The Mountain Goats (John Darnielle, solo)
Thursday, June 28, 2012
The Swedish American Hall
Better than: A roomful of suicide.
Artists who habitually sing about their own (and others') brain troubles are sometimes hard to take, but the Mountain Goats' searching, quietly pained songs have consistently and instinctively avoided cliché, even if, at this late date, they occasionally appear to verge on indie-rock self-parody.
The audience at the Swedish American Hall on Thursday night ate up every second of John Darnielle's solo set, and would no doubt have stayed long into the night had he continued beyond his single, three-song encore. Darnielle churned through a set that was surprisingly fast-paced, given the solo acoustic context; his rather short songs allowed for longish introductory remarks, many of which were extremely funny in Darnielle's self-effacing but introspective style. Accompanying himself primarily on guitar, Darnielle also switched to piano for a pair of songs toward the middle of the show and during his encore.
As a solo performer, Darnielle has always reminded me a little of Richie Havens: the staccato vocal style with short bursts of lyric phrases, backed by energetic, rhythmic guitar work. (The show closer, "The Hot Garden Stomp," is particularly heavy on the latter.) One thing that I would suggest doesn't play as well now as it once may have are some of his lyrics. Some songs are beautifully written; a new one titled "In Memory of Satan," contains some lovely lines. But some of the older stuff sounds like teenage poetry now, despite Darnielle's spirited performances.
As anyone familiar with the band will know, Darnielle spends an enormous amount of time in his own head, writing songs that come not simply from experience, but from very real emotional anguish and a shitty upbringing. As well as diving deep into the past and playing songs he claimed not to have played for years, Darnielle previewed the Mountain Goats' new album, Transcendental Youth, due out this fall. He told the crowd it primarily deals with mental illness -- as it is experienced by the mentally ill.
Darnielle teased the album with a song that will be on it ("In Memory of Satan"), as well as a couple of songs that were written at the same time and share the same thematic territory, but didn't make the cut. (Introducing "Satan," Darnielle said, straight-faced, "One of the only paths toward salvation is through Satanism." This remark had a measure of irony in the context of some other anecdotes related that evening about doing crystal meth and acid.)
Darnielle's proto-indie style and twangy whine aren't for everyone. As a friend recently told me, "He's more of a playlist artist. It's hard to sit through a whole album." There were moments during Thursday's show when this concept was brought very much to the forefront of my thoughts. And I wasn't the only one. At different times, I saw several people near me plugging their ears against Darnielle's sustained, nasally vowels.
Having said that, the Swedish American Hall attracted a quiet, even reverent audience to Thursday's performance, and Darnielle interacted with them good-naturedly, repeatedly informing them that a pre-song anecdote was going to take a while. "Now would be a good time for a bathroom break," he warned. Needless to say, there was hardly a rush for the restrooms. The audience hung on his every word, even when Darnielle was at his most verbose, and that's saying something.
The opener: Dustin Wong deserves special mention here. His loud, startling short set decisively took over the unsuspecting room for an arresting 30 minutes. Wong used loops, guitar effects, and wordless vocals to synthesize something like Steve Reich for a Scott Pilgrim audience. It was dazzling and bizarre and everyone wanted more.