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19. Protein Source Of The Future... Now! (1999)

Of the three Mountain Goats compilations, this is the best primer for his categorical songs. We have Pure songs, a Snow song, an Alpha song, and a couple tunes Going To places. It's also the compilation with the greatest consistency, which is another way to say the highlights are few. A special shout-out to "Going To Malibu," yet another Casio magic trick. It's as if Automatic for the People-era R.E.M. recorded a divorce anthem.

A brief taxonomy of prolific musicians, in terms of popularity. We have the obsessed cranks, those who toil in underground music caves without the usual industry strictures to condense their output: R. Stevie Moore, Jandek, Senmuth. You’ve got your restless creatives, the major figures who earned the cultural and actual capital to indulge their every musical itch: James Brown, Frank Zappa, Prince. And you have the simply manic, the ones whose audience is larger than a WFMU Christmas party, but not large enough to send a new record careening up the charts. Bob Pollard comes to mind, and David Tibet, and the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle.

Sasha Frere-Jones’ 2005 proclamation that Darnielle was “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist” has gotten a lot of play in interview prefaces. (Presumably, SF-J was creating wiggle room for Nigel Blackwell and Daniel Dumile, respectively.) As the driving force behind the Mountain Goats, he’s maintained a breakneck recording pace for more than two decades; and as his band declines to take a breath, so, too have his fans. Darnielle’s a beloved indie-rock figure, someone whose considered opinions on politics, sexism, and death metal have garnered him endless Tumblr reblogs. And yet, critical consensus has yet to alight on a particular album the way it has for so many of his peers.

The band’s career can be divided into three periods: 1991 to 1995, 1996 to 2001, and 2002 to the present. The first phase was essentially solo Darnielle, with frequent contributions from bassist/singer Rachel Ware. Around 1995, other obligations kept her from touring and recording, and Darnielle began collaborating with a variety of other musicians, including Alastair Galbraith and future Goat Peter Hughes. In 2002, newly inked to 4AD, the band released its second LP of the year, and first as a full band recording in a studio. (Previous efforts were infamously laid down on personal four-tracks and cheap boomboxes.) The current lineup is John Darnielle, Peter Hughes, and drummer Jon Wurster (who also plays in Superchunk and Bob Mould’s band).

The uniformity of Darnielle’s output — nearly every song under four minutes, a singular recording approach until the 4AD years — and the conceptual framework in which he works — the “Alpha” and “Going to” series of songs, the Latin phrases that accompanied his releases for a time — make it an ideal temptation toward completism. He’s resisted the retrospective impulse, even as his songs burrow into the psyches of fresh crops of undergrads. There are no best-ofs, no expanded reissues, and just a handful of compilations gathering the harder-to-find stuff. There would certainly be some kind of market for them; on, the Mountain Goats’ songs have been scrobbled 30 million times, a shade under Pavement’s 32 million, and more than contemporary bands like Built to Spill (16 million), Yo La Tengo (24 million), and Guided By Voices (14 million).

The success of the Mountain Goats speaks to a market inefficiency in indie rock. College rock repudiated the literalism of hardcore, spawning two decades of elliptical, allusive works. The Goats weren’t the sole torchbearers of directness in the ’90s and ’00s, but they boasted a deep catalog of earnest, structurally simple works. Pick any of a hundred entry points into their songbook; I’m sure we could construct a thousand best-ofs between us. (I mentioned that no one Goats album sticks out as particularly acclaimed, but 2002′s “No Children” and 2005′s “This Year” would seem to be, far and away, the songs with the furthest reach.)

Darnielle has spoken often about his songs being short stories. Until 2004′s We Shall All Be Healed, he was keeping the personal stuff at arm’s length. (Although you can certainly argue, a la Yoko Ono, that all art is inescapably about the artist.) As for the actors within these songs: they’re a rough bunch. Most everyone is hungry for something: good news, revenge, a split. Often, they’re hungry for food. A lot of time is spent comprehending — or trying to comprehend — a lover, a friend, a mortal enemy.

