Arts and Entertainment
by gabriel roth
SOME SONGS WORK once or twice and wear off; others draw you in deeper each time you hear them. John Darnielle, who records as the Mountain Goats, has written a couple of songs that are at once funny and moving, and they wind up on a lot of mix tapes. So people have come to think of him as the guy who wrote "Cubs in Five," a song that's never quite as great as it is the first time you hear it. But Darnielle spends more of his time writing ruthlessly spare songs about plants, weather, and the flaws in the human heart, songs possessed of a mystery that's seemingly bottomless.
Eight of the 14 songs on the Mountain Goats' new CD, All Hail West Texas, mention the weather. Six mention plants, and all but one offer nothing more than Darnielle's patrician voice and acoustic guitar. His enunciation and timing are impeccable; his voice turns nasal whenever he pushes. His right hand hacks away at his guitar like he's trying to chop it down. The album was recorded on two over-the-counter boom boxes, one of which dates back to 1989 and contributes what the liner notes describe as "some pretty ferocious wheel-grind." The claustrophobic sound chokes the air from the room; we can hear how desperate things really are.
Darnielle's characters are desperate, no question. Most of All Hail West Texas traces love affairs that outstay their welcome. In "Jenny" the lovers ride off into the sunset, but that's the beginning of the story, not the end; their problems are just starting. Each song offers a fragment of troubled history, allowing us to see the couple whole for an instant.
In "Pink and Blue" a man feeds his infant twins and thinks, "What will I do with you?" We don't know exactly why he's worried, but there are crows outside in the branches of a tree whose "roots reach down to where the bad people go." Something is terribly wrong beneath the surface, something that he can ignore most of the time, but not when he's mashing up bananas for his babies. It's a pop song that feels like a documentary. The lyrics are microscopically dense: sensory details pile up much faster than you can take them in, just like in real life. When you listen, you hear the sound of a single event: Darnielle hits record, plays the song, botches a few notes on the guitar. The wheels of the boom box churn away in the background like an approaching storm.
The whir of the tape recorder and the scratching of the pick against the strings are to Darnielle's voice what the weather and the landscape are to his characters: cold, hard, uncontrollable facts of the universe. Across several dozen releases (cassettes, 7-inches, compilation appearances Darnielle's career is an obsessive record-collector's wet dream) those facts have been near-Newtonian constants. What happens when they're gone?
Martial Arts Weekend, which came out a month ahead of All Hail West Texas, is an album by the Extra Glenns, who are Darnielle and Franklin Bruno of Nothing Painted Blue. Bruno surrounds Darnielle's strumming with electric guitar, bass, and piano. It was recorded on professional recording equipment it's not exactly Pet Sounds, but at least there's room to breathe. But in Darnielle's songs that just means there's more room to get lost in. In "Malevolent Seascape Y" two people watch a third leaving on a ship. One bends down and finds a seashell in the sand. "And when you handed it over with that smile on your face," Darnielle sings, "I knew the three of us meant less than nothing." The pair sit on the jetty and watch the sun go down over the ocean as one of them tries miserably to resign himself to the situation; when he puts the shell to his ear, he doesn't hear the sea, or anything else.
That's all we know by way of facts, and all we need to know. What the song gives us is what it feels like to be these people on the beach, their feelings usually cloudy and occasionally, excruciatingly clear. We already knew that people could tear one another to pieces, and Darnielle knows that too but he assumes we want to know what they feel when they do.
The Extra Glenns perform as part of Noise Pop Wed/27, 9 p.m., Cafe du Nord, 2170 Market, S.F. $8. (415) 861-5016.