erasing clouds

The Mountain Goats, We Shall all be Healed

reviewed by dave heaton

As enigmatic as John Darnielle's literary folk-pop songs can be, after listening to them you often feel like you've been given a glimpse of the lives of real, often quite tortured people. You feel like you've read a substantial novel that really brings you into its characters' lives in a forceful way, in a way that slaps you in the face. That Darnielle's songs (as The Mountain Goats) can do that even as you mostly have no idea what he's singing about is amazing…it's in the details, in the emotional force of his words, in the way he can take a song and weave it into something deep and complicated.

"We are sleek and beautiful, we are cursed," Darnielle sings near the start of the latest Mountain Goats' album We Shall All Be Healed. He's singing about the characters who you'll live with for the next 40 minutes or so (though the album's mark is indelible enough that it'll truly be much longer than that). Misfits living together in a house full of rats, sharing problems, longings, addictions ("yeah we're all here/chewing our tongues off/waiting for the fever to break"). Like all of Darnielle's previous albums (I think of the many caustic relationship songs he's written, or the foray into death that was The Coroner's Gambit), We Shall All Be Healed truly gets under your skin, and speaks to truths about the world through small stories and images.

As the second Mountain Goats album released on 4AD, We Shall All… has both slick cover art and a full, polished studio sound. Even more so than its 4AD predecessor, 2002's Tallahassee, this album shows Darnielle using instrumental embellishments and a bigness of sound to heighten the way the songs affect you. The simultaneously violent and soothing strings on "Slow West Vultures" open the album's story on the right note, while the melancholy "Your Belgian Things" is supported by brilliant piano and crisp acoustic guitar. Throughout the sound is textured and filled with mood. And Darnielle's songwriting seems to be getting a bit more complicated to match that change, evoking the stridency of a rock n' roll anthem ("The Young Thousands" could be easily recast as a Guided by Voices song) or playing it quiet and then accentuating an emotional point with an experimental outburst (on "Mole").

We Shall All Be Healed might not have the visceral impact that the early, extremely lo-fi Mountain Goats recordings had, but it's replaced that with a even more powerful force based on a wider palette of styles and moods. We Shall All Be Healed is another grand songwriting achievement by the Mountain Goats, but also a splendidly recorded and performed album, where each note and word is helping build something remarkable.


Issue 20, February 2004

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