl in the balcony were the only people of color in the entire venue.
This might be the central tragedy of a band such as The Mountain Goats — it’s an essentially personal outfit that strikes a chord with a very particular audience.
Contact Noah Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org .