How to Listen to the Mountain Goats

A BRIEF INTRO

Any one person’s origin story is complex and shrouded in mystery by the annals of time, but the most agreed-upon history is this: in the late 80s, John Darnielle was in his early 20s and was working as a psychiatric nurse at a state-run youth mental hospital in Claremont, California. It was around this time that he began getting more serious about his musical education. He had studied piano in his younger years, so he had an appreciation for classical music. He was also a modern nineties man with an appreciation for pop music. As a kid growing up during the disco era (he was born in 1967), he escaped into hard drugs and pop/dance music, so the dance-pop phenomenon of the nineties seemed natural to him. Influenced by his young hip personality and, ostensibly, patients at the hospital, he began exploring reggae, grunge and metal musics around this time, which inspired him to want to write his own music. In 1991 at the age of 24, he picked up a guitar and started learning chords out of a chord book. Too poor to buy his own chord book, he would carry his guitar downtown every morning to a local music venue. He used a chord book he found at the club, strumming chords slowly and quietly in the corner while the staff worked around him. Soon, he memorized a G chord, a D chord, an E minor chord, and an A chord and thus he had all the tools he needed for his multi-decade musical career.

themountaingoats

MAJOR THEMES IN MOUNTAIN GOATS MUSIC

1. Unhealthy relationships. This comes out in many of the songs, but is most salient in the story of The Alpha Couple. This is a couple that John wrote like a hundred songs about. They are not real (allegedly), but their story can be traced from beginning to end through the years, culminating with the album Tallahassee (2002), which was a concept album entirely about the couple. With John’s help, fans have confirmed some chronology of the story. Songs are often identifiable by the word “Alpha” in the title.

2. Place/location. Going to X (“Going To Alaska”). John has written several dozen songs about going to various places for various reasons, usually to escape, but also about feeling connected to a sense of place. See: the map of every place mentioned in a Mountain Goats song. He frequently writes about places that are not particularly considered in the popular canon to be romantic. Like the entire album about Texas, or the one about Sweden, or the one about the Iowa/Illinois border.

3. Religion. John can quote the bible very well, and can talk your ear off about Christian contemporary music (don’t bring up Amy Grant around him unless you have an extra half hour to spare). John is a self-proclaimed atheist (this changes frequently in interviews) but loves the church and the idea of religion. He writes mostly about Christianity and Satanism, but others have been mentioned to a lesser extent.

4. Drugs. John was a (self-proclaimed) meth addict during his adolecence. He was an alcoholic at an early age (apparently). He was homeless in his late teens and early 20s due to his drug use (according to interviews) and had many addict friends (according to him). He has been clean for decades (it would appear) but remembers vividly his experiences as a drug user (I’m guessing) and writes about it frequently (this is obvious).

5. Mental illness. This probably comes from his time as a psychiatric nurse. He writes a lot of songs about people in desperate situations.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING ORDER

Tallahassee is the best place to start.
The Sunset Tree is a great second place. This is his biggest “hit” album.
Transcendental Youth is maybe the most accessible album to people who like pop music.
All Hail West Texas is my favorite album, and was where I started.

From here, it’s up to you. I recommend listening to full albums before you listen to EPs. To get into the old stuff, listen to the compilation albums (Protein Source of the Future, Bitter Melon Farm, Ghana), then move onto original full albums: Nothing For Juice, Full Force Galesburg, and Sweden are the most accessible old albums IMO but figure it out for yourself. You give a man a fish, etc. The best thing to do is dive in around 2002 and jump around until you find a sound you like. Then you can just go chronological. There’s something good for everyone somewhere along the line.

Now for the complete discography.

PHASE 1: THE PANASONIC BOOMBOX YEARS

John was recording on a panasonic boombox with a broken condenser, and occasionally also recording on an old panasonic tape recorder or directly into his Casio keyboard. During this era, John frequently recorded and performed with his friend and bassist Rachel Ware. After he signed a deal with Ajax in 1993, he stopped self-releasing and had professional editors and masterers. He would send boxes of home-recorded cassettes to his label and the producers there would cut them into EPs and LP-length cassettes.

