The Mountain Goats – Zopilote Machine

The Mountain Goats
Zopilote Machine

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a re-release copy of the Mountain Goats’ 1996 release Nothing for Juice. I mused about how difficult it is to get into John Darnielle’s extensive catalog, and how though Juice was thoroughly enjoyable, it lacked the clarity of his more recent releases. It was not until later that I found another Goats album, 1995’s Zopilote Machine hanging out in my promo stack without a jewel case. In a perfect world, I would’ve found this album first, raved about how its lo-fi charm and harsh little acoustic stabs seem to blow away his more recent, polished work. I would’ve written about how Zopilote Machine was the perfect album for would-be Goats fans to start with, rather than frustratingly concluding that Juice wasn’t a good starter album.

Zopilote Machine is from the same Goats time period as the aforementioned Juice, coming after the obsessed-over glut of tape-only releases and before Darnielle’s more recent flirtations with a real band. It captures the charming “Going to ‘blank’” songs that many of his early records were structured around. In fact, “Going to Georgia,” a longtime fan favorite, is perhaps the perfect introduction to Darnielle’s work: sparse guitars, just-the-right-side-of-abrasive vocal ticks, and simple lyrics that contain multitudes of emotion (“40 miles from Atlanta / This is nowhere!” Darnielle screams with just enough emotion to make high school poetry sound like a revelation).

The rest of the album is rarely as transcendent as “Going to Georgia,” but its rarely less enjoyable. The structure here is simple – just Darnielle and acoustic guitar on all but a handful of songs. As anyone accustomed to the Goats aesthetic knows, the lyrics take center stage here. In “Orange Ball of Love,” Darnielle, in love, claims to “know that you’re wearing a wire” but forgets two lines later. On “We Have Seen the Enemy,” Darinelle crushes with “Everything I told you was true / so imagine my surprise when I blink my eyes / and realize I’m talking to you.” The fast-strummed “Going to Lebanon” is a more traditionally lyrical piece, partially eschewing Darnielle’s penchant for minute observations and instead musing on the “blue water / white sky” of his surroundings.

The rest of the album continues in similar fashion. It is quintessential Mountain Goats; If you don’t like this album, you won’t like Darnielle. His more recent work is more nuanced, his observations somehow more pristine (is it the production value of the music?), but he’s never more emotional or more obsessed than he is on Zopilote Machine. Everything that makes Darnielle a captivating artist is here in spades. It is then, somewhat ironically, his least artistic album, in the sense that he is less like an artist in these songs and more like any of us – obsessing over the details, craving safety, craving more.