The Mountain Goats – We Shall All Be Healed

The Mountain Goats
We Shall All Be Healed

Conviction can count for a lot. It’s easy to believe any statement that is said with enough conviction, even if there is no empiric evidence to support it. And there has arguably been no musician that has blurred the line between truth and fiction as finely as John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. Even though he has adamantly denied being the “I” of his ardent communiqués, the frenzied strumming of his acoustic guitar and the desperate urgency in his voice have often led us to believe otherwise; at times, it sounded as if he was addressing our joys and failures, effectively distorting the distinction between listener, narrator, and writer.

So we followed Darnielle to the farthest reaches of the globe, tracing his footsteps to locales as far-flung as Entebbe, Uganda to tiny townships as sweetly mundane as Galesburg, Illinois. We watched his literate and neurotic narrators, swathed in mythological allusions, collapse under the weight of their own fears and insecurities. We bore witness to a couple too intoxicated to realize that their love had neither the strength nor the will to die properly. And now, after 10 years of passionate and frenetic sermons touching on everything from Golden Boy peanuts to desperate love, the protagonists of his ardent flash-fiction narratives delicately balanced on that fine line between truth and conviction, our Man in the Field presents us with a set of songs that are – GASP! – admittedly autobiographical.

But 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed presents more than a turn in the lyrical – it also marks a turn in the musical, with longtime friends Peter Hughes, Franklin Bruno, Christopher McGuire, and John Vanderslice actively joining the fray. Of course, this is not the first Mountain Goats album to feature either collaborators or full studio production; however, it is the first that manages to truly capture the Mountain Goats as an entity that can exist outside the static tape hiss and immediacy that marked Darnielle’s most memorable releases. The production – helmed by Vanderslice – is lush yet sparse, adding an extra textural dimension to the songs without intruding on Darnielle’s carefully economic songwriting. And more importantly, Vanderslice knows that Darnielle’s acoustic guitar is more than just melodic accompaniment; it is a ragged and abrasive instrument with its own personality, as essential as Darnielle’s words in defining the sordid characters that populate the songs’ desolate, trash-filled settings.

However, the production takes a secondary role to the lyrics. And Darnielle, in presenting a set of songs culled from a shaky life filled with sober regrets and tarnished friendships, is just as affecting as ever; even if we cannot identify with the tweakers and the victims presented in these songs, we are still moved by the act of a man exorcising demons from his past.

The shattering glass and strangely organic squeals of opening track “Slow West Vultures” sets an oddly expectant tone, before bursting into the upbeat, sunny pop of “Palmcorder Yajna.” However, this tale of shared depravity and camaderie soon turns ominous when Darnielle, accompanied by a single insistent piano key, sings “If anybody comes into our room while we’re asleep / I hope they incinerate everybody in it.” The conflicting theme of friendship, despair, and paranoia is furthered in the bouncy rhythm and undulating synths of “Letter From Belgium,” where Darnielle and his friends are “chewing their tongues off / waiting for the fever to break,” worrying “that the people next door / might close in like a wolf pack / should [they] make one small mistake.” Regret is another theme that recurs throughout the songs, best exemplified in the anthemic “The Young Thousands” and the vitriolic “Home Again Garden Grove.” In the former, Darnielle sings about a “closet full of almost-pristine video tape / documenting sordid little scenes in living color,” accompanied by his battered acoustic and a chorus composed of his own distorted voice; in the latter, he conjures grand plans composed of violent imagery lost to the pragmatism inherent in maturity, all the while angrily beating on his guitar like a man possessed.

The quieter moments on the record are just as grand and rich in meaning: “Mole” has a weary Darnielle addressing a friend chained to a hospital bed, both denied “information” in place of “medication”; the jazzy “Cotton” is a gentle ode to the people “who tell their families that they’re sorry / for things they can’t and won’t be sorry for,” imploring the listener to “let ‘em all go.” However, the most poignant moment is perhaps in “Your Belgian Things,” where, while detailing the removal of a friend’s belongings by sinister men in biohazard suits, our normally verbose storyteller falters, plaintively intoning “I guess / I guess / but Jesus, what a mess” over a backdrop consisting of a delicate guitar and warm piano chords.

The album ends appropriately enough with a song titled “The Pigs That Ran Straightaway into the Water, Triumph Of,” where our narrator sings triumphantly of his victory over the “dark messengers” that seek to tempt him. And by the end of the song, we feel as if we are holding a live document of that very struggle. Aurally and lyrically, We Shall All Be Healed is nothing less than a tangible record of a man wresting the turmoil from his history, exposing these ghosts to the sunlight in an effort to reconcile his past with his present. This is a revelatory album for the Mountain Goats and the listeners; both Darnielle and the audience find new strength in his open vulnerability. And while we might miss the tape-grind and homemade charm of his early ultra lo-fi work, his conviction and ardor is still present; if anything, they resonate with us more emphatically as his past, with its highs and lows, becomes ours.