The Mountain Goats Hit A Vein

BY Scott ReidPublished Jan 1, 2006

John Darnielle, the man behind the Mountain Goats and perhaps the most prolific songwriter this side of Robert Pollard, once said he didn't understand songwriters who couldn't write at least an album a year. He's done better than that. Starting in 1991 (during which time he also worked as a nurse in California), Darnielle released several cassette albums per year to his dedicated audience; since 1995 he's produced more than a dozen releases, including ten full-lengths on various labels before landing at 4AD in 2002.

Darnielle says his new album, We Shall All Be Healed, is "as close to autobiographical as I've ever come," a 13-track song-cycle loosely about drug addiction. Darnielle develops the subject matter and each song with his trademark poetic fervour but unusually (for him), these songs are for the most part based on people he's known. ("Most of them are probably dead or in jail by now," he reveals.)

Thematic resonance or an overall vision isn't new to Darnielle's Mountain Goats — the last album, Tallahassee, was a concept album surrounding his dysfunctional and completely fictional "Alpha couple" — but the source material is. "For me this was a really novel and risky thing to do, since usually I just like to make up stories," he admits. "There was a real thrill in violating my own ‘no-disclosure' clause. It was also kinda uncomfortable sometimes, but uncomfortable in a satisfying way, if that makes sense." The results, especially on "Mole" and the coarse attack of "Home Again Garden Grove," connect with a vehemence not heard since his classic 2000 album The Coroner's Gambit.

Throughout his career, Darnielle recorded his albums on a Panasonic boom box, which finally gave up the ghost while making 2001's All Hail West Texas; We Shall All Be Healed marks only his second trek into a proper studio. Darnielle was again joined by friends Peter Hughes, Franklin Bruno, Christopher McGuire and Nora Danielson, along with former MK Ultra front-man John Vanderslice, who produced the record with help from Scott Solter. "I sent [Vanderslice] the demos and he got super-excitable about them," explains Darnielle. "The whole project began to take on a really great energy. I don't think this album would be what it is without John and Scott — they really poured their hearts into it."

Healed utilises the studio to greater effect than Tallahassee did; Vanderslice's arrangements give an especially chilling atmosphere to Darnielle's elementary approach and stark lyrical tales. For someone who spent half a career pressing play and singing into a single mic boom box, studio time can be taxing — "we were there for ten days, that's an eternity for me!" — but Darnielle made sure the setting wouldn't overhaul his working methods. "I know lots of people hole up in the studio and tinker a lot, but immediacy is really important to me and I like to work hard and fast." His ethic was also shared by his supporting band, who he explained "had worked up some ideas and left some others to wait until it was time to record," in order to keep the songs fresh.

Even still, Darnielle doesn't feel indolent toward his art in the least. "I keep writing whether the good songs are coming or not," he confesses. "The ones I don't like get shelved, and then when I hit a vein, that's when I write an album."

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