The Mountain Goats - We Shall All Be Healed
John Darnielle is one of the last great American eccentrics. A prodigious songwriter who has written well over a thousand songs in all, he's one of those people that just barely manage to exist on the fringes of mainstream music, whilst attracting a devoted, small audience. Although The Mountain Goats is John Darnielle, he has accumulated a bewildering amount and variety of people who have recorded with him over the years. Far too many to list here, but the interested reader is directed to this marvelous website that should answer most of your questions.
We Shall All Be Healed is a low key, low-fi affair that falls rather neatly into the alt.country/low-fi rock category. Some of the songs on here are weirdly reminiscent of early REM and, it has to be said, John Darnielle sounds a tiny bit like Michael Stipe. That aside, this is a far more pleasing and unassuming work than that description sounds. If you have a predilection for heart-on-sleeve, fragile, intricate acoustic songs as practiced by, say, Daniel Johnston or Roky Erikson, you are urged to add John Darnielle to your list at once.
Musically, this album never ventures beyond ragged, desperation tinged acoustic rock, but that's fine, it's perfectly happy there and, if that's your type of thing, you'll be happy to join it. There are touches of violins and honky tonk piano here and there, but nothing is allowed to intrude upon Darnielle and his guitar. There's also a great sense of space on the album; the songs know when to breath. Against Pollution is a great example of this. A simple strumming guitar with vocals that simply sit over the top sometimes in a fluid and organic way that never feels forced.
The great thing about The Mountain Goats is the amount of care and attention that has gone into the lyrics. Darnielle is a poet as much as anything else, and there are some wonderful lines on this album. Listen to Letter From Belgium for instance, "In the cold, clear light of day down here/Everyone's a monster/That's cool with all of us/We've been passed the point 'a help since early April" or "Every couple minutes/Someone says he can't stand it anymore...If anybody comes into our room while we're asleep/I hope that they incinerate everybody in it." from the excellent single Palmcorder Yajna; it's darkly humorous, sometimes deeply disturbing, but always delivered with such precision, care and feeling that it's as if he's bringing to light things you've thought but never articulated. Especially so on songs like Your Belgian Things which tells of the death of feeling when a loved one has departed, accompanied by a Lou Reed style mellow sliding guitar line. It's haunting and quite beautiful. "I wish I had a number where you are/It's hard here with no-one to help me through it" sings Darnielle with devastating simplicity. He doesn’t write lyrics so much as voice feeling.
This is a late night chill-out album par excellence. For those nights when alone and reflective, it'll be a wonderful companion and will be a strangely uplifting experience. "When I receive the blessing I've got coming" sings Darnielle on the splendid Quito and, even when the album is at it's bleakest, it's still tinged with this melancholy sense of self-belief. Excellent stuff, and it's only January, and already we have one great album for 2004.
Palmcorder Yajna single reviewed here