Lauren and I shot out of The Fitzgerald Theater and headed straightway to Ames, Iowa (with just a slight detour to pick up her car at our house) for a Mountain Goats Concert. We’d had the trip timed to the minute, but, unfortunately, we underestimated A Prairie Home Companion’s running time by an hour…. So we needed to make up some time, which we were doing splendidly until we were pulled over mid-Iowa. As it turned out, our highway patrol officer, Mindy, knew and loved the Mountain Goats, but she was not superfan enough to give us a police escort. She did knock a few MPHs (which is short for “miles per hour,” not “masters of public health”, in case any of you failed to catch the context) off the citation, though. We continued to Ames and arrived at DG’s Tap House while the opening band was still playing.
Before The Mountain Goats went on, we were standing around by the bar, and we saw a guy at a table I was 95% sure was John Darnielle. I pointed him out to Lauren, and she was like, “He looks so much like a normal guy. Plus, why would no one else recognize him?” I agreed, and we did not talk to him. Next time, we will not be so foolish.
As with many of their performances, the band consisted solely of John Darnielle, and we managed to get spots right up front (literally like 2 yards from him). And rather than a set list he was taking nothing but requests. This worked out okay because the people there were mainly die-hard fans who’d driven from all over the Midwest to be there. Awesomely, the devoted audience requested all kinds of recondite songs, which they were happy to help him remember the exact lyrics and keys for, so it was more than just a barrage of best hits. Also awesomely, John had lived in Ames for several years, and he had all kinds of anecdotes about the place.
One of the high points of this concert, as, I should think, with many of his concerts, was the song No Children, which he told us was inspired by the song I Hope You Dance which he hated enough to write the exact antithesis of. Another high point was when John came out for the encore and said he’d always wanted to return to the stage, take a bow, and walk back off like concert pianists and such do, but then he didn’t! Instead, he treated us to about an hour more of music. Wonderful.
So, we didn’t get home until like 5 AM, and it was so incredibly worth it. See, John Darnielle started out making cassette tapes of himself back in the early 90s. The band has gone through several iterations, many of which consist of solo-John opening his one man show with, “Hi. We’re the Mountain Goats.” Still, with all that change and him just being one guy and not always having a record deal or anything, this man releases like an album per year, and they’re all good.
And by good, I mean pieces of lyric genius. Mountain Goats songs deal with untraditional and unpredictable topics, from vampire-cowboy-run-ins to insurance fraud to arson to delicious jams and jellies (In case you didn’t pick up on it, each of those topics was a hyperlink. You’re welcome.) And in all these circumstances, he somehow treats all his characters with love, even as he points out the extreme and ridiculous in his characters.
What I love most about John Darnielle’s characters is that we so often meet them in moments of intense emotion. Enough of his characters are on the verge of having cataclysmic. When I listen to his songs, I get the idea that they’re having an Ivan Karamazov-style breakdown [Bro’s Karamazov spoiler alert! Also, awesomely, this song references Crime and Punishment.], wherein they see the light of salvation and realize the sacrifice necessary is far more hellish than anticipated. We find these characters in their moments of desperation, speaking with the kind of honesty you would think but not share with even your closest friend and only maybe with a paid professional.
He depicts characters most of us haven’t thought to identify with, but upon doing so, we find inexpressibly loveable. For example, in the song Grendel’s Mother, we meet (surprise!) Grendel’s mother storming Heorot to revenge her son’s murder. Contrary to the tale’s usual mood, Grendel’s inconsolable mother shows love for her son as intense as her loathing for his killer.
I find that Darnielle’s rush of contradicting emotions make his songs particularly accessible for we irrational and inconsistent humans. Rather than giving us pat answers or monolithic voices, his characters are often confused and troubled by contradicting motives. For example, in the song Old College Try, Darnielle’s character refers the love he has for his wife’s eyes, which, “like a trashcan fire in a prison cell; like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell” brighten up even the worst of places.
I think I’ve said enough. But there are about a zillion really great interviews with the guy online, which you can find using Google. In case you’re interested, his Twitter feed is insanely awesome. He’s currently giving away Thusydides II-58 for free to mark reaching 25,000 Twitter followers.
And, finally, in case you didn’t click on any of the wonderful hyperlinks I provided above, here are a few videos I trust you’ll find enjoyable.
He has a slew of songs that begin with the word “alpha” and chronicle the misadventures of the “alpha couple” who are constantly on the verge of divorce. Their story concludes in the album Tallahassee.
The album The Sunset Tree is about his physically abusive step-dad. Somehow he manages to still be remarkably peppy.
This is also from The Sunset Tree , and I think it’s fabulously intense:
He has a series of songs whose titles begin with the words “going to” and are all about running away from problems to some place that you hope promises you peace or answers or, anything but your current troubles. In this one, he threatens to do himself physical harm as a means of showing a girl how much he loves her.
In this one, he actually seems insane. It’s amazing.