September 26, 2006

A Melancholy Pinnacle

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John Darnielle, the lead singer, songwriter, guitarist and chief member of The Mountain Goats, has been a part of the indie rock scene for almost a decade. Consistently producing quality songs, mining the same territory as many of his contemporaries, he writes about disaffected youth, disillusionment, heartbreak and all the other mainstays of the genre. What sets him apart is an adept hand with metaphor, a knack for the right turn of phrase and a robust lyricism that brings new and pleasant surprises at every turn.
Like a number of other folk-rock musicians, Darnielle has a nasal voice that he still manages to use to good effect. In some ways, his music is reminiscent of a less-harsh Loudon Wainwright III (father of Rufus), in terms of both sound and, occasionally, content. While his lyrics are as full of emotion and pathos as Mr. Wainwright, he lacks have the cruel streak that Mr. Wainwright can sometimes let loose. However, he also does not have the biting wit or sense of satire, and if there is one thing his songs sometimes suffer from, it’s untempered earnestness.
With the release of The Sunset Tree in 2005, Darnielle took a turn away from the lo-fi production which characterized his earlier work, while maintaining his tradition of autobiographical songs with emotional depth and weight. Though that album was far from upbeat, it was at least up-tempo, an interesting choice that illustrated Darnielle’s niche as an Elliott Smith with a less pronounced melancholic streak. Whereas Smith wallowed in the depths — to incredible effect — Darnielle does not let the weight of his own unhappy memories pull him down as deep. “This Year,” off of The Sunset Tree, is the best example of Darnielle’s skill: what ought to by all rights be a depressing song ends up defiant and even buoyant.
Unsurprisingly, it was this song that drew the greatest reaction from the crowd, at The Mountain Goats performance last Saturday at Becker House. Darnielle took on the guitar and lead vocal chores as Peter Hughes played bass with occasional backup vocals. Much of the set was taken from the Mountain Goats’ newest album, Get Lonely, and the somber and quiet nature of the album fit the intimate setting well, especially since it allowed Darnielle to sing without stretching his tremulous voice. While he may not have great technical command, he certainly has conviction and emotion to spare.
As the 200-plus crowd looked on, Darnielle opened with the first song off of Get Lonely, “Wild Sage,” an ethereal disquisition from the perspective of a lonely man walking along the highway, lost in every sense of the word. The songs continued in that vein for a large portion of the set, as Darnielle quavered through his quieter songs. Two notable, and happy, exceptions were “You Or Your Memory” and “This Year” from The Sunset Tree. For these songs, Darnielle and the crowd both got excited, which was a nice change from the respectful silence that filled the room during the majority of the performance. Also, seeing Darneille invigorated by the crowd’s response broke the monotony of his stage persona, which, though unique, was somewhat disconcerting. His stage patter in particular seemed to evoke in its syncopated, disjointed rhythm a combination of an affable robot and Jon Lovitz pretending to be an indie folk-rock artist. What becomes clear, after seeing The Mountain Goats live, is that all of Mr. Darnielle’s emotion is put into the songs themselves. If he cannot be accused of being the most personable of performers, that is only because his songs require so much of him that there is no room for anything else.
The only somewhat unfortunate choice made during the evening was the order in which the songs were performed. Invariably, most of the songs were quiet, somber and reflective numbers. However, long segments of calm were then punctuated at uneven intervals by loud almost rambunctious cuts from The Sunset Tree, which got the crowd hyped up, only to be let down by another, slow song immediately after. While songs like “Maybe Sprout Wings” and “There Will Be No Divorce” had their own visceral effects, performed live they just could not compete with the exuberant rendition of “This Year” which had people jumping around and singing along. That’s a small matter, though, and, overall, the concert was exactly what one could expect from the Mountain Goats: a quality performance of quality songs.