The Anniversary

All Hail West Texas Turns 20

Emperor Jones
2002
Emperor Jones
2002

I am 16 or 17 and I have just heard the song “Jenny” by the Mountain Goats for the first time. I am driving what I believe to be a red 2006 Honda Civic. The passenger side window does not work; the air-conditioning, similarly, does not work. The volume knob on the radio? It does not work either. Changing the volume requires pressing down on the stereo’s knob with all your might as you turn, which either raises the volume or doesn’t depending on the capricious moods of the Civic. The best way to consume large amounts of music at this point in time is — using whatever combination of legal, quasi-legal, or downright nefarious methods available — to load everything onto a clickwheel iPod and hit the road. If I have nothing far away to do, I can simply slowly circle the city, turning only onto streets I’ve never traveled before, trying to accidentally find a familiar destination on unfamiliar roads.

I’m not completely unfamiliar with the Mountain Goats at this age: The Sunset Tree has been out for a year or so and “This Year” is quickly establishing a fanbase beyond the community of obsessive forum nerd-types that have rallied around this prolific songwriter’s rough-hewn recordings. Darnielle has been on NPR. He has been profiled (alongside Craig Finn) by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker. It is widely acknowledged that Darnielle’s story-songs aren’t curios or novelties; he is writing his ass off, and has been for years and years. But until now I have not heard All Hail West Texas, the album mentioned over and over in articles and reviews, the album recommended by countless forum posts as the best place to start. I’m beginning to understand why.

***

Tomorrow, All Hail West Texas turns 20 years old. In the two decades since its release, it has inspired legions of loyal fans who have followed the Mountain Goats from their lo-fi beginnings into their current form as a full band churning out consistently great, well-produced albums. Since All Hail‘s release in 2002, there have been 14 of these albums. Whenever a publication covers the Mountain Goats for the first time (or the first time in many years), they love to note which threshold the band has recently crossed: more than 400 songs, more than 600 songs. I resisted the urge to do the math for this article — if I was guessing, jar-full-of-jellybeans style, I’d say more than 800 at this point.

It can be hard to explain why investing in such a sprawling, quirky catalog is so rewarding. I always point people to All Hail West Texas. The anniversary has given me occasion to think a lot about this album and what it was like to hear it for the first time. That day, I waited until the sun started to set and the Florida heat began to dissipate, and I got into my car with my iPod and no particular destination in mind. Nothing can replicate the experience of hearing those first two songs, but I will get to that later. I want to start with “Jenny.”

“Jenny” is an odd song. Almost everything in it is unexpected. The guitar is sparse — Darnielle strums just enough to support the vocal melody — and the events described in the song take place over, like, one single minute. It begins with a motorcycle headed for a southwestern ranch style house, and the only thing that happens in the rest of the entire song is that another person climbs aboard the Kawaskai and the two roar off together. That’s it. But somehow, “Jenny” feels like a feature length film. It is just a snippet of a scene that implies a whole world around it. The passenger breathes in the scent of their lover’s hair, convinced that “we were the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have his eyes on.” In this moment, all that exists is the two of them and the black and yellow Kawasaki and the horizon and the love hanging thick and sweet between them.

Darnielle has a tendency to punctuate the ending of his songs with an emphatic “Yeah!” or “Okay!” It seems like it happens whenever he has finished with the lyrics but isn’t done riding the wave of the song’s emotion. In the early days, this overflow of energy often resulted in Darnielle strumming a single chord faster and faster — the driver of a tractor-trailer whose brakes have gone out. For my money, “Jenny” has the best punctuation of any song in the catalog, careening giddily into the outro: “Hi diddle dee dee! Goddamn! The pirate’s life for me!”

This was hilarious, mysterious, unlike anything I’d ever heard. I turned the album off, and I called my best friend Bryan. When he picked up, I was already shouting. I told him I had just heard a song that changed my life, and I was on my way to pick him up so I could show him. This was the first time a song has done that to me: It gave me something that I knew had to be shared. It felt urgent. Bryan and I drove around for hours that evening with the album on an endless loop, always playing “Jenny” twice.

Darnielle wrote All Hail West Texas in the span of a week while his wife was away at hockey camp. During the day, he wrote lyrics on orientation handouts from his new job, and in the evenings, the TV played baseball or old slasher movies on mute while he recorded songs. His guiding principle at the time was the same then as it had been for the decade he had recorded under the Mountain Goats moniker: to spend as little time as possible between writing and recording. In the liner notes to the 2013 vinyl reissue of All Hail, Darnielle says that “all the takes were live within minutes of having written the songs.”

