By Michael Papich
This was probably back in February – I was on my dorm floor and I was hanging out in a neighbor’s room because my roommate’s “big” had sent him a present, the details of which I can’t repeat without blushing. Anyway, in my neighbor’s room, we were shootin’ the breeze about midterms, and as the conversation switched, he asked be for music suggestions. I was hardly surprised, being the illuminating trendsetter that I am, so I told him about the big artists from the previous year: M83, Real Estate, St. Vincent. I also listed off some of my favorites: Wolf Parade, An Horse, “and of course,” I said, “the Mountain Goats.” We both shrugged understandingly, because my affection for the Mountain Goats was not something I kept secret.
“Why do you like The Mountain Goats so much?” he asked. I was about to correct him and say that the “the” is lower-case, but instead I just said, with a clear mind and a heart full of conviction, “I dunnuyh.” But it got me to thinking: why do I like the Mountain Goats so much? They are definitely my favorite band, so I should probably have a reason for why. So here goes.
John Darnielle’s music is, typically, an acoustic guitar, with John’s wild lyrics and weird voice. Is the guitar playing great? No, but it’s what’s necessary. His chords always find a way of going perfectly with the tone of the song, and if he needs intensity, he can expand on his playing whenever he needs (check out West Country Dream). There’s no sense of awe in his skill, but you still feel incredibly touched hearing his playing. You can feel the harmony with the song and the emotion bleeding off of his fingers.
Is his singing great? No, but it’s what’s necessary. He’s a man armed with his own emotion, and he’s going to get it out any way he can. There’s a real honesty in his voice, and the sense of a small, insignificant being expressing himself in the face of a vast and ambiguous force (check out Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace). And if you see him live, the emotion in his voice comes forward even stronger, and by the end of a Mountain Goats concert, there are very few dry cheeks.
Are his lyrics great? Okay, this one is a little harder to explain. John’s lyrics are beautiful and poetic (check out Fault Lines, or There Will Be No Divorce, or really any of his songs) and a lot of my love for the Mountain Goats really comes from this aspect of his songs. I love language and I love lyrics in songs. But unlike, say, the glorious lyrics of, say, Spencer Krug, John Darnielle’s lyrics are applicable to life all the time. He sings about shared human experience and emotion, even if he has to be really weird and crazy about it.
What I’m trying to say is that there’s no sense of pretending or trying to be a songwriter or musician in the Mountain Goats music. It is incredibly human music. And that expands to all parts of the Mountain Goats. Peter and Jon, the bassist and drummer for the Mountain Goats respectively, are from other bands originally, but there is such a strong sense of friendship from all of them, which even bands who grew up together and formed together don’t always show. On stage, John jokes and tells stories like he’s your buddy and interacts with the audience in such a conscious way that all of the weird, voyeuristic feelings that go with seeing live music vanish like the armies of Mordor.
And John Darnielle himself is such a cool person. He does tons of charity shows, for animals, women’s rights, domestic violence prevention, and he always has such a firey passion for everything he does. It was also a changing experience for me to see him talk about how much he loves North Carolina, his adopted home, because I always felt that way about the state (since I was born in Canada), but never thought I could learn to love it. But thanks to his push, I’m trying.