The Mountain Goats - Sweden (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Mountain Goats

Sweden (1995)

Shrimper Records

One of the hardest things to do with a band is going back listening to the music they released before you were introduced to them. Quite often the earlier material isn’t bad, per se, but it can be markedly different than what you’re used to hearing from the band. Like many people, I first became aware of The Mountain Goats at some point during their stay on 4AD. I believe the first album I actually sat down and listened to from start to finish without stopping and without distraction, was 2005’s The Sunset Tree. I was certainly aware there were albums prior to that, however it would take several years for me to work my way through their back catalogue in the same fashion I did that album.

One of those albums, Sweden showed just how much a band can change in a decade. While John Darnielle has always been the only constant member of the band, for the past several albums the core lineup has remained largely unchanged. In 1995, the band was composed of Darnielle and Rachel Ware who supplied bass and vocals. Another major change anyone who has only heard the more current releases by The Mountain Goats will notice is that these early recordings were the very definition of lo-fi. While theirs peer in the genre at the time would frequently record on simple in home four track recorders, many of the earliest releases by The Mountain Goats were recorded into a boombox with a microphone input or the entire song was recorded onto a recording device with only one track.

If you haven’t gone back and checked out the back catalogue yet, please don’t let the stop you. Even a decade before becoming recognized as one of the finest songwriters in music, John Darnielle was showing he would be deserving of the title. You can tell this from the opening track “The Recognition Scene” where Darnielle’s frantic strumming is coupled with plaintive lyrics about that moment after you do something … anything memorable with someone and you realize there’s a good chance that won’t go on forever. And it’s told like only Darnielle could tell it, in the first person describing the actions, emotions, and facial expressions of everyone involved, with a sense of honesty and no pretentiousness whatsoever.

While not featured as prominently as on their debute, Zopilote Machine there was a continuation in the “Going to …” song series on this album. None of them as instantly recognizable or universally adored among the fan base as “Going to Georgia” but all good songs in their own right, “Going to Queens” was most notable for me. One of the things that sets this song apart from others on the album, and most Mountain Goats’ songs in general for that matter, is that there were prominent vocals from someone other than John Darnielle on it. The vocal interplay between Rachel Ware and Darnielle on this song was simply amazing. And the lyrics “You hair was dripping wet, your skin was clean” being used to sum up the subject of the song shows how vivid of a picture the lyrics Darnielle writes have always painted.

Other highlights on the album included “Tahitian Ambrosia Maker,” “Snow Crush Killing Song,” and album closer “Cold Milk Bottle.” The close featured one of my favorite Darnielle lyrics ever, “You’re mean to me. Why must you be so mean to me? You shouldn’t forget to see what you mean to me.” The juxtaposition in the use of the word “mean” within that line was beautiful. I think it was also one of many Mountain Goats lyrics that anyone who listens to it will find instantly relatable.

While certainly not the album that got me into the band, I was ten when the album came out, and not the best or even most loved album of their career. This was a great album. If you can get past the fact most of these songs are as lo-fi as lo-fi could get this album is worth a listen. No, the songs aren’t weren't fully developed as later material that featured a full band. But, they didn’t need to be. John Darnielle always was an amazing songwriter, and this album gave you the chance to hear him honing his craft. And while there wasn't a bad song anywhere on this album, not even the Steely Dan cover, there has certainly been some growth since it was released twenty years ago. This was certainly an important stepping stone on the way to all of their later material. There’s a lot of this album in the songs found on those releases. What’s more interesting though, is hearing the roots of those releases in this early album.