There’s bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet

No matter where you live.

Today I’ve been listening to a fair bit of the Mountain Goats. Namely, The Sunset Tree, which is perhaps the most overtly autobiographical thing Goat chief John Darnielle has done. I guess you could argue that his life has provided grist for the lyrical mill all along – they are a deeply personal band (even when it’s just John) but The Sunset Tree was forthright in the handling of its author’s time as an abused kid. It’s also a more fulsome recording, benefiting from the expansions extra instrumentations introduce to a body of work more usually recorded on a boombox.

The first video in this post is what I’d pick as my go-to song on the album, though there’s really an embarrassment of lyrical riches on the bloody thing. Recently featured in an episode of The Walking Dead, the song ‘Up The Wolves’ is deeply sad and ebullient at the same time. It’s pugnacious sadness, and it gets me every time. 

There’s something about the tremulousness in Danielle’s voice in these lines

I’m gonna get myself in fighting trim
Scope out every angle of unfair advantage.
I’m gonna bribe the officials
I’m gonna kill all the judges
It’s gonna take you people years
To recover from all of the damage

Oh our mother has been absent
Ever since we founded Rome
But there’s gonna be a party when the wolf comes home, oh

that conveys all the catharsis thinking about When You’ll Beat Them can give the underdog. It’s a note that recurs again and again through the albums – how survival, how flowering is just around the corner.

Of course, the song everyone knows off this album is ‘This Year’, with its fuck-you chorus, daring adversity to give it a shot:

At the end of it, you know there’s shit happened, and shit to come, but dear God, the feeling of possibility is infectious.

I first came to the Mountain Goats through my excellent friend Brooke, who is a serious fan. She heartily recommended them/him in a lengthy, gesture-punctuated conversation I haven’t forgotten yet. The rave-up received was very, very effective in selling this thing to me – an incredibly erudite metalhead who records albums on tape recorders and sings about insurance fraud, lots of journeys somewhere and a whole lot of fucked-up personal business.

The first thing I picked up – ah, the infancy of my mountains of bloody eBay purchases – was The Coroner’s Gambit. It’s a collection of lo-fi, high-intellect pieces that range from bursting-with-expectancy waiting tunes (‘Elijah’) to a song about weird, badly-foreshadowed events (‘Horseradish Road’). I was in on the lyrics from the start, but it took a little longer for Darnielle’s vocals to sit in my ear. Now, especially having seen him play live a couple of times (and called said introducer of band during ‘This Year’ to share the optimism), I am deeply converted. There’s some kind of incredible power about the man’s earnest approach to (and enjoyment of) his work. (There is most of a pretty well-recorded live show available here.)

The other album that received a big tick was Tallahassee. It was a while before I bought a copy, and when I did it was when I was going through an catastrophic marriage breakup. It’s an album of characters Darnielle had written about before, the Alpha Couple, and they – of course – were going through a breakup too. In a way, the album was a bit like musical scab-picking – it hurt to listen to what was going on on the record as it so ably mirrored how I felt at the time. All right, perhaps there’s a bit more drama on the record – it is on 4AD, after all – but the song ‘No Children’ remains the ultimate end-of-an-era song, and one I recommend to anyone who’s ever been busted down, crashed and burned or generally thought everything was fucking over.

In fact, you should listen to that song now, while you eyeball some of the cleansing vitriol that, if you’re going through that sort of thing, you’ll have on a loop.

I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow
I hope it bleeds all day long
Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises
We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong
I hope it stays dark forever
I hope the worst isn’t over
And I hope you blink before I do
Yeah I hope I never get sober
And I hope when you think of me years down the line
You can’t find one good thing to say
And I’d hope that if I found the strength to walk out
You’d stay the hell out of my way
I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand
And I hope you die
I hope we both die

It’s a lot more jolly and energising than the lyrics would have you believe, trust me. But you can imagine why I don’t really listen to that album a whole heap any more – though it is one of those you immediately put on again when it’s finished.

After The Sunset TreeHeretic Pride is the album I spin a lot. There’s a tightness in Darnielle’s writing and a focussed sound which really endears it to me.

Ships loosed from their moorings capsize and then they’re gone
Sailors with no captains watch a while and then move on
And an agent crests the shadows and I head in her direction
All roads lead toward the same blocked intersection
I am coming home to you
With my own blood in my mouth
And I am coming home to you
If it’s the last thing that I do

There’s a deeply excellent video to go with that song (‘Sax Rohmer #1’), too:

Also, it contains some winning metal references, as well as a song titled for HP Lovecraft, so there’s nothing I couldn’t love.

So you know, listen to them. The Mountain Goats are the equivalent of that book you’ve felt you needed to push onto everyone, immediately, every time you read it. Beautiful, fractured stories.


  1. The Mountain Goats and Modest Mouse are about the only stalwarts to still give me that old pawnshop weasel feeling of joy and discovery, that little dip in the stomach I once felt upon finding something in a second hand store I dearly wanted or had never encountered before but knew I needed. Of course, I sup through that ole digital iPoddery these days, but that ole feeling is there when I hear a new track. “Moon Colony Bloodbath” is a title that scratches a very specific itch, I suppose, but it seems a great one to me and I often think of that couplet, “in the rooms with the heat lamps / where the snakes get born”. I have no idea what the song means, but it resonates deep in my gut.

  2. He has a very gnomic turn of phrase which serves the songs well. And then there’s those simple lines that just nail it: the phrasing and tone on ‘twin high-maintenance machines’ always spikes me.

    I suspect he’s a big ‘Robots of Death’ fan, too, for some reason.

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