Smart has always been Indie. Mr. Mountain Goat. Darkness takes many forms.
People may laugh at your tattoos
When they do get new ones in
Completely garish hues
I hide down in my corner because I like my corner
I am happy where the vermin play
In Costa Rica in a burrow underground
Climb to the surface, blink my eyes and look around
I’m all alone here as I try my tiny song
Claim my place beneath the sky but I won’t be here for long
I sang all night the moon shone on me through the trees
No brothers left and there’ll be no more after me
The Mountain Goats (from the song “Deuteronomy 2:10,” on “The Life of the World to Come”)
There’s an innocence at the heart of Kimya Dawson‘s work that knocks the hard edges off her lyrics. Somehow, as Dawson sings her complex lyrics, she remains a tender, sweet observer, even when she’s singing about very serious things, like crime, being a mother, the insanity of modern politics, conspiracy theories, or death and dying. She was one of the opening artists for Jad Fair, at The Vera Project, at the Seattle Center (6 May 2013). It was also a small distro party for K Records; Dawson has released a few LPs with K, including “Remember I Love You” (2006) and “Alphabutt” (2008). She’s just released a lot of stuff. Her latest record is “Thunder Thighs” (Great Crap Factory, 2011), which features John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) helping out on one track, along with Nikolai Fraiture (The Strokes) and Aesop Rock. Indie music royalty with a gentle punk center.
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The final stanza from the Mountain Goats’ song “Heretic Pride” (from the 2008 record of the same name) goes like this: “I waited so long and now I taste jasmine on my tongue/And I feel so proud to be alive/And I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives.” A richly metaphoric song, when I first heard this record, when I first heard that song, I wondered if I had heard something new, something revealing, almost confessional, from an artist who sometimes uses words like a Romantic or religious poet from the early 19th century. What was John Darnielle saying, with this song, about his life and about his work? Could one song say more than hundreds of songs from such a prolific and expressive songwriter?
I recently reviewed the latest Mountain Goats record, “Transcendental Youth,” for Indie Street, and I just saw the final show of “The Nameless Dark Tour,” which concluded in Seattle at the Showbox at the Market. OK, I admit it, I went expecting a religious experience because of my accumulated reverence for this band. And by the time the evening was over, I got one, with all the trimmings. John Darnielle is a man who loves his night job. And this was a show that would, by the end of the evening, change my perception of Darnielle’s music and of his songwriting, although I didn’t know it when the show started. Tremendous value for the price of a ticket.
The Romantic poets were a group of 19th century mostly male writers (although there were a few notable women) spread out all over Europe, but with the six most famous writers living and working in England. Ground breakers all, because they wrote about their emotional landscapes as much as their physical surroundings. Theirs was a wholly physical world. The best of them (in my opinion), John Keats, stood apart because of his talent for writing about the human body, its sensations, its struggles and suffering, its joys.
If you take a moment to read the lyrics of many of John Darnielle’s songs (he alone is really The Mountain Goats in terms of being the visionary driving force behind the songwriting, although he has worked with a small group of gifted artists who support him in making his plentiful and singular records) you’ll see that his storytelling comes alive when the physical body is the center of the story. We can all relate and connect: the suffering and the joy that our bodies endure as they support our choices, good and bad. Darnielle expressively writes about these choices. He writes like a man who has had a lot happen to him in life, good and bad. Over and over there’s an intimacy that emerges from his songs.
So, back to the song. “And I feel so proud to be alive….” Staying alive is an achievement, meaning that some of the choices we make seriously threaten that goal. Seeing Darnielle, hearing versions of some of his most passionate songs (the selection of which must be a daunting task given that he has so much worthy material to choose from), hearing him talk about his work between songs, hearing that he once worked in an AIDS hospice, reveal a man who has witnessed the heartbreaking interplay between joy and suffering. He has followed his heart in crafting confessional songs that hide very little, even in a forest of metaphor. For the entire evening I thought about writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Keats, Thomas Moore, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I thought about how writers explore the longing to put back the innocence of youth even as we’re tempted to new, risky experiences. I finally understood a little of what Darnielle means when he puts staying alive as the central achievement in life, of feeling proud even in the face of the “reckoning” (however he defines judgment). Living isn’t something we do by default just because we’re born. It’s something we have to earn.
