It has been a little over a year since someone dear to my soul first introduced me to the offbeat indie band known as The Mountain Goats through their 2002 album All Hail West Texas (Remastered). Right away, my sense for good music recoiled—the guitar felt so unimaginative! The audio quality seemed almost intentionally grainy, pervading your ears like fine sand, and the voice—my God! Did the singer have any interest in sounding musical? It certainly didn’t seem so. Yet I, like just a peep over a million other Spotify customers, listened on. Now, I find myself in the top 0.1% The Mountain Goats listeners on Spotify, with songs of theirs occupying seven of my top 10 most listened to songs. How did this come to be? And, more importantly for the purposes of this article, how on earth do I now hold them in such high regard while still—still!—questioning whether or not their art is music, exactly?
It will be immediately clear to anyone listening to just about any Mountain Goat sing that the singer’s style is…different. It is unclear whether John Darnielle, lead singer, songwriter and originally the only member of The Mountain Goats, is a singer at all in the first place. His tone is flat. At times his voice pitches in what could be described as appropriate musical fashion, while at other times his delivery is outright “machinic”. As The Mountain Goats crept further and further into my musical repertoire over the recent months, their appeal increasingly mystified me. How was it that music with so little evident effort to appeal to the senses continued to dominate my playlists and my mind? I have found the answer—and the revelation, I think, will convert you (after you click past these ads).
Ads? Of course not—this is INKspire. Remember to support locally owned nonprofits! Ahem. Here is what makes The Mountain Goats so special: they do not sing, and they do not try to—not within our standard parameters of song, that is. Julian Cullen Budwey from Amherst’s Philosophy of Music outlines a brief list of what might make a song horribly offensive in Good & Bad Music, which includes poorly-handled dissonances, random fragments of melody and awkward rhythms. By these accounts, it seems that All Hail West Texas ought to be due for damnation, yet in spite of their seemingly unoriginal score, their music remains not only successful but moving. The Mountain Goats do not sing songs; they perform stories. I would like to exemplify through two stories of theirs, Dance Music and Going to Georgia.
Dance Music is a brief and jaunty song, less than two minutes long, in which John Darnielle explores two points of trauma in his youth: drowning out the sounds of domestic violence with his little record player at five or six, and his encounter with police over his drug use at the age of 17. Both recollections begin by situating themselves in a first person—and strangely anxious—manner. In verse 1:
“Alright, I’m on Johnson Avenue in San Luis Obispo
And I’m five years old, or six, maybe”
And in verse 4:
“Okay, so look, I’m seventeen years old
And you’re the last best thing I’ve got going”
There is a certain tumbling-out of words that The Mountain Goats espouse in both of these moments. This rapid, anxious speech is two things among many: it is a-rhythmical and it is familiar. The feeling of your own mind accelerating beyond the normal pace of your lips and thus sputtering out a quick response laden with “Okay, so look,” and “five, or six, maybe” is an experience that we have all had and that we all implicitly associate with the anxiety of adolescence.
The need to speak, to be heard, swells up in us and then bursts out with no time to obey the decorum of rhythm; all that matters is spitting out this feeling, this excess of words. Typically, this strange meter would not be found in music—it strikes at us, bruising the part of us that seeks to experience the flow sensually. Yet here, rather than detracting from the experience, this adolescent anxiety defines it. The singer does not tell the story of a child, dealing with household and drug abuse, nor do they sing of it. John Darnielle performs his own distinct subjectivity. The meaning of the song is not defined first by the words, or the music, but the entirety of the song comes first from the experience itself. Meter, rhythm, any personifiable interpretation of the jamming guitar—these are given secondary importance to the humanity of the songwriter.
The lyrics, while almost styled like a novel, find their truest value in the incredibly tasteful and emotional delivery. So, if my article has caused you to leap from your place to search up The Mountain Goat songs, I feel contractually obliged as a now-published Mountain Goat “stan” to wish you well on your journey. For those of you who remain, rest assured that there is more. Let’s be clear—the first step in being blown away by The Mountain Goats is realizing that they have foregone traditional singing roles to allow for very nuanced aspects of the human experience that would typically be omitted from song-speak, but there is an entire pilgrimage that remains.
Onwards, to Glory and Georgia
Let’s examine the second song I have chosen, Going to Georgia. The oratorical (that is, speaker-like) nature of The Mountain Goats is much clearer in this song, which alternates between narrative presentment of a moment and a borderline-shouted delivery of more emotional aspects of that moment. Looking at verse 1, we find the following (with oratory versus shouting labeled):
“The most remarkable thing about coming home to you
Is the feeling of being in motion again;
It’s the most extraordinary thing in the world”
“I have two big hands
And a heart pumping blood
And a 1967 Cold .45 with a busted safety catch”
The singer—correction, the actor—does many things in this song. In the oratorical section of this first verse, the tone taken is largely flat, with minor inflections on “being in motion again”—but already this description is inadequate for the purposes of describing the art that lies within the performance.
