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+ The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely
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Mountain Goats
We Shall All Be Healed
4 AD/Beggar's Group

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 Jakarta. 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.

by Wayne Robins

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