The Mountain Goats are a heartfelt, super literate (kind-of) band. If you don’t know them, they are John Darnielle’s project running from the early 90s up until the moment you’re reading this, starting as a super-lofi, cassette only, cult band, and turning into a lusher, hifi 4AD/Merge band. For my money, John Darnielle writes some of the most affecting, appeal-to-the-senses lyrics you’ll ever find, hitting you in the gut on a huge variety of subjects from monsters to bible stories, to his own past to the Chicago Cubs – usually written from the view of a person who has reached a crux point in their life.
Untitled Birthday cake song.. the Ur Text for mountain goats songs.
And while I admit their songs aren’t going to be to everyone’s taste, not being hypermelodic or danceable, there is a huge variety of subject matter covered, even if it at times you’d swear he’s writing the same song again and again (N.B I write this as a super fanboy nerd)…
So I thought, who better to do a reductive “rank the albums” style thing on?
The third of the post lofi albums. I originally wrote it off as a substandard rewrite of his previous material. Shows what I know, and also calls into question somewhat the veracity of this list. As time went on I began to appreciate this autobiographical album, a prequel of sorts to “We Shall All Be Healed”, as the masterpiece it is. Telling the story of JD’s life with his abusive stepfather, these are a gorgeously realised set of jaw-dropping songs, comparing the horror that existed in Danrielle’s young life with the beauty and escapes that could be found there too. Has exhilarating songs like “This Year” – “I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me” – and eulogic beauty in the tender “Pale Green Things”. Essential.
The first album I heard by the MGs so it’s bound to have a place in my heart. I couldn’t believe the intensity of songs such as “Family Happiness ” – “You can arm me to the teeth, you can’t make me go to war” – or the perfect descriptions of infatuation “baseballs fly faster when you watch them fly”. I’m really sorry to write this, but I felt as if my head had been blown open. Finally, after years of dross, poetry I could like.
JD’s kiss off to the lofi genre, recorded solely on his trusty boombox, and different in tone to the Coroner’s Gambit. There’s a lovely lightness to some of the narrative based tales here, starting with two of JD’s most beloved songs “Fall Of The Star High School Running Back” and “The Best Heavy Metal Band Out Of Denton”, the latter of which is a perfect summation of teenage dreams and the consequences of quashing them (later expanded in the excellent 33 1 3 book “Master Of Reality”). This album also contains the lines “hi diddle dee dee,a pirate’s life for me”. What’s not to like?
The first super duper hi fi album and, not coincidentally, their first release on 4AD. With help from his friend Frank(lin) Bruno of the great Nothing Painted Blue and featuring the Adam-John-Miller-influencin’ bass playing of Mr. Peter Hughes for the first time. This tells the story of the much tortured Alpha Couple (the pair John Darnielle had been torturing in song for ten years) and features songs and lyrics that will resonate with anybody who’s been in a slightly tortured relationship (e.g. everyone). Something for everyone to like then but it helps if you wear glasses and like to wear thick jumpers. Contains their biggest “hit”, and best anti-love song ever, “No Children”.
5. Sweden (1995)
The second “proper” MGs album. May or may not be a concept album. Contains the backing vocals of female bassist Rachel Ware, as do most very early albums. Contains gems such as “Some Swedish Trees” and “The Recognition Scene”. The album isn’t actually about Sweden but I hear if you squint at the cover for long enough the album’s connection to Sweden will be revealed, along with some dark, dark secrets. Enjoy the flubby bass.
Holds a whole mountain of appeal-to-the-senses, naturey type writing even for JD. And mentions of animals. Contains several outstanding songs including Masher, possibly my favourite Mountain Goats song, which puts it close for all time. Similar in tone to albums like Nine Black Poppies and Zopilote Machine but the superior songs make it stand out. Sorry I’m losing control of the language again.
Monsters was the starting theme for this album. But not all of it’s about monsters. I don’t think. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” kicks all kinds of ass, as do a whole bunch of these songs. Nice video here for Sax Rohmer #1 as well. Probably could have done with out the Bob-Dylan-reggae of New Zion, but whaddaiknow?
