It's hard to know where to start with John Darnielle. The leader and only consistent member of long-running indie folk-rock group the Mountain Goats seems to exist in an alternate universe, where days are longer than 24 hours and weeks more than seven days. That's the only way to explain his wildly prolific ways, which aren’t simply limited to his expansive musical output.
It makes the most sense to start with “All Eternals Deck.” Maybe it’s the 17th, maybe it’s the 18th Mountain Goats album — even Darnielle himself doesn’t know the exact number. And that’s not even counting numerous singles, compilation appearances and side projects that make being a Darnielle completist a full-time pursuit. It can be intimidating for beginners to know where to start. But fear not, says the singer-songwriter and guitarist.
“I don’t think that somebody who has heard all my stuff necessarily understands a single record better than somebody who only has one,” he says, adding that the new album works especially well as a starting point. But it’s no surprise that someone who is constantly charging forward and doesn’t spend much time looking back would feel that way.
“The only albums I really have in the forefront of my mind are the new one, the next one and maybe the one before it,” says Darnielle, 44. “I don’t want to evaluate what I’ve done too closely because I think that kind of second guessing yourself is how you end up writing something ponderous.”
Darnielle’s songs aren’t ponderous but are worth spending lots of time with. He specializes in wordy, emotionally charged stories that often feature characters at a crossroads. His early recordings, which were made on a boombox, featured manic strumming and a crackle and hiss that offered a unique visceral thrill. Over the past decade, Darnielle has cleaned up his sound without losing any immediacy, and even after writing hundreds upon hundreds of songs, he still treats each one as if it is a matter of life and death. Which they quite often are.
“There’s always been a little bit of death in every corner,” Darnielle says. The theme isn’t as explicitly laid out on “All Eternals Deck” as on 2009’s “The Life of the World to Come,” on which each song was inspired by and titled after a Bible verse. But despite a lingering fatalism, these are not morbid or downtrodden affairs. Darnielle’s voice, the focal point of Mountain Goats songs, always bursts with vitality. Sometimes it’s soothing; other times an exasperated howl. He’s a natural narrator and even when singing about doom and gloom conveys a sense of calm.
But what comforts Darnielle? Death metal, for one. He’s an outspoken fan of the thrashy genre, and the new album offered a chance to work with one of his longtime heroes, Erik Rutan. The frontman of Hate Eternal and former guitarist for Morbid Angel — two groups whose brutal, pummeling and, quite frankly, scary songs cast them as polar opposites of the Mountain Goats — produced four songs on the often-serene “Eternals.”
It was an equally rewarding collaboration for both men, Darnielle says, allowing him to branch out and Rutan to work with someone outside of the usually self-segregating death metal genre. When asked what appeals to him about the speedy and sinister style, Darnielle can’t offer an easy answer.
“All music listeners have very broad tastes,” he says before offering a more specific example. “I was having a bad day a few months ago, and I e-mailed Erik to say, ‘I wanted to let you know I’m listening to [Hate Eternal album] ‘King of All Kings’ just to get myself through a dreadful day.’ And he wrote me back, ‘That’s what Hate Eternal is all about, my friend, pure release of aggression!’ ”
That aggression is also part of the appeal of hockey, another of Darnielle’s passions. He’s such a fan that when the NHL All-Star Game visited his adopted home town, Raleigh, N.C., the local paper tapped him as a special correspondent.
“Oh, man! I was in the press box,” Darnielle exclaims. “It was so cool. I had my own little chair up above the ice.”
In addition to sports, Darnielle is a voracious consumer of all media, from video games to obscure literature to more obscure cinema. He wrote a short book about Black Sabbath and has a decades-old zine-turned-blog, Last Plane to Jakarta, which offers an outlet for his thoughts.
“I’m kind of a skipping stone across the surfaces of culture,” he says. “My navigation is pretty much a guy with a blindfold on and following what smells good to him.”
But even with that blindfold on there’s no doubt that Darnielle will soon find the time and inspiration for yet another Mountain Goats album filled with moving tales about the human condition.
Just don’t ask him if it’s the 18th or 19th.
--David Malitz, March 2011