Darnielle’s approach to songwriting is akin to building a fire by rubbing two sticks together: If you simply get down to the work, a spark will eventually appear. On an episode of I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, the podcast on which he went song-by-song through All Hail West Texas, he cuts off a conversation about his process, saying, “My creative process is: I sit down and I start working. That’s all there is to it.” Guitar isn’t Darnielle’s first instrument — piano is — and in the earliest recordings you can hear him struggling to keep up with himself, trying to play through the songs before he’s quite got the hang of the chords. Immediacy was an essential part of the final product. The song had to maintain a sense of the energy generated in its creation. If he determined that the final product lacked that energy, the song was discarded.

In service of this immediacy, Darnielle’s preferred method of recording was a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox, a poorly designed product of the ’80s that had an internal condenser mic too close to the machine’s moving parts. The condenser mic did not condense, which meant the recorded sound changed dramatically based on how close you were to the boombox and how loud you were. The Coroner’s Gambit, the album directly preceding All Hail, opens with “Jaipur,” where the guitar sounds like it is pushing something in the Panasonic into the red, threatening to explode. When Darnielle worked himself up into a fervor, the boombox registered the intensity, spitting and hissing in protest.

The second effect of this mic placement was that it captured the sound of grinding gears and buttons clicking. On songs like “Jenny,” the droning hum is audible throughout. Darnielle dismissed discussion of lo-fi or hi-fi sounds, insisting that sound has flavors like food, and the sound of the Panasonic appealed to him. This hum became an essential component of early Goats tunes; Darnielle credits the boombox as a “second performer” in the liner notes to All Hail West Texas. Although early Mountain Goats releases can feel like solo affairs, Darnielle has always insisted the the Mountain Goats are a band, inextricable from the contributions of the other performers: bassist Rachel Ware (who was eventually succeeded by current bassist Peter Hughes), Franklin Bruno, John Vanderslice — the list goes on. Darnielle hated the trope of a folk singer alone at the mic, baring his soul, and from his story-songs to the collaborative atmosphere of early Goats album, he resisted this singer-songwriter categorization of his music.

All Hail West Texas is unique in the Mountain Goats discography. It is the only album where Darnielle is, in fact, alone at the mic. It is not confessional or autobiographical, but All Hail West Texas is more intimate, immediate, and emotionally affecting than any album before it. It also serves as the most compelling example of Darnielle’s gifts as a songwriter. The average song clocks in at under three minutes, which is more time than he needs to paint vivid narratives using just a few deft strokes. The second song, “Fall Of The High School Running Back,” narrates a promising sophomore athlete’s career-ending injury, his brief drug dealing career, an ill-fated encounter with an undercover cop, and a judge who hands down federal time. The song touches on his immigrant grandfather’s journey to America and the cruelty of mandatory minimum sentences. It’s less than two minutes long.

The song before it, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton,” covers less narrative ground but pulls from a deep emotional well. It still ranks among Darnielle’s very best work. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton” tells the story of two friends who formed a metal band and, despite the lack of a band name or an audience, believed their dreams, believed that they would reach a life of fame and success. Their fascination with the occult imagery that comes along with death metal alarmed the adults in their life, who intervened the only way they knew how: “This was how Cyrus got sent to the school/ Where they told him he’d never be famous/ And this was why Jeff/ In the letters he’d write to his friend / Helped develop a plan to get even.”

In an article Darnielle wrote about his favorite Mountain Goats characters, he says about Jeff and Cyrus, “I try not to excuse the destructive things adolescents sometimes do to express their pain, but in my gut, when I write a song in which a couple of teenagers vow to take revenge on the grownups who’re fucking up their lives, well, I cast my lot with the teenagers. They may do wrong sometimes, but their hearts aren’t rotten yet, and the light is strong within them.”

Darnielle worked for years as a psychiatric nurse. He saw dozens of Cyruses and Jeffs. He saw people lose their whole adolescence due to confused and fearful adults, young people who were fighting to survive and were told that they were trying to survive the wrong way, and would be punished. It wasn’t on the lyric sheet when he recorded the song, but Darnielle ends by singing an improvised “Hail Satan / Hail, hail.” Beyond the obvious excellence of this line, Darnielle introduced the song at a 2011 show by saying, “It is a song, like a lot of my songs, about survival, and about looking into the face of people who do not wish you the type of survival you would like to have, and thinking toward them, ‘I wish you well, but I will not allow you to hold me down.” Hail Satan is an affirmation, a promise to be true to yourself; it is an insistence on your own survival.