Three CDs of John Darnielle’s early tape songs. Pulls you into an alternative universe of swapping tapes and John Darnielle’s kitchen and boots and dreams and town and… Contains gems such as “Billy the Kid’s Dream of The Magic Shoes ?”, “Golden Boy Peanuts” and a cover of Ace Of Base’s “The Sign” – what a tune! Not a place to start but a wonderful place to get lost in.
A break up album that lays open pure devastation in a literal, non abstract, narrativily way. Nails the feeling of disorientation, pointlessness and sadness this all entails. JD told an interviewer you had to have experienced a bad, bad break up to appreciate it. I can see that. Subdued, small and succesful, just not an album I turn to as often as some others.
A reviewer somewhere, once (how’s that for referencing?) said they couldn’t imagine The MGs topping Cubs in Five when they first heard it (but now realise the hifi stuff’s great too). I see what they mean: “The stars willl spell out the answers to tomorrow’s crossword and I will love you again.” Contains the most out of time literally-phoned-in performance I’ve ever heard on the last track, “Lonesome Surprise.” This is global!
A fine collection of songs telling the story of JD’s young adult years that only suffers from not being as great as the albums (Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree) that sandwich it. Pretty damn dark subject and lyrics hidden in some pretty poppy songs (for The Mountain Goats that is). Put me off heroin for life.
All based on Biblical verses, but not being a biblical scholar of any kind I couldn’t tell you anything of their provenance. Has a lot brilliant understated songs on it and some of JD’s trademark fist-to-foolish-heart lyricism - “I will do what you ask me to do, because of what I feel of about you”. Doesn’t quite coalesce for me but a fine album nonetheless. Listen to 1 Samule 15:23 for a delicate, non-judgemental song about a faith healer. Go down to the nether worl, plant grapes.
15. Nothing For Juice (1996)
An early lofi album, with a bit of varied instrumentation. The lyrics are there but the melodies aren’t quite. An enjoyable listen and similar in tone to Sweden and Full Force Galesburg with some songs giving early(ish) signs of the type of song Darneille would master on The Coroner’s Gambiut. Contains an almost unrecognisable cover of Robert Johnson’s timeless “Hellhound On My Trail” and 4 “Going To” songs for fans of the “Going To” series.
The lastest offering. Not bad, just not great. “God Damn These Vampires” is a highlight and some of these tracks were recorded with a death metal producer, which gives these tracks an breathing-on-your-neck-intimate feel rather than the brutality you might expect. High Hawk Season, a choral all vocal song, in particular feels like a failure to me. An album that never really clicked with me, but pretty much all MGs stuff is slow burning for me so I may like it more in the future.
No idea what a Zopilote is (checks google) ah, it’s Spanish for Buzzard, naturally. Great word. This is The Mountain Goats album debut. Contains all the elements that would be in their music for the next 7 years but isn’t quite as compelling as the later releases.”We Have Seen The Enemy” is lovely in a dark way.
A good example of early MGs and technically an EP rather than a full blown album. A dark, slightly off, mood prevails and a keen ear is needed to take in the information. A pleasant listen but not as incendiary as his other works.
John Darnielle writes and Franklin Bruno does the music. They’re not called the Mountain Goats so… but if you want my opinion “Martial Arts Weekend” is great, “Malevolent Seascape X” soundtracking me puking from smoking too many cigarettes at the age of 27, “Undercard” is not quite as good but has gorgeous songs such as the accordion driven “In Germany Before The War”.
…If The Sunset Tree had been All Hail West Texas. Vinyl only release of boombox demos of Sunset Tree songs. Nice to hear but I prefer the fleshed out versions. Max Broady prefers this.
This was leaked and John Darnielle didn’t ever want it releasing. So I won’t review it.
Also not included: loads of 7 inches, bsides and that. Including a song written from the point of view of Toad from Mario.
Disagree? Think I’m an idiot? Please let me know, I love The Mountain Goats and am happy to chat about them!
John, October 11