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I’m somewhat on my own in this office as far as my affection for John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats is concerned. I don’t know what it is about him that polarises opinions so much...perhaps his earnest, slightly nasal bleat rubs people up the wrong way, and his downbeat strummy Americana melodic patterns can sometimes give you an ‘I’m-sure-I’ve-heard-this-before’ feeling, but Darnielle is a songwriter in the classic mould, with the songs acting somewhat as a vessel for the lyrics themselves, which is where the focus of his energy and attention tend to lie.
Brian is standing on the other side of the office right now complaining loudly about his voice, and Business Lady just said “This is unbearable”, which is making it a little harder than I’d like to focus on the lyrics, which I’m in no doubt are laden with clever metaphors, potent religious symbolism and...hold on...did he just say “nothing in the shadows but the shadow hands”? Er, the jury’s out on the lyrics but they’re probably mostly great.
There’s a lot more percussion here than on previous Mountain Goats records (since Superchunk’s John Wurster seems to have taken a full-time sticksman position) and also use of brass and strings in places, which is very pretty on occasion, such as the gentle swells of ‘White Cedar’, but can take it in a bit of a Beirut direction that isn’t exciting me so much but may push your buttons. Ben Folds-esque ‘The Diaz Brothers’ is an upbeat stand-out on first listen because they strip back the epic layers for a punchy piano-led stomper, and I’d like to hear more in this vein, but he’s on his own trip isn’t he, you go along with him or you don’t.
I have to admit that I’m somewhat of the less-is-more school where Darnielle is concerned and I’d rather have a few more moments here where it’s just him and a guitar (some of the arrangements seem needlessly “epic-ed up” with background texture that’s bringing back bad memories of how things went wrong for Hawksley Workman three albums in), but the rousing outsider anthems on here do still sound exactly like the Mountain Goats so I’m not too worried. A powerhouse songwriting talent with an excellent turn of phrase and a voice that grates on a lot of people.
On a personal level I find his records to be massively comforting and while I think he’s done better than this I do get the same warm, familiar feeling from this one, even if it is punctuated by colleagues piping in that it sounds like the Hothouse Flowers or the Counting Crows.
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