Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Mountain Goats

  • Tallahassee [4AD, 2002] A
  • We Shall All Be Healed [4AD, 2004] A
  • The Sunset Tree [4AD, 2005] ***
  • Get Lonely [4AD, 2006] **
  • Heretic Pride [4AD, 2008] B+
  • The Life of the World to Come [4AD, 2009] A-
  • All Eternals Deck [Merge, 2011] ***
  • Transcendental Youth [Merge, 2012] A
  • Beat the Champ [Merge, 2015] A-
  • Goths [Merge, 2017] B+
  • Getting Into Knives [Merge, 2020] ***
  • Bleed Out [Merge, 2022] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Tallahassee [4AD, 2002]
John Darnielle's embattled "alpha couple" are no more a single fictional creation than his Mountain Goats are a group or his "I" is himself. They're the kind of irreducible sociological construct that impresses artists that settle into deep heartland--literally Iowa for Darnielle, symbolically where it says on 2002's much flatter DIY All Hail West Texas and now the different place it says on this well-enhanced major-indie debut (which comes trailing Ghana, Sweden, and Full Force Galesburg). Darnielle gets mileage out of songs-with-strummed-guitar's confessional imperative; as unautobiographical as we guess his Tallahassee-and/or-Texas interpersonals must be, there's tremendous emotional oomph in his first person. His singing reinforces the effect. And if there's nothing heartland about "Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania/Trucks loaded down with weapons/Crossing over every night/Moon yellow and bright," well, really, who cares? A

We Shall All Be Healed [4AD, 2004]
Inexhaustible wordslinger, belated bandleader, John Darnielle submits a singer's record. He enunciates so forcefully that any verbal incoherence is your fault, projects so loudly it takes months to notice his backup musicians. This is a record whose idea of poetry is "That's good we can always use more electrical equipment," "I eat a couple of Milky Ways for breakfast," and "Get in the goddamn car." Nothing begins-middles-and-ends like "No Children" or "International Small Arms Traffic Blues" because speed freaks tweaking from one meaningless activity to the next don't generate much narrative logic. Every character is a loser or fuckup whose future is no bleaker than that of the planet we all inhabit. They aren't redeemed by Darnielle's love because he doesn't love a one of them. But they are redeemed by his interest, in them and in the planet we all inhabit. And whenever he flags a little, they're also redeemed by his backup musicians. A

The Sunset Tree [4AD, 2005]
Is it that he knows less about himself than he does about the world, or that he won't reveal it? ("Dance Music," "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?"). ***

Get Lonely [4AD, 2006]
Pretty consolations for a broken-up man ("Woke Up New," "Half Dead"). **

Heretic Pride [4AD, 2008]
Maybe John Darnielle's intent singing isn't putting his lyrics across. If that hadn't long been a question, Darnielle wouldn't be one more alt hero--a former psychiatric nurse who's always writing and spends his life greeting his far-flung cult on the road. He'd be some kind of new Dylan--he's that prolific and that imaginative. Still, one wonders whether 4AD has thrown his critical followers off with its line about how this one abandons autobiography for "mythical creatures" etc. Once I'd read along online, looked up "autoclave" in the dictionary, and figured out that "Sept 15, 1983" was the day Prince Far I was murdered, I agreed that not every song could possibly be autobiographical--not the one about Mike Myers's makeup, for instance. But even the title track could be read as a metaphor about stubbornly nonconformist alt heroes, and half a dozen of these entries are the desperate-to-doomed love songs he's made a specialty. An autoclave is a device that sterilizes with pressurized steam. When the narrator says, "My heart is an autoclave," I suspect he's Darnielle. B+

The Life of the World to Come [4AD, 2009]
If you want to name your songs "1 Samuel 15:23," "Psalms 40:2," and so forth, perhaps it would be kind to reproduce--not the lyrics, too vulgar I know, but the verses cited. It was only after I took the trouble to read each one before listening that the album came into focus, which blurred within tolerable range when I replayed it without my trusty King James at hand. Some of these songs hold up dandy by themselves: the one keyed to the exit from Eden in which a divorced husband steals back into the house he couldn't make a home, or the "good and faithful servant" one that chronicles a cancer death. But exegesis by contrast is the basic strategy. Message: The punishments God's minions threaten you can count on, but when they promise grace, figure life will trip you up big-time anyway. This is literary rock as it should be. John Darnielle knows it's not enough to write. You have to think, too. A-

