Without movement of any sort, there is no evolution-and this is especially true when looking at the history of modern music. As times change, so too does the perspective on certain genres. Over the past handful of decades, there has been a noticeable shift in popularity and relevance of certain sounds, from the ’50s all the way up to the ’10s. Individual artists can also go through this process of re-evaluation and reinvention; these changes in direction often provide new insight and resonance to a sound that has become familiar and comfortable. And nowhere is this better exemplified than in the musical trajectory of John Darnielle, founder of indie rock outfit The Mountain Goats.
From his earliest work transferring the stream-of-conscious musings that echoed in his head to the more polished, band-oriented records in recent years, Darnielle has never let his often-chaotic and lyrical narratives separate from the personal experiences that birthed them. His approach to the music has changed, but his history with these sounds still provides the foundation on which all his songs are built. The quirky melodies and skewed rhythmic tangents that wound their way through his early lo-fi albums have merged with his desire to create something more emotionally communal and less caustically angular.
Born in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1967, Darnielle would subsequently grow up in Southern California and survive a rough childhood at the hands of an abusive stepfather, an experience that would be referenced in detail on 2005’s “The Sunset Tree.” He attended Claremont High School and lived for a time in Portland, Oregon, after he graduated from high school-where he developed a reliance on methamphetamines and other drugs. This low point in his life would be dissected across the songs on “We Shall All Be Healed,” which was released in 2004. He moved back to California and worked for a time at the Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk.
While working at the hospital, he began writing songs and playing guitar in his off time, which led to him recording some tracks using a Panasonic boombox. This lo-fi method of recording would come to characterize his earliest work and would feed into the DIY ethic that informed his burgeoning musical career.
He attended Pitzer College in the early ’90s, graduating with a degree in English. Throughout his years there, he was continually writing and recording; and with the help of Dennis Callaci, a friend who founded Shrimper Records, a cassette of his songs, “Taboo VI: The Homecoming,” was released in 1991.
Darnielle officially founded The Mountain Goats around this time and started to tour, ostensibly in support of this cassette. As time passed, he released more cassettes and performed regularly across the country, often backed by an all-girl reggae band called The Casual Girls who would go on to adopt the name The Bright Mountain Choir. He was often joined by bassist Rachel War (a member of The Casual Girls), who would accompany him during some solo tours, although another bassist, Peter Hughes, would be brought on for some later performances.
In 1994, the band (still mainly just Darnielle) released its first official studio record, “Zopilote Machine” on Ajax Records. This release stands as the only official record featuring the entirety of The Bright Mountain Choir. His songs are filled with mythological tangents, Latin passages and a certain boombox fidelity. They are intimate and ragged in their examination of personal experience and undiluted emotion. You feel and absorb each syllable and melody as much as you hear them-he developed a primal sense of musical association that subconsciously culled moments from our own histories and interlaced them with the fractured acoustic sounds that he produced.
With the release of the band’s second official album, “Sweden,” Darnielle was at the peak of his acoustic experimentation. He hadn’t yet moved on from these stripped-down, guitar-driven rhythms and was injecting even more devastation, joy and weirdness into each of his songs. And while Sweden isn’t actually referenced anywhere across this collection, there are several places that lend their geography to the framework of various tracks. The record is primarily just him and a guitar, but there’s a sense of expanding borders, of simple sounds unfurling into complicated emotional diversions.
Apart from the voyeuristic revelations laced throughout these songs, Darnielle took direct inspiration from other artists to create this cavernous emotional space. Tackling songs from Steely Dan and jazz/blues pianist Buddy Johnson, he took these antecedent sounds and fashioned his own skewed melodic landscape where he could wander and test out specific veins of noise in a controlled environment. The record still possesses a unique heart and soul, the kind of rare genius that’s rarely heard outside the confines of someone’s head, but you can hear the first rumblings of a shift in his perspective toward the acknowledgement of a larger musical awareness.
Tracks such as “The Recognition Scene” and “Downtown Seoul” quickly set the tone for the record, allowing generous quantities of open space to move around within these tracks. You can practically hear the exhaustion and effort leave his body with each word uttered, but there’s also a curiously joyous mood to some of these songs. From his earliest records to his most recent, he’s always been able to hide pain and grief inside spontaneous melody and its resulting momentum.
After “Sweden” was released, however, Darnielle made a concerted effort to change the way he approached the production of his music. In November 1996, he declared his intentions to “clear his musical tendency for profanity” and attempt to adopt a more optimistic attitude toward the ideas echoing inside his songs. “Sweden” was the last gasp before he traded up to a higher standard of sound, and it provides a perfect snapshot of a musician in transition. Unapologetically emotional and devastating, these songs reveal a depth and endless imagination drawn from a simple mixture of airy lyrical phantasms and the shivering resonance of an acoustic guitar.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.