Consider, for example, the minute but audible choking on words that occurs as John Darnielle says, “It’s the most extraordinary thing in the world.” This line does not choke in a manner that would imply some formal meaning to be investigated behind the choking; when this line is listened to from the most open position, the impression is not that the artist is choking on his words and that implies emotional profundity. The execution of the lyric is simply too gentle, too grounded in an original human experience (or at least the idea of one) to be described as “choking, meaning this” or “choking, meaning that.”
The narrative perspective then shifts to a slightly more musical delivery of a passionate description of the character’s re-discovery of their own corporeality. The music swells with the sense of worldly potential and beauty. The listener, following the character which follows no grid line of musical theory, is captivated by a man who asserts, triumphantly, that he has big hands full of blood, his own blood, from his pumping, living, beautiful heart.
If the reader has followed the path intended, they will be struck by the absolute humanity demonstrated once again by the “music” of The Mountain Goats. Come back when you’re ready for more. Ready? OK. Here we go. Get this; Going to Georgia and Dance Music—were performed by the same guy. What does this mean? The feeling communicated in Dance Music-—childhood, anxiety, placelessness that is made tolerable by an absurd and a-situational remedy—is starkly, wholly, completely and utterly different from that which is found in Going to Georgia.
One is delivered as excited, yet uncertain and somewhat desperate. Going to Georgia is a performance of the absolute collision with the unspeakable beauty of vitality, love and (for those who attentively listened to the entire song) a good degree of mental illness (so much so, in fact, that John Darnielle no longer performs the song live). The Mountain Goats do not simply deliver humanity at its most subtle, its most nuanced, compassionate and existentially grounded, they deliver this subtlety across an astoundingly wide range of deeply human experiences (and somewhat beyond, for those familiar with the song Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of).
The Goat Behind the Magic
It follows that by pressing (or, perhaps, ignoring) the boundaries of what makes a singer a singer, other conventions deviate as well. In a podcast with Joseph Fink, John Darnielle mentions that he had great difficulty adapting to traditional band practices such as setting up a studio for recordings. “I couldn’t accept that the rules were different in the studio (…) For me, setting up a mic was grabbing a guitar and pointing it at the boombox in such a way that you got something you liked, which you checked after you did the take. (…) And yeah, so when I first started going to the studio, they’d sit me down in my chair in front of the thing, and I’d start to play and sing and they’d go ‘wait wait wait wait’ and I’d say ‘I hope you got that ‘cause I’m done, that’s it right there.’”
As with any attempt to celebrate and glorify an artist as original, there may be well-meaning attempts to extinguish the joy of the claim itself. I hope to anticipate the most obvious of these and reaffirm that there is no one in the public eye that does what The Mountain Goats do with the grace and detail that I pronounce here.
Obviously, The Mountain Goats are not the only flat singers in music—let alone the indie-rock scene. Hobo Johnson, for example, is a rapper/vocalist who attracts millions with his ability to tell the stories with a stretchy, bounding lyricism that is sympathetic to the uncertainty many young listeners feel. While the stories and instruments vary, Hobo Johnson’s vocalization remains constant. If one were only left with his voice, there would be a great deal of difficulty differentiating one song from another, let alone one album from the next.
Another indie artist that has many similarities to The Mountain Goats, AJJ, fails to match The Mountain Goats. While the singer is hoarse and flat in a manner that does a fine job conveying their sympathy for the darker points of life, it remains evident that their music—like most artists—is composed of concepts that arose from experiences rather than the experiences themselves.
Moreover, I would like to clarify my thought that John Darnielle is not primarily fabricating feelings or stories to tell—once again, this would suggest that it is the narratives, not the meaning that birthed them, that led to the artistic triumph that is The Mountain Goats. To borrow from TS Eliot’s Tradition and Individual Talent, “Poetry is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation.”
John Darnielle is also an accomplished writer. His first novel, published in 2014, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction two days after its publication. In a 2014 interview discussing Wolf in a White Van, we see that even with his own tinkering with tradition in music, the novel is where his true tendency for artistic novelty may be realized. “You know, people keep asking me [the difference between writing songs and writing prose], and it’s like comparing a cup of tea to baking bread. They both take place in the kitchen, but after that, there really aren’t any similarities! A song happens very quickly, and also exists, for me, in a much more knowable, formal environment. Whereas with a novel you can do whatever you want.” LA Review of Books.
It is an ear to human experiences—an incredibly sympathetic one—that allows someone to present emotions with this level of nuance and finery, and I hope that you have been convinced to re-examine The Mountain Goats in this new manner that I have recently become addicted to as well.