No Context: Mountain Goats at NYU
by Zach Baron
The Mountain Goats
NYU Kimmel Center
November 29, 2007
Like so many of the homer fans John Darnielle now makes fun of from stages all across the United States, I’ll cop to an almost pathological aversion to anything made post-4AD, and to an equally Pavlovian fanboy response towards everything pre-. Darnielle knows this phenomenon, among other reasons because he’s as obsessive about records as the next guy chasing Taboo VI ‘cross eBay. Before one song last night, the 4:01-clocking “Tallahassee,” from Tallahassee, the record that marks the dividing line, he joked: “4:01! In the old days that was like 7 songs…”
Anyway this gets embarrassing, as far as public behavior goes. Me, mid-show, post-2002 composition: furious; disgustedly staring at the ground. Me, mid-show, pre-2002 composition: ecstatic; hopping. Generally I am the least stalker-like fan a band will ever obtain but there is the notable exception of the Mountain Goats, about which I develop theories.
One such theory, regarding audience affection, from an earlier draft of this very piece: “…Granted, this particular concert took place at NYU, but I’ve always fretted about the adoration Darnielle’s received in the 4AD era, which in regards to its character is less frantic and pushy and more messianic, which has always led me to worry about the effect being hailed as god might have on a man whose ideal rock show is the one put on by Heart on their Dreamboat Annie tour, etc etc…”
Look, who could argue that he doesn’t deserve it—even deserves the pair of girls who were right in front of me last night, wearing peasant blouses, flared jeans, and open mouths, who professed adoration for Peter Hughes—“I like this guy, whoever he is!” Characters who may well have been torn to pieces by a Mountain Goats crowd, circa ’97.
Again, call my knee-jerk what it is, which is involuntary. In the year that I discovered file-sharing and downloaded 40 different live Mountain Goats bootlegs, occupying my laptop’s tiny hard drive to the detriment of Word documents, pornography, other music, and emails more than three days old, the live-set refrain I inflicted on myself at the rough repeated frequency suggested by home hypnotism tapes was: “As you all know, I don’t write songs about myself.”
Famously this changed. Tallahassee, Darnielle’s trial run for 4AD, was a record about the Mountain Goats’ long-running, long-suffering Alpha couple, vodka-swilling and living near the Florida-Alabama border in decaying house with no children and no future; We Shall All Be Healed and Come, Come to the Sunset Tree and Get Lonely instead introduced a new character, one who’d never once graced any of the 500-odd songs the Mountain Goats had already written, whose name was John Darnielle.
Previously, avoiding the personal had always seemed a way of subtracting the confessional and bathetic stuff from the singer-songwriter paradigm. Writing about other people freed Darnielle up to act out, to identify, and for us to act out, and identify, and there you had it, the two-way street that gave birth to guys like myself who would later basically spit at the floor when Darnielle took a bigger piece of the action for himself.
‘Nuff said though; the new one, due next year, is called Heretic Pride, which is probably all the summary re: Darnielle’s POV necessary. The song “Heretic Pride,” which he previewed last night, is a banger – “old-school jams” is how he described the new record; fanboys take note – and hearing it was only one of many moments that exposed the whole split in the band’s catalogue for what it is—notional not actual.
Funny thing was, NYU was more Mountain Goats double-major fantasy-nerd than it was indie-citizen, slick-orchestrated Mountain Goats. Off tour, Darnielle and Hughes were in town for a one-shot, off-brand show: under-rehearsed, request-ready, off-the-cuff. Darnielle broke strings (“Old days, I used to break a string ever three songs”), did interpolations (from “Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton”: “…and the top three contenders, after weeks of debate, were Satan’s Fingers, and the HOLD STEADY, and the Hospital Bombers…”), and played ancient songs: “Love Cuts the Strings,” “Orange Ball of Hate, “Alpha Incipiens,” etc.
But it was “Dance Music,” from the ostensibly loathsome Sunset Tree, that got me worst, as the two coeds just in front of me began to first suggestively bang hips before in fact banging hips and then banging asses and then full-on grinding, I kid you not. They went to the floor. They came back up. Everyone shouted “I DON’T WANT TO DIE ALONE” and for a second we were all the same fan.