Years ago Michael Stipe told me he once had the uncanny ability to
anticipate earthquakes before they occurred. He didn't know where the
talent came from, and couldn't really elaborate on what the exact
sensations were when he got these earthquake messages; he could just
kind of feel the earth move, and say to himself, Uh-oh, there goes a
piece of Mexico. But the gift began to dissipate as R.E.M. became
more popular. Perhaps Michael became the earthquake.
It wouldn't be surprising if John Darnielle could himself anticipate
earthquakes, especially since, in the Justin-and-Janet Era, he is in
little danger of becoming one himself. Darnielle is the Mountain
Goats (TMG), a (usually) one-man cult band to end all cults. Perhaps
only Guided by Voices can make a similar claim to prolificacy (a fan
site has more than 400 TMG songs catalogued, and one senses that that
just scratches the surface). And compared to the widespread awareness
of GBV, the Goats are such outcasts that they make Robert Pollard's
indie group seem famous as OutKast.
The Mountain Goats' latest disc, "We Shall All Be Healed," is an odd,
fascinating journey through the mind of a man who channels messages
from horror movies, occult events, and other bewilderments, and turns
them into songs. On it, Darnielle is supported by some of the
musicians he's grazed with for many years, including Peter Hughes
(bass and other things) and Franklin Bruno, who like Darnielle is
both Ph.D.-level educated, a musician, and rock critic himself. (You
can read some of Darnielle's writing here in the neumu archives, and
on Web site Last Plane to
. Here Bruno plays mostly keyboards (piano and organ). The
drummer is Christopher McGuire.
Darnielle most often strums an eccentrically-tuned acoustic guitar,
and sings in a quavering voice that reminds one of Jonathan Richman
stripped of all hope, or at least optimism.
Darnielle strikes me as one whose formidable intellect coexists with
subconscious access to all kinds of unexplained phenomena: He's got
nightmares, and he knows how to use them. I think of Carl Jung
strumming a guitar, watching flying saucers go by. Or a kid in one of
those Spielbergian developments in exurban Southern California, one
of those commuter cul-de-sacs that are prime landing sites for
extraterrestials ("E.T."), or for the undead sucking up children
through a TV screen, like in "Poltergeist."
Pick a song, any song. Check "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent," with
its open-tuned acoustic guitar riffs recalling Richie Havens, title
invoking the indelible performance of the former child actress who
gave the world a fright in "The Exorcist" and intentionally blurring
the line between what's in a movie and what's real.
Are dreams real? When Bob Dylan sang, "I'll let you be in my dream if
I can be in yours," he probably wasn't imagining dreams as haunted as
Darnielle's in "Palmcorder Yajna." Set in an inexpensive motel, it
find the singer apparently having fallen asleep to "Poltergeist"; he
dreams of a camera pointed out from the television, and takes note
that "headstones climbed up a hill." (One of the morals of that movie
was, never raze a graveyard for a housing development).
There are two songs with references to Belgium in the title
now when's the last time you saw that? "Letter from Belgium" is sung
in a Lou Reed deadpan, a blend of hallucinatory humor and horror,
with "freelance drawings of Lon Chaney," "blueprints for geodesic
domes," and paranoia from within and without. "Your Belgian Things"
is even scarier because it's so emotionally connected; you sense real
fear as the protagonist takes a roll of film of the moving men, "in
biohazard suits," removing a former roommate's belongings.
In between the two Belgium songs is "The Young Thousands," an anthem
sung in a reedy voice that declares: "The ghosts who haunt your
building/ Are prepared to take on substance." Who you gonna call?
This ain't "All the Young Dudes," though it seems a distant cousin.
"Mole" sounds like it could be based on the totalitarian-themed 1960s
British cult TV series "The Prisoner." When Darnielle sings "I know
you want information," he echoes the mantra of the Patrick McGoohan
character, a retired secret agent spirited to a remote,
self-contained society of the brainwashed where he refuses to get
with the program. The lush, melodramatic chordings give "Mole" an
extra layer of drama.
Darnielle prefers the view of the unreliable narrator (that is, the
imagination rampant) to singer/songwriter confessionals. I don't
think we're supposed to confuse the liquor store clerk who happily
shoots a robber to death ("Against Pollution") with the person who
wrote the song. But he does get somewhat personal, or at least deals
with universal emotion, on "Home Again, Garden Grove." (This Orange
County, Calif. community, less than a mile from Disneyland, has the
most churches per capita in the state of California). The song is of
high-school reflections turned sour. It may be the quintessential
Mountain Goats song: Disillusion about a place that held no illusions
in the first place.