The Mountain Goats - Zopilote Machine (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Mountain Goats

Zopilote Machine (1994)

Ajax / 3 Beads of Sweat

It's October 2005 and I'm in a log cabin called the Olde Club in Swarthmore, Pa. watching the Mountain Goats perform. Singer/songwriter John Darnielle is enjoying some of the best reviews of his career thanks to The Sunset Tree, released in April. He plays a few choice cuts off that record, as well a bunch of songs from the previous year's We Shall All Be Healed. The crowd loves the show throughout, and there's plenty of singing along and clapping and what—not. In between songs, one fan makes a request since it's her birthday. Darnielle makes a few jokes and is a total showman about the whole thing, but at the same time, he's extremely, thoroughly serious: He'll play the song, but it had better really be your birthday. After many assurances, Darnielle starts playing and everyone proceeds to sing 10 times louder and feel 10 times as many feelings and also it's kind of warm in here.

The song was called "Going to Georgia," and it appears on the first great Mountain Goats album, 1994's Zopilote Machine. There are two eras of Mountain Goats: full band and lo—fi. The Mountain Goats have functioned as a trio (guitars/bass/drums) for a while now, and with 18 records (so far…), it's getting harder and harder to hear Darnielle's lo—fi, typically solo early work. Then again, those songs are so intimately recorded that even a live show could feel less intimate.

While Darnielle had released four albums prior to Zopilote Machine (and plenty of EPs and singles), in retrospect they all feel like trial runs. Darnielle took time to establish his aesthetics: recording with a boom box, singing about bad situations, experimenting with the occasional audio sample. Assisted by the Bright Mountain Choir, Zopilote Machine (along with the EP Beautiful Rat Sunset, released the same year) was the most lushly arranged Goats album at the time simply by having backing vocals and the occasional second guitar line. This shit is raw.

Oh but the lyrics are so wonderful. Darnielle's confidence as a storyteller had grown tremendously by this point, and each song functions as a wonderful piece of short fiction. Dig the way he suggests religious fervor with just a few words, suggesting battles with Satanism before dropping the righteous line "That's not music you hear! It's the Devil!" There's criminal undertones in "Going to Georgia," which is otherwise a love song. Opener "Alpha Incipiens" sets up the fictional Alpha couple, a dysfunctional pair that would dominate later Goats releases like 2002's Tallahassee, with the simple line "The only thing I know is I love you / And I'm holding on, yeah." There are better Goats albums (All Hail West Texas!!!), but all the tension and terror Darnielle's characters live with begins here.

On the one hand, Zopilote Machine is perhaps not the best starting point in the Darnielle's discography. Sunset Tree contains some of his best known songs ("This Year," "Dance Music"). All Hail West Texas is his best lo—fi record. Tallahassee and The Life of the World to Come are perhaps his most emotionally intense. But Zopilote Machine has "Going to Georgia," a song that cannot be stopped, even by its creator. In two minutes and 15 seconds, Darnielle weaves a tale about reuniting with a lover. It's so simple and so beautiful, and if you need help understanding the Mountain Goats, this one particular song is as good a starting point as any.