Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

The Mountain Goats – Younger

Thatched roof cottages!


Taylor Alatorre: “Half of you will never understand, and it doesn’t really matter.” That’s as good a summation of the Mountain Goats’ recent output as you can get, though even half seems optimistic. I like the idea of songs about ramshackle communities united around a common interest yet riven by conflicts both internal and external. I suspect I would like them more if they were written about, say, the Homestar Runner Wiki in the mid-2000s. But we all have our fantasy worlds, and on “Younger,” John Darnielle draws in the uninitiated by dissolving the lines between the fantasies we create and the person creating them. The role-playing aspect of RPGs was really what got all those suburban parents riled up, and he plays into this by making us unsure of who’s speaking at any given moment: Darnielle, his player character, or Darnielle as mediated through his player character. An agitated strumming pattern tracks the running through of a mental checklist before battle, which leads to ruminations on the narrator’s past as told through oblique lyrical self-references. It’s a more introspective version of the Hold Steady’s “Unified Scene” lore, befitting of a different kind of basement setting. The encyclopedic tendencies of these bands and their fanbases can be just as intimidating to newcomers as a D&D rulebook, which is why this song in particular would be a terrible way to introduce someone to the Mountain Goats. You also don’t want to disappoint them by having them expect a saxophone solo on every outro.

Vikram Joseph: Even leaving aside the scrappy, tape-hiss-enveloped early recordings, The Mountain Goats now have a back catalogue so vast that drawing comparisons between songs, or eras, feels like a task requiring dizzyingly complex musical geometry. And yet, faced with “Younger”, it’s hard not to try; it feels so achingly familiar, and yet as with most of John Darnielle’s recent material (for better or worse) it moves his work forward in unexpected directions. Certainly, Mountain Goats fans are no strangers to the bitter tang of impending disaster on the palate, and “Younger” delivers plenty of both, with acoustic guitars that feel like they’re cutting away at you relentlessly with a blunt knife, and lyrics which are ominous and darkly comic (“It never hurts to give thanks to the local gods / you never know who might be hungry”). In its stifling claustrophobia, it recalls the doomed co-dependent couple of Tallahassee and, especially, the besieged house of outcasts and drug addicts that Darnielle depicted on We Shall All Be Healed. At nearly six minutes long, it’s given space to build and expand in a way that Mountain Goats songs rarely have been, and makes full use of it, escalating tension that eventually finds release in a wild, unmoored saxophone solo.

Alfred Soto: Before the lyrics present themselves, “Younger” is a pleasure to listen to. Bassist Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster, one of America’s best drummers, give John Darnielle the kind of support that a singer-songwriter can dream. And that’s before a three-note piano motif recalling Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” and a saxophone outro. “This whole house is doomed/Even the big parts get consumed/Prepare a grave for Menelaus” is the first but not last lyric I’ve savored. Holding it together is Darnielle, who has a talent for singing as if he’s survived years of an air raid but still believes in a stiff upper lip.

Will Adams: While “Younger” overall has an appealing expansiveness befitting the fantasy world concept guiding it, it falters when the ornamentation becomes excessive; namely, the recurring piano line and the florid sax solo at the end.

Hannah Jocelyn: “Younger” consists of the same Mountain Goats things since 2015 — vaguely jazzy instrumentation and dry drums, life-affirming directives for lyrics, a “concept album” that’s just another excuse for Darnielle to project his neuroses onto Wikipedia articles (to be fair…). Even Owen Pallett can’t save Darnielle from himself, or whoever performs that damn sax solo towards the end. There are some brilliant elements, mostly courtesy of the vocal production and well-placed piano. It’s hard to tell why this doesn’t work. Maybe it’s the lingering effect of the Tumblr post that went around last year, which shouldn’t get Darnielle cancelled but makes it harder to be a fan without reservation. Maybe, and more likely, it’s the lack of compelling lyrics. Unlike Goths and Beat the Champ, both some of his finest work, there’s nothing emotionally to latch onto. It’s just more of the same. That was supposed to be a good thing.

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: For the past quarter century or so, John Darnielle has been doing the same thing. His band has expanded and contracted and expanded again, his subject matter has moved from the individual to the personal to the supernatural and cultural and then back again, but a Mountain Goats song in 1995 and one in 2015 follow the same general idiom, no matter what the lo-fi purists tell you. And at the core of that idiom has always been Darnielle’s voice, always some degree of scratchy and impassioned. The Mountain Goats’ music is about the inexplicable and raw bits of human experience, and Darnielle has always served as a sympathetic and kind guide. The change in “Younger” is that Darnielle’s voice is no longer at the center of things. It’s still there, and he remains the preternaturally gifted communicator he’s always been, but even as he drifts into the role of a world-weary adventurer it’s hard not to notice how the band behind him swallows him up. He even cedes the last minutes of the song to other players, with Matt Douglas’s saxophone solo and Jon Wurster’s endlessly kinetic drum fills providing the emotional catharsis that Darnielle’s own lyric does not provide. Maybe it’s Owen Pallett’s production influence, or just a change of pace, but the switch in “Younger” feels like a admission that capturing the raw and weird of humanity requires things beyond words.

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3 Responses to “The Mountain Goats – Younger”

  1. Coppers, heads up: the Tumblr post you linked to seems to be dead after the “read more.” I read the added reblogged material but it was still hard for me to discern what it was Darnielle did that made fans uncomfortable.

  2. Here it is. ctrl-f/cmd-f for John Darnielle and the whole Tumblr post is linked:


  3. There’s some thoughtful stuff from a Jukeboxer here – as Joshua said it’s difficult to say NO THIS WAS WRONG but enough to add some unease about what looks like a startling* lack of awareness of power differentials

    *startling not least because it’s John Darnielle