Though he now enjoys a sizeable following thanks to anthems like “This Year,” there was once a point were the Mountain Goats, a.k.a. John Darnielle, were just a guy and a guitar. Supporting characters came and went (bassist Rachel Ware, the Bright Mountain Vocal Choir), but for the most part, it was just Darnielle, consistently turning out the best lyrics and stories ever. You like lo-fi? The majority of TMG’s records were recorded on 20-something-year-old boomboxes, and you can actually hear the tape turning round and round on the recordings. You like concept albums? Try All Hail West Texas, a loose collection of stories “about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.” Arguably his best record since he debuted on CD with Zopilote Machine (P.S. -- this guy used to be cassette-only. The early ’90s were different, man), All Hail West Texas is rife with vivid imagery and bombastic acoustic guitar.
“The best ever death metal band out of Denton...” I think the best way to sum up my high school years vs. my college years goes like this: I spent a lot of time in high school feeling like no one else liked the Mountain Goats, or Jawbreaker, or Jets to Brazil, or even the freaking Smiths, and therefore no one would ever understand or love me (this is how I used to think all the time, so you can see why I was an unhappy youth). Then I went to college and met a lot of people who did know what was up. My God, how many times have I heard people strum “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” at parties? How many times have I danced a fit to “Jenny”? Conversely, my most vivid high school memory of All Hail West Texas is being begged to turn off “Blues in Dallas” because the keyboard line was “stupid.”
But enough with the emotional baggage. All Hail West Texas feels like the culmination of Darnielle’s boombox aesthetic. This album isn't just symbolic of the last seven years of my life, it’s symbolic of the lo-fi sound -- lurking in the murky depths is a phantom orchestra, unleashing the most complex constructions you've literally ever imagined. I can hear drums buried in the mix, even though I know they’re not really there. It’s fitting then, that Texas became the last lo-fi TMG record, as Darnielle would make the jump to 4AD and high fidelity later in the year with Tallahassee.
Musically, TMG is pretty basic with just acoustic guitar chords. And Darnielle’s nasally voice can be a deal-breaker for some. His greatest strength lies in his words, although I’d argue that he knows how to deliver a hook or two. Every Mountain Goats record has at least one song that will change your DNA, like The Sunset Tree’s “This Year” or Zopilote Machine’s “Going to Georgia.” Texas knocks out two of ’em up front without breaking a sweat. First comes “The Best Ever Death Metal in Denton,” the tale of “a couple of guys who’d been friends since grade school / One was named Cyrus and the other was Jeff / and they practiced twice a week in Jeff’s basement.” What follows is the band’s history. Though they never settled on a name, “the top three contenders / after weeks of debate / were Satan’s Fingers, and the Killers, and the Hospital Bombers.” The band gets dumped on, Cyrus goes to art school and gets dumped on some more, and then the guys get angry, swearing that “The best ever death metal band out of Denton / will in time both outpace and outlive you.” Oh yeah, and uh, “Hail Satan!”
“Denton” gives way to “Fall of the Star High School Running Back,” which boasts one of my favorite lines ever. After blowing his knee out at an out-of-town game, William Stanaforth Donahue starts dealing drugs. Here’s the killer: “But selling acid was a bad idea / and selling it to a cop was a worse one.” Will ends up in jail; song ends.
Texas is filled with these character sketches and lines. “Jenny” is about a date with the coolest kid with the sweetest motorcycle (“You pointed your headlamp toward the horizon / We were the one thing in the galaxy / God didn’t have his eyes on / 900 CCs of raw whining power / No outstanding warrants for my arrest / Hi-diddle-dee dee / God damn! / The pirate’s life for me!”). Conversely, “The Mess Inside” is about taking vacation after vacation in an attempt to rekindle a dead romance (“Found that bench we’d sat together on a thousand years ago / when I felt such love for you I thought my heart was gonna pop / And I wanted you, to love me like you used to do / But I cannot run, and I can’t hide / From the wreck we’ve made of our house / and the mess inside”). A lot of the songs have a moral ambiguity to them (“Color in Your Cheeks,” “Jeff Davis County Blues”), catching characters in moments of desperation and elation.
But it’s always moving and beautiful. Darnielle’s songs defy rock expectations by nature of their sound quality, though he also goes to great lengths to bring back sex and God and the blues. Which brings me back to the lo-fi symbolism bit -- deceptively simple, the whole universe (or at least Western Texas) resides in these songs.
Now, I’m not going to tell you to listen to All Hail West Texas. I mean, you should, because it’s one of the best albums of all time. But still, it’s your life; do what you want. But I would like you try this: Here are the chords and lyrics to “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” Sing it while you’re sober, or drunk, or in that buzzed mid-point where you’re still funny and coherent. I think you might have fun.