I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking “How can a contemporary songwriter compare to poets of stature from so long ago?” Easily. John Darnielle is a writer like all writers. His work comes from someplace deep, and he’s part of a lineage, a tradition. He’s written hundreds of songs spread out over 14 full-length releases and many more EPs. He obsessively uses language, sometimes sounding archaic to the modern ear, sometimes packing as many syllables as will fit the beat structure of the song if sung quickly, to describe the physical world, to explain the myths and monsters we create for ourselves to control others, the tender love we feel when we first fall in love, the heartbreak of falling out of love, and the inexplicable and confusing mystery that unfolds when a child is born.
Darnielle’s language is romantic, emotional, and richly descriptive of the physical world. As he noted between songs in Seattle, you can even find some of the hotels in his songs on Yelp. Who says a modern songwriter can’t walk the emotional paths of a John Keats or a Mary Shelley? I think Darnielle’s work would easily impress and slipstream nicely into that artistic world of John Keats.
As I mentioned earlier, this show changed my perception of Darnielle’s work. In particular, the importance of his voice. It isn’t so noticeable on his earliest records, such as “Zopilote Machine” (1994) or even “All Hail West Texas” (2002), but starting with “Tallahassee” (2002), his first record with the 4AD record label, you can feel his studio albums begin to get more polished, more sophisticated in their production values. In short, they’re beautiful and professional, and they culminate in what often happens to artists who make lots of records. As they develop, a richly nuanced blend of raw inspiration and the craft of professional recordings emerges. Now no detail is left out of a recording like “Transcendental Youth.”
But from the beginning, from “Zopilote Machine” all the way through to the stunning high-water mark record “Heretic Pride,” the risky Biblical explorations of “The Life of the World to Come” (2009), to the fictional Tarot card readings of “All Eternals Deck” (2011) (Darnielle’s first record with Merge), it’s the sound of his voice that anchors everything. His words are one thing, but his voice is so distinctive that it drives everything about his “sound.” In a live setting, his voice takes center stage rather than blending back into the studio production. His touring band, who contributed to “Transcendental Youth,” are certainly capable and professional in keeping with the spirit of the studio versions of the songs. But it’s Darnielle’s voice that drives and shapes the live sound. His energy and passion for performance is the engine that moves the evening along.
Stand out songs for me were “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1,” the stunning opening track on the “Transcendental Youth” LP, “Up the Wolves,” “The Diaz Brothers,” “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” and one of the concluding songs of the evening, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” But the finest, lyrically speaking, of the evening was “San Bernardino” from “Heretic Pride.” The live version dramatically departed from the studio version, set up with just Darnielle’s voice and the bass guitar player. At times the sound system rumbled a little too loud, but always Darnielle’s voice floated back to the story of the song, lives starting over in San Bernardino, of drawing a hot bath and dropping flower petals in the water, and the stirrings of an infant son.
Always, Darnielle’s voice was the key sound for the evening, whether singing or speaking. I saw that night the powerful nature of a singer’s voice when crafted into the larger world of a long tour and the gathering together of so many songs and themes.
Earlier I mentioned that this was also a religious experience for me. Certainly, musically speaking, it was every bit that, experiencing and then connecting the dots to see where Darnielle’s songwriting fit with the wider world of touring and writing.
When the show was over and the crowd dispersed, I slowly made my way to the merchandise table to buy copies of the silk-screened tour posters. Darnielle is known for using talented graphic artists for his tour posters, people like Robert Wilson IV, Methane Studios, and Drew Millward. When I got to the table I was so focused on the process of buying the posters that I didn’t notice that Darnielle had made his way through the crowd, more or less unnoticed, and was standing next to me at the table. He very kindly signed my posters.
This is one of the coolest parts of the modern Indie music scene for me: you can sometimes get a signed LP or poster, talk to the artist for a moment, as I also did from Michael E. White, who contributed the horn arrangements to “Transcendental Youth” and who was the opening band that night. White has also just released a solo record, “Big Inner,” on his own label, Spacebomb Records.
After Darnielle signed my posters I had the presence of mind to say, “It was a religious experience.” And Darnielle said, “Thank you!” That was it, the full-meal deal with all the trimmings, and my last live show to review in 2012. A perfect ending to an interesting Indie year.
Oh, and if you have some time, do take a look the Romantics.