It’s a good thing John Darnielle knows how to write a story. As the singer and lyricist of acoustic-guitar duo The Mountain Goats, Darnielle has built a career out of songs structured around characters and narrative–not on the strength of his voice.
It’s a good thing John Darnielle knows how to write a story.
As the singer and lyricist of acoustic-guitar duo The Mountain Goats, Darnielle has built a career out of songs structured around characters and narrative–not on the strength of his voice.
That’s not to say he’s a bad singer, per se. But, rather, one who has limited range and a focused attack.
Darnielle admits as much on his band’s Web site: “The lyrics are central to the whole enterprise,” he writes, “Many of the songs involve desperate characters who’ve found themselves in some trouble and want to moan about it a little before taking their lumps. The sexual tension between characters in your average Mountain Goats song could split the atom if the power could be harnessed, but it can’t, so forget it.”
On his recently released, pay-what-you-like digital EP, Satanic Messiah, Darnielle amply showcases those desperate characters, as well as the quietly beautiful songwriting aesthetic he’s been developing for more than a decade.
The EP’s best song, “Sarcofago Live,” has words rife with possibility played over strummed acoustic guitars and lightly tinkling piano keys. It’s minimal and fascinating at the same time:”We were hungry/There was no food/We were restless/There were too many things to do/So we gathered in a concrete room/Eyes up at you.”
The song brings to mind Hemmingway’s famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s brimming with what isn’t there, a blank canvas on which the listener can project meaning.
And the rest of the EP follows suit with songs that, despite the title, don’t seem to have anything to do with Satan. (The songs do take some aim at organized religion, however.)
And while it may sound pretentious to recommend music that engages on a more literary than sonic level, there’s something refreshing about Darnielles’ close refinement of his craft. He’s a wordsmith, and a damned good one.
Besides his musical endeavors, Darnielle spends time writing about music as a longtime columnist for extreme-metal magazine Decibel and last summer released a work of fiction, as part of the 33 1/3 series, about Black Sabbath’s classic album Master of Reality.
Like his unconventional songs, Darnielle’s use of fiction as music criticism was largely unexpected, but nonetheless exceptional. Master of Reality (the book) describes the mindset of a teenager locked in a mental institute, whose only solace lies in the singing of Ozzy and thunderous guitar of Iommi. The story perfectly encapsulates the effect and power of Sabbath’s music.
So this is it. John Darnielle is a master storyteller. You’d do well to listen.
The Mountain Goatsw/Kaki KingTonight at The Wonder Ballroom$18, All ages