That’s not to say that his ragged crew is a set of unmoved movers. The psychogeography of a Mountain Goats album is invariably as thick as a cloud of gnats. Most narrative lyricists depict a situation by getting into the narrator’s thoughts; often as not, Darnielle likes to get in through the screen door out back. Songs hinge on a scuffle in the kitchen, the sight of a peacock in the front lawn, copulation on the boggy Scottish earth.

Always, there’s a real empathy. He’s not putting his characters through their existential paces, springing cruelty or failure on them. His population typically boasts fiery wills, the certainty of their decisions, and the singlemindedness of a Captain Ahab who’s perpetually late on the mortgage. The couplet I’ve seen quoted most often belongs to Zopilote Machine’s “Going To Georgia”: “The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it’s you / and that you’re standing in the doorway.” The narrator, of course, isn’t being dug lovestruck out of a closet; he (or she) is bearing down on Atlanta with a revolver and a maniacally beating heart.

Speaking of Atlanta, it’s worth taking a second to note the importance of location to the Mountain Goats’ output. Darnielle’s lived in a fair number of places. (Wikipedia — which currently has an article subsection called “Places Darnielle has lived” — pegs the journey as Bloomington, IN; San Luis Obispo, CA; Grinnell, IA; Tallahassee, FL; Colo, IA; Ames, IA; Chicago, IL; Portland, OR; Milpitas, CA; Denton, TX; and lastly, Durham, NC.) The sheer number of countries and cities he’s referenced could comprise an indie-rock Domesday Book, or at least a new New Traveler’s Atlas. A lot of these places are loci of suggestion, rather than immersion. “Going to Lebanon,” for instance, is typical; it gets no more specific than cedars. But the sheer accrual of landmarks across his discography has a universalizing effect, as the action plays out in a thousand varieties in a hundred towns.

As if this activity weren’t enough, Darnielle has maintained a consistent, genial online presence. Arguably, it’s contributed to his continued popularity, as the man has been continually available on the band’s message board, as well as perfectly willing to assure hundreds of indie-rock interviewers that yes, he’s genuinely into Meshuggah. His internet CV encompasses the “South Pole Dispatch” column for Decibel, contributions to the late Magnet magazine, and an incredible series of music writing on his own Last Plane to Jakarta site. Last Plane to Jakarta was the accelerant for my Mountain Goats fandom; I don’t know exactly what I expected from a boombox singer-songwriter, but it wasn’t impassioned advocacy for Cretin, Aura Noir, and late-period Geto Boys. That ecumenicalism is the biggest clue that the Mountain Goats’ corpus isn’t just a collection of impeccably imagined portraits — even though it’d be just fine if that were the case — but the work of someone led by an unslakable thirst for experience.

It’s that thirst that has seen the Goats through two decades of musicmaking. A mere three years in that span have passed without the release of new material: 1999, 2007, and 2010. Unlike a Robert Pollard, who made the transition from cassette recording to studio work with his penchant for fractured mod-pop intact, the Mountain Goats have undergone a slow evolution in sound and composition. I can’t go from flops to tops with their output; I can only indicate preferences.

What follows are descriptions of the 20 LPs in the band’s catalog, a number that includes three compilations of extended players, singles, and tracks contributed to other projects. The Mountain Goats’ consistency makes the nature of this project more than a little comical, but maybe we can look at this as a small celebration, and a quick look backwards. Register your thoughts in the comments before Darnielle releases the next five EPs.

Start the Countdown here.

Comments (24)
  1. Man, I was wondering if Stereogum would do one of these for the Mountain Goats. That was a serious undertaking and it was really well-executed. Thanks!

  2. John Vanderslice’s Pixel Revolt is one of my all-time favorite albums, and I have always wondered over the bit in the liner notes saying that “the lyrics of Pixel Revolt have been edited, expanded, and otherwise improved upon by John Darnielle.” (The two are known friends and collaborators–I saw them perform together at a small festival in St. Augustine a few years back.)

    Vanderslice is a masterful storyteller in his own right, but I wonder if it is Darnielle’s influence that has made Pixel Revolt my favorite JV album.

    Regarding this list, I’ve not actually listened much to the Mountain Goats (but have always meant to), so I’m glad to have a starting direction.

  3. Life of the World, Heretic Pride, All Eternals Deck over All Hail West Texas? Transcendental Youth at #3, above Sunset Tree AND AHWT? Surely you jest!