There’s so much to say about All Hail West Texas, which is remarkable for 14 songs written on an acoustic guitar and recorded into a boombox. But what sticks with me the most when I come back to it (and I frequently do, still) is that this is an album about surviving. In “Pink And Blue,” a new mother feeds her baby with no idea what comes next or what to do about it. “Color In Your Cheeks” is narrated by a murky collective who may not have slept in weeks, but they welcome all refugees and weary travelers with a cup of something restorative, something that will put color in their cheeks. The couple in “Riches And Wonders” finds the key to survival in holding one another tight. The following song, “The Mess Inside,” finds the same couple trying to outrun the inevitable end as their relationship crumbles, struggling to hold on.

“Source Decay” opens on the narrator’s weekly trip to Austin, driving the blank expanse of dead-straight highway that defines the majority of the states. One end of his journey holds cryptic postcards from a former friend; the other end holds a bitter, unsolvable mystery that, we can presume, will never be solved. However, driving down the dead-straight highway that splits the blank expanse of rural Texas, the narrator pauses pondering these riddles to say, “I wish the West Texas highway/ Was a mobius strip/ I could ride it out forever.” He envisions himself trapped in an endless journey between two places he cannot truly be at peace, the road shimmering up and twisting like tying a bow in a ribbon, creating a world where he is safe, just driving with no destination.

In 2012, the Mountain Goats released Transcendental Youth, a spiritual companion album separated from All Hail by a decade. All Hail is tied together by themes of survival; on Transcendental Youth, Darnielle explicitly tells his listeners to “just stay alive.” It’s a wonderful album, but there’s a lyric on “Harlem Roulette” that I hated for years: “Every dream’s a good dream/ Even awful dreams are good dreams/ If you’re doing it right.” The line is so clunky and nonsensical — it doesn’t even sound that cool. But now, a decade past when I first heard that song, I hear something new. I hear the narrator of “Source Decay,” dreaming of an endless ribbon of highway to keep him away a hell on either side. I know that the highway isn’t going to rise like a salmon swimming upriver and form a loop; I know he will keep arriving at one and then the other, finding rest only in the liminal space that separates them.

But the West Texas highway extends far beyond just home and the P.O. box. The narrator of “Source Decay,” like many of Darnielle’s narrators, feels trapped — and right now, he may well be. Somewhere, however, there is a road that will lead him away from this, even if it’s still so distant it feels like a cruel mirage. That’s what “even awful dreams are good dreams” means: Even a nightmare is a vision of a different world, of the possibility that things won’t always be like they are right here, in this place, in this moment.

When I can’t see a way out, when the moment seems too much to bear and I cannot picture what making it to the other side looks like, I drive. I have always done this. I love to drive. I take the first highway entrance ramp and swing out to where the edges of the city start to blend with the suburbs and back, sometimes for hours. As long as I am driving, everything that I feel pursuing me is held at bay, separated from me by miles and windshield glass. In college, I almost got an embarrassing Mobius strip tattoo in honor of “Source Decay.” I want to ride the highway out forever, too. But the loop never closes, and I always end up back at home.

The Mountain Goats have so many songs about people in cars, way more than you’d think. Many of them have “Going To” in the title, and almost all of them are about people in transition. Some are fleeting moments of joy that characters try to cling to; others barrel toward a dark, inescapable fate. No matter where they are coming from or what they are heading into, each song is a reminder that there is a reality beyond the one you are in, and no matter what the other side brings, you will make it there to see it. The narrator in “Distant Stations,” like many of the people populating All Hail West Texas, is waiting. He is stuck, for the moment, in a motel parking lot, waiting for someone who probably is not coming. There is fear and isolation, but, on the horizon, there is possibility, a faint frequency, a message that is not clear yet but someday will be: “You taught me how to listen to these distant stations.”

***

“Absolute Lithops Effect” is the last song on All Hail West Texas but was the first song written; it is the summation of the album, the opening statement and the closing remark. A lithop is a hardy plant, a succulent that looks like a rock until it blooms its gangly flowers. The narrator in this song is waiting, stuck in a way that feels painful and raw, but they insist on their own survival. No matter what, even if they remain trapped in this room, they will survive: “And I, I feel sure that my wounds will heal/ And I, I will bloom here in my room/ With a little water and a little bit of sunlight/ And a little bit of tender mercy, tender mercy.”

This is the whole point. This is what John Darnielle has been saying for over 30 years as the Mountain Goats: You can survive, and you can survive on your own terms no matter what they are, and you will emerge from the darkness into the light if you have to drag yourself there bloody and howling. You have a light within you that no one can extinguish if you refuse to let them. Do whatever you have to do to survive.

With a little water and sunlight and tender mercy, you will survive.

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