All Eternals Deck [Merge, 2011]
Four great songs, all of which address mortality directly instead of implying it the way the nine merely ambitious ones do ("Estate Sale Sign," "For Charles Bronson," "Sourdoire Valley Song," "Beautiful Gas Mask") ***

Transcendental Youth [Merge, 2012]
Thorny to begin with, John Darnielle reached some near-perfect threshold of liminal comprehensibility with Tallahassee 10 years ago, then got thornier again, albeit in liminally comprehensible mode. But here he goes so clear Tom Cruise may propose matrimony. If you want songs that hit as hard as "No Children" and "International Small Arms Traffic Blues," put on your body armor, because most of these hit harder. From "Amy AKA Spent Gladiator"'s unequivocal "stay alive" to the title youth rising heavenward on "air gone black with flies," here is all-embracing existential despair that refuses to get down in the mouth about it, peaking with two sunken-hopes tracks midway through that taken as a diptych constitute the greatest song he's ever written. Matthew E. White's horn charts are the musical development Darnielle has in store for us. But the dealmaker is Jon Wurster's spare, inescapable drumming. A

Beat the Champ [Merge, 2015]
As interested parties didn't need me to tell them, John Darnielle's latest is a concept album about the professional wrestlers of his '70s youth. The romanticization of the grotesque not being my thing, I have no inkling which stories are legendary and which extrapolations. But I like them all. I thank Darnielle for naming like-father-like-son Chavo Guerrero as he wages his battle against evil and Bull Ramos as he holds onto his whip for dear life. But the anonynous ferocity of "Werewolf Gimmick" and camaraderie of "Animal Mask" are just as inspirational. And although the opener establishes a tender lyricism consonant with Darnielle's own, there's no mistaking the album's most indelible line: "I will stab you in the eye with a foreign object." That's the name of the song--"Foreign Object." A-

Goths [Merge, 2017]
Propelled though they are by rock-sturdy Jon Wurster, the arrangements evoke a keyboard-based, explicitly guitarless cocktail jazz of modest drive and less bite. John Darnielle sings with a dulcet lucidity that's almost angelic, the melodies chime in, and although I assume I'm missing some references, the lyrics do well enough by goth music and lifestyle from a "We Do It Different on the West Coast" perspective. Nonetheless, a lounge-style concept album about goth is not unlike a bro-country concept album about chamber music. That its two great songs--"Abandoned Flesh" and "Andrew Eldritch Is Back in Leeds," to be precise--reach out not to rudderless fans but aging musicians suggest that Darnielle is ready to move on to the next obsession. B+

Getting Into Knives [Merge, 2020]
The songs just keep on coming, often sharp but less knifelike than we might hope ("Bell Swamp Connection," "Corsican Mastiff Stride," "Getting Into Knives") ***

Bleed Out [Merge, 2022]
It's not like John Darnielle grabbed a chance to go on either vacation or what they call hiatus. Near as we can tell he never stops, and during the pandemic he not only put out two matched if insufficiently indistinguishable live-in-the-studio jobs headed The Jordan Lake Sessions but recorded an album of songs inspired by French hellenist Pierre Chuvin and then funneled the proceeds directly to his Covid-grounded road crew. But the mere rockers in the vast ring of fans who surround his giant cult will be pleased to note that after a long keyby spell, this one leans heavily on electric guitars. As a result the tracks seem to coalesce even when you don't altogether follow the allusive logic of their lyrics, although that's less problematic than usual on the most compelling bunch of songs he's put in one place in over a decade. Good guys or bad guys, most of the protagonists here are on some edge or other in a culture stretched near the breaking point by greed and violence that have become commonplaces. The title track is a finale. It offers zero hope that all will end well. A