    But I do appreciate that there seems to be less emphasis on the rankings with this one, and you even acknowledged that trying to create a ranking is somewhat silly.

  4. Ghana will always be my favorite album by them.
    Good list though

  5. I know this is specifically albums, but the omission of Nine Black Poppies is kind of glaring.

    Other than that, excellent list. I appreciate that there isn’t much emphasis on the rankings themselves.

  6. We always talk about the inherent contradiction in listing art from best to worst – I mean it can’t actually be done, right? ESPECIALLY not for someone like John Darnielle – his catalog is too varied and too universally excellent to make any meaningful comparisons (for example, you can’t actually say “Tallahassee” is a better record than “Sweden”, or that “The Sunset Tree” is more fully realized than “All Hail West Texas” – they each set out to accomplish different things in very different contexts – and all succeed).

    That aside, I was so excited to see WSABH as #1 – that will always be my very favorite of all Goats records. That thing does crazy things to my emotions. CRAZY THINGS.

    Also! I was so happy to see Transcendental Youth so very high – I’ve been loving that record so much. I don’t know if I’d personally put it above “The Sunset Tree”… but songs like “White Cedar” and “In Memory of Satan” certainly make a solid case for where you’ve put it.

  7. Super happy to see Transcendental Youth up so high :)

  8. AHWT at number 9? No way.
    Transcendental Youth at number 3?! No way!

  9. My love for The Mountain Goats, and therefore my love for each of the albums I’ve listened to extensively (good lord, I’m still missing so much), is deeply personal, and based on my own experiences and thoughts. My personal list, and I would assume most other people’s, is less about “worst to best” and more of “resonates least to most.” Even that is subjective, LotWtC was much more powerful a few years ago, when I was experiencing a crisis of faith. Bravo for taking this on.

    • I was a bit put off by the list until I read your comment. You’re right… The Mountain Goats are one of those artists that really hit you in the feels. I’d probably put “Full Force Galesburg” in my top 5, but I could also see how someone could put “We Shall All Be Healed” in that spot (where as it’d probably be far lower on my list.

  10. The list is pretty good and well researched, except I would switch 1 and 2 around. “Tallahassee” is a masterpiece.

  11. Transcendental Youth is underrated imho

  12. Agree with those that clamor for Tallahassee to be #1
    Backed up with 3 1/2 year old blog article.

  13. I agree with those who said All Hail West Texas is too low and Transcendental Youth is too high, but when you’re talking about an output as large and consistent as John Darnielle’s, the curve isn’t that steep.

    I have to say that I’m extremely happy to see We Shall All Be Healed in the top spot. It’s been my favorite Mountain Goats album since its release and it’s often overlooked by my MGs-loving friends. One of my favorite things about that album is John Vanderslice’s production. On a lot of the songs, he pushes Darnielle’s voice into—or close to—the red and compresses it down and also coats one of the guitar tracks in boxy distortion, seemingly in reference to the sound quality of the boombox albums. It gives WSABH an interesting clean/not-clean dichotomy that suits the lyrical content of the songs.

  14. Tough to see Coroner’s Gambit lower than Transcendental Youth and The Life of the World to Come…yikes.

    Thanks for doing this list though…I will be listening to Mountain Goats for the next 8 hours straight!

  15. The Coroner’s Gambit and All Hail West Texas remain my favorites by far, with Sweden, Full Force Galesburg, and Zopilote Machine rounding out my top 5. Obviously I gravitate toward the lo-fi years. My absolute favorite releases aren’t even on this list: the four EPs released in the late 90s, early 00s (New Asian Cinema, Isopanisad Radio Hour, On Juhu Beach and Devil in the Shortwave). All essential.

    Tallahassee still the best of the studio albums, with The Sunset Tree a close, close second. We Shall All Be Healed is the album where I checked out as obsessive die-hard and began to transition to casual fan. I still feel guilty about this, but the new stuff doesn’t resonate with me.

    • I’m in the same boat, brother. Coroner’s Gambit all the way for me…

      This article inspired me to revisit some of the more recent stuff though, and it has been time well spent. “The Life of the World to Come” especially sounds a lot better than I remember.

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