It’ll be hipster heaven on Friday as The Mountain Goats — lo-fi strummers extradonaire and progenitors of Bright Eyes and the like — descend on Emerson Suites at Ithaca College for an intimate night of singing, swooning and sharing.
Started by John Darnielle in the early ’90s — and still, as far as anyone’s concerned, his band — The Mountain Goats occupy a special niche in the indie rock stratosphere, mixing the high-brow lyricism of outfits from The Velvet Underground to The Decemberists with the beautifully earnest, slightly deranged harmonies of Neutral Milk Hotel or Daniel Johnston.
But Darnielle and his half-demented ditties aren’t so easy to categorize as all that. Working off a vast body of literary and cultural allusions, as well as a past filled with heartbreak, drug abuse and tangles with faith, the vagabond songwriter has become somewhat of an underground cultural icon thanks to his plaintive voice and unorthodox delivery.
While most bands are usually asked who their inspirations are, The Mountain Goats are in a position to have influenced many bands throughout the years. Nonetheless, Darnielle’s prolific interest in many genres means that The Mountain Goats are not limited to the indie or rock, either in influence or production. Darnielle, in an interview with Pitchfork Media in 2006, draws the conversation from heavy metal, to Asian musical scales, to dance-house music as effortly as his own music skips from one topic to another.
In an interview with Six Eyes Music Blog in 2008, Darnielle explains, “I listen to loads of stuff, some of it quite obscure, but I don’t think I’m actually up on what's going on that’s cool or anything. I probably couldn’t I.D. even one of the recent hot indie rock bands except maybe Vampire Weekend. I listen to a ton of music for the same reason anybody else does I’d guess — sheer visceral pleasure, a pleasant and rewarding use of my senses.” The recent hot bands, however, know of him: Darnielle was featured on an Aesop Rock track — the underground white rapper known for tracks like “Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives” — singing his usual bittersweet lament on drugs, beer, loneliness. The Mountain Goats have the rare ability to never seem incongruous in any genre.
Darnielle’s got an imagination, too: While on tour earlier this year, he and producer John Vanderslice recorded a limited-release EP, Moon Colony Bloodbath, about folks harvesting organs on the Moon.
Although The Mountain Goats began in California, they’ve lived a restless existence, as Darnielle has bounced around the country picking up influences and impressions. Their sound originally celebrated the lo-fi aesthetic — boombox recordings, no studio gimmicks — and, after dallies with more professional recording, much of their later work has returned to this back-to-basics mindset. No wonder Darnielle is often touted as one of the few truly “sincere” songwriters in the rock world today.
Darnielle however has come far — unlike the barely post-pubescent stars that clamor for attention on MTV — Darnielle only got his first record deal with a mid-sized label later in life. From writing music while working as a psychiatric-nurse technician and driving himself to gigs, The New Yorker now calls Darnielle America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.
We Shall Be Healed, John Darnielle’s first autobiographical album, chronicles his struggles while living in Portland among a community that was using methamphetamine. Further albums deal with his own struggles directly; Darnielle speaks often and frankly about his own past — he spoke with New York Magazine about his own use of heroin and crystal meth, and being beaten as a child by his father. The Mountain Goats’ music, however, makes it clear that it’s not just the struggles that make the man — or the artist. With every prickly lyric like, “Boats ease into the harbor bearing real suspicious cargo / And the sunlight on the water sets a switch off in your brain / The things that you’ve got coming will consume you,” Darnielle refrains from too easy allusions to drug use and tapers madness with nostalgia.
And then there’s the literary content of the songs. Darnielle’s no dummy: His songs are typically loaded with Latin quips, references to other artworks and better-than-average grammatical complexity. Tallahasse, released in 2002, tells the story of the Alpha couple and their demise; the tale’s been picked up since in other tunes. Their latest release, The Life of the World To Come (hitting stores Oct. 6), consists entirely of songs named after Bible verses.
Taking a look at the band’s famous song, “Love Love Love,” it’s apparent that Darnielle and co. are not your stereotypical singer-songwriters — pining away over a girl, wearing black and sharing emotions that every emo has felt 10 times since yesterday. “Raskolnikov felt sick, but he couldn’t say why / when he saw his face reflected in his victim’s twinkling eye,” Darnielle croons in the first verses. Are you prepared to fall in love over Dostoyevsky, the New Testament, a historic boxing match and the death of Kurt Cobain? Does anyone even fall in love like that? This is no Taylor Swift, by any means.
If you were looking to create the perfect college radio crooner — intellectually hefty, sweet-sounding with a tinge of strange, deep and heart-pulling without being angsty — you’d probably come up with something a lot like John Darnielle.
The last time The Mountain Goats clambered into town was three years ago for a Fanclub Collective Show at Cornell, which means that only an elite and well-advanced crew has seen them in Ithaca. If you know what’s good for your soul, heart and mind, you’ll get your butt over to IC tomorrow night at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $10. Don’t forget to bring your flannel.