  • Taboo VI – The Homecoming (1991) – SEMI-RARE
    According to John, he had been playing guitar for four months when he bought a tape recorder so he could record himself in his dormitory (the nursing staff lived on premises at the hospital) playing guitar. He had made several cassettes and would play the tapes for friends at parties. ALLEGEDLY: a friend asked to borrow one of the tapes, and John let him leave with a copy of that tape. That friend was a marketing assistant at Shrimper Records and gave a copy to his boss, who agreed to release the record. John Darnielle found himself very quickly pressured into releasing this cassette, and he has stated it was released without his consent. Very few if any copies exist, but a digital rip has propogated through Mountain Goats hardcores over the years. John has released a few statements about this album. The gist of it is: he stands by it, but asks people to consider it as existing outside of the Mountain Goats canon.
  • Songs For Petronius EP (1992)
    First official cassette release. He at this time was accompanying himself on a Casio keyboard using stock beats and short loops.
  • Chile De Arbol EP (1993)
    A short one-side cassette.
  • The Hound Chronicles (1993)
    First full-length cassette release.
  • Transmissions to Horace (1993)
  • Hot Garden Stomp (1993)
  • Taking the Dative (1994)
  • Why You All So Theif? (Split) (1994)
  • Beautiful Rat Sunset EP (1994)
  • Philyra EP (1994)
  • Yam, the King of Crops (1994)
  • Zopilote Machine (1994)
    JD’s first release on Ajax, a legit record label. This is a huge shift in his songwriting because he can now request money for equipment and pay advances for taking time off work to write and record. He still follows his standard songwriting method of writing and recording album takes in the same day, many times only playing the song once or twice through before recording it. This is his first CD/vinyl release. “Going To Georgia” from this album is a classic fan favorite.
  • Songs For Peter Hughes EP (1995)
    Written for his friend and collaborator Peter Hughes, who would be the Mountain Goats bassist and backing harmonizer beginning in 1995 until the end of the foreseeable future.
  • Songs About Fire EP (1995)
  • Orange Raja, Blood Royal (Split) (1995)
  • Sweden (1995)
  • Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg (1995)
    An abandoned LP album written ostensibly as a companion to Sweden. The mastering was never finished properly (the only copy floating around was mastered at 1.5x speed, and despite attempts by fans to manually slow it down and remaster it, the album is completely disowned and disavowed by JD).
  • Nine Black Poppies EP (1995)
  • Jack And Faye (1996)
  • Nothing For Juice (1996)
    Absolutely beautiful album. Very experimental sounds happening here. “Going To Reykjavik” is a highlight for me.
  • Tropical Depression (1997)
    I want to point out that in six years we have gone from strumming chords from a book in the back of a bar to 12 albums, 7 EPs, and two splits. Homeboy is prolific.

PHASE 2: THE TRANSITIONARY PERIOD

John moved to Iowa, married a woman he met in an online Mountain Goats fan forum, became a vegan, adjusted to married life, and experimented with major life decisions and suicidal ideation. At this time he’s working at a grain elevator near Ames, Iowa. His style is starting to mature here, starting to slow down and mellow out as he transitions into a studio setting.

  • Full Force Galesburg (1997)
    Written in Ames while he was depressed and alone. A classic gem.
  • New Asian Cinema EP (1998)
  • Isopanisad Radio Hour (1998)
  • 1999 Compilations – aka the Great Goat Studio Revolution, wherein JD simultaneously releases three greatest hits records a mere seven years into his career as a way to signal his transition out of the lo-fi sphere.
    • Bitter Melon Farm
    • Ghana
      “Golden Boy” is a previously unreleased fan favorite. People shout out at shows for John to play this song—it’s more annoying than “Free Bird” because 1) he isn’t going to play it, and 2) it visibly pisses him off. There are publicly documented instances of him being pissed about a request for this song, and one youtube video of him granting the request after a long lecture about how much he hates people who request this song.
    • Protein Source of the Future…NOW!
  • Coroner’s Gambit (2000)
    First studio-recorded album. (!!!)
  • Oh Juhu Beach EP (2001) – TOO RARE FOR WORDS
    Literally like four physical copies exist.
  • Devil in the Shortwave EP (2002)
    “Yoga” and “Commandante” are fan favorites.
  • Jam Eater Blues EP (2002)
  • All Hail West Texas (2002)
    The last hoorah for his panasonic days, after which the panasonic pooped out and John moved permanently into a studio. This signals the end of a major era in the Mountain Goats’ career. AHWT is a concept album about a group of people living in Texas whose lives are loosely interconnected. In 2015 this album was re-mastered and re-released on CD and vinyl with new songs. I still haven’t stopped crying.

CIVILIZATION PHAZE III: IN WHICH JOHN DARNIELLE IS A SERIOUS MUSICIAN

By this point, JD has quit his job as a nurse to pursue music full-time. He’s also begun writing (like, words not music) professionally. He starts with essays and poems on the internet (still available at lastplanetojakarta.com), then jumps head first into Twitter, eventually landing deals writing books and professional columns in magazines. The Goats sign with 4AD, a major international record label. To celebrate his commitment, John brings Peter Hughes (of Songs for Peter Hughes fame) and Jon Wurster (of Superchunk fame) on as full time band members and begins thinking about things like string arrangements and studio mixes. Around this time, John moves to Durham, NC where he still resides.

  • See America Right EP (2002)
    Prelude to Tallahassee. John is on a major record label now, so he’s playing the game the way it has to be played. Most record releases on 4AD are preceded by a hypable EP and/or a couple singles.
  • Tallahassee (2002)
    This album is all about the Alpha Couple. It’s a concept album that summarizes and outlines their whole story from start to finish, and makes subtle references to old songs if you read close. He has said that no songs released after this album are about the couple.
  • Palmcorder Yajna EP (2003)
    First single from the new album.
  • Letter From Belgium EP (2004)
    Second single.
  • We Shall All be Healed (2004)
    An (allegedly) autobiographical album about the time he spent as a homeless drug addict in California and Oregon. John claims no songs/albums written before this one are autobiographical. He says that he felt okay writing these songs because all of the people he’s writing about are dead now (#yikes).
  • Dilaudid EP (2005)
    John is now working on another autobiographical album about his childhood and the first single is an anxiety-inducing song about a surgical grade painkiller. Oh boy.
  • Come, Come to the Sunset Tree (2005)
    John releases a couple of albums like this, a companion album containing outtakes, cuts, and demo versions from the co-released album. This one is the companion to The Sunset Tree.
  • The Sunset Tree (2005)
    An autobiographical album about his abusive stepfather and his troubled childhood and adolesence. The premise is that he is back visiting his hometown and he begins to sift through his memories. At the end of the album it’s revealed that his stepfather is dead, and presumably he’s in town for the funeral. JD thanks his stepfather in the liner notes, saying the album would be impossible without him (#yikes). “This Year” is one of the biggest fan favorites, a live staple. “Up The Wolves” is another popular one that has some wider listenership. “Lion’s Teeth” has been described by JD as a “revenge fantasy”
  • Babylon Springs EP (2006)
  • Get Lonely (2006)
    The only thing John has said about this album is that he wrote it during “a very difficult time in [his] life.” It’s very depressing.
  • Daytrotter Session @ SXSW (2007)
  • Daytrotter Sessions (2008)
  • Satanic Messiah EP (2008)
  • Black Pear Tree EP (Split) (2008)
  • Heretic Pride (2008)
    So many songs written in C major!!!!! JD is writing happier, calmer music—but fear not! He finds a way to slip a knife in between your ribs and twist, as he is wont to do. This album features a lot of the classic Goats themes with a bit more poetry and emotional distance. “San Bernadino” is a sweet song about the birth of a child. JD has gone on record as saying that when he wrote this, he had a very naïve view of what childbirth would be like. He says that the real thing is “bloodier and louder”. JD has adamantly stating that “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room” is not about rape, even though it sounds like it is.
  • Moon Colony Bloodbath (Split) (2009)
  • Life of the World in Flux (2009)
    Outtakes, cuts, and demos of the next album.
  • Life of the World to Come (2009)
    All about the bible. Tells stories of people going through tough times who are looking toward the bible for support. John has claimed that this album is reflective of the darkest period of his life.
  • All Survivor’s Pack (2011)
    Outtakes, cuts, and demos of the next album.
  • All Eternals Deck (2011)
    Starting to openly dabble in the occult. John Darnielle’s first son, Roman, is born a couple months after this is released. According to him, life as a father brings him joy and happiness. You see a major shift in his music at this point, because it has much more perspective and hope, even when dealing with sad subjects.

PHASE IV: JOHN DARNIELLE IS STILL A SERIOUS MUSICIAN AND ALSO A SERIOUS AUTHOR AND A WEIRD TWITTER MEGASTAR WHO IS NOT POET LAUREATE

John is now signed to Merge Records, which is a major record label. He is now an international recording artist. John’s music has transcended into the amorphous realm of weird grad student music and also music for emo teens who are wise beyond their years and also instagram-famous college students who smoke weed and have multiple mandala tapestries hanging in the home they share with a shroom dealer and also music for people who read John Green books (tag yourself). The crowds at shows are a meeting of many cultures who all want to sing “I HOPE WE ALL DIE” in unison with 250 strangers. I see John Green at an Indianapolis Mountain Goats concert and give him a fist bump. I drive ten hours to see the Mountain Goats in Kansas City and I steal a cigarette from Peter Hughes (I don’t smoke). I cry onto John Darnielle at a merch table in Nashville. Obama is elected for a second term. The world is changing rapidly and our boy is dealing with it the only way he knows how: Twitter and concept albums.

  • Steal Smoked Fish EP (2012)
    A preview featuring a great song cut from the next album.
  • Transcendental Youth (2012)
    An album about Satanism, naturally. The Goats enlist brass arrangements from the Matthew E. White brass quartet and tours with them for this album. Anyway, I wrote a 10,000+ word essay going through this album song by song and John has read it (apparently).
  • Blood Capsules EP (2015)
  • Beat the Champ (2015)
    A concept album about wrestling. This one needs time to grow on you, and it has lots of wresting lingo that you will need to look up (lots of articles exist to help people with this album). Sonically, it’s the most subtle and sophisticated ones they’ve ever done. John Darnielle’s second son, Moses, was born shortly before the release of this album. At a live show once, John looked at me in the eyes during “Animal Mask” and said the line “they won’t see you, not until you want them to” and I cried.
  • Goths (2017)
    No pitch correction. No comped vocals. No guitars. No future. No hope.

VIDEOS

Interview & performance from 1995
Full concert at the Swedish American Hall
“No Children” for Gothamist
NPR Tiny Desk Concert
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
“Cry For Judas” music video
“You Were Cool” at the Newport Folk Festival 2013
City Winery
WTF with Marc Maron interview

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Published by

CJC

Freelance human being.

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