The Mountain Goats
We Shall All Be Healed
By Scott Reid | 3 February 2004
It has been just about two years since John Darnielle, the man behind all that is the Mountain Goats, decided to pass on his Panasonic boombox and record in a studio. The announcement came on the heels of seminal releases like The Coroner’s Gambit and All Hail West Texas, and most all of Darnielle’s fans knew it would either result in a masterpiece or completely gloss over everything that had made his music so intriguing in the first place. The first such effort, approximately his eleventh full length release (though this isn’t counting cassette releases prior to ’95 or the myriad of singles, split singles, EPs or various collections) and first for the institution that is 4AD, was 2001’s Tallahassee, and doubts were quickly tossed aside about his ability to adapt his songs to a the wonderful world of hi-fi. Tony Doogan did a commendable job of keeping the songs from sounding too slick, but it felt like something was also detrimentally lacking.
Tallahassee brought the end of a lot of things for Darnielle. It was the nail in the coffin of his enduring and incredibly acerbic Alpha Couple (it’s fitting they eventually got a concept album dedicated to them as they’ve always been one of his more compelling subjects), and yes, seemingly the end of his stubborn decade-long love of extremely lo-fi recording. For many, it also brought the end to his tenure of poetic, revelatory lyrics — which, at times, were the only thing that made his three hundred plus songs special; by any lengths of logic, a dozen or so releases with just a man and his guitar, rarely introducing new elements into the mix (partly do to the one-track boombox, I suppose) should grow more tiring than an eight hour chemistry lecture by the end of the first album, let alone the twelfth or thirteenth. They say you shouldn’t fix what’s broken, but I’m sure Darnielle knew as well as anyone else before the recording of Tallahassee that a brief experimentation with a studio setting could open up an endless amount of doors for his music and, given the inaccessibility of his previous approach, a widened audience, as well.
Which is why news of ex-MK Ultra frontman John Vanderslice producing and arranging the new album (along with cohort Scott Solter) was so promising; with his solo records, Vanderslice proved himself an adequate and, at times, powerfully inventive producer. So along with a four-piece band (featuring longtime collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Peter Hughes, pianist/keyboardist Franklin Bruno, ex-12 Rods drummer Christopher McGuire —who is one of the wildest drummers I’ve ever seen in action —and violinist Nora Danielson), Vanderslice & Darnielle holed up in Bear Creek studios for a mere ten days to finish the album. It might seen hasty, but I’d imagine Darnielle has little use for the possibilities of a studio, anyway. It’d probably be like moving from a town of fifty to a city of eight million; get done what needs to be done, get the fuck out of dodge and never look back.
The result of those ten days in the studio, We Shall All Be Healed, is another concept album and this time around the subject manner is even darker than his dysfunctional Alphas. The record is full of tales of drug addiction, and Darnielle certainly doesn’t seem to be too sympathetic toward the subject in the least. It’s a song-cycle full of remorse and unapologetic, unabashed squalor: headstones climbing hills, wishes for death (though perhaps not as subtle as the "I hope you die / I hope we both die" line from "No Children"), friends in intensive ward, a thousand dead friends, effects of ignorant greed, shooting up a liquor store, and Tek-9’s tucked under floorboards. Not that he’s known for his large back-catalogue of optimistic love songs, but certainly the fact that this is also an album based, for the most part, around non-fictional people and experiences makes the air of judgment surrounding the record all the more honest and heartfelt.
To his credit, Vanderslice did a wonderful job of producing the record in the little time he had to work with and the band a perfect job of accentuating Darnielle’s primarily solo compositions. From the opening burst of "Slow West Vultures," with the constant cry of the violin in the background, and later with the clutter of conversation and breaking of a glass, it becomes clear that Vanderslice’s style suits Darnielle’s stark lyrical tales far better than Doogan’s work on Tallahassee, while still realizing that no matter how much you attempt to surround him with, Darnielle’s biggest assets are still his highly distinctive voice and potent imagery. Vanderslice, as well as the band, was clearly working from a sentient understanding of the material and not just playing for the sake of utilizing the studio at hand.
Darnielle’s writing is also, for the most part, strong. First single "Palmcorder Yajna," rife with images of looming death and oblivious tweakers, is perhaps the best song Darnielle has penned ("Oceanographer’s Choice" and "Pink & Blue" being the other two contenders, with "No Children" not far behind) since Gambit’s breathtaking "There Will Be No Divorce." "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent" features one of the best arrangements on the record and, unlike the track that follows it, "Letter From Belgium," has one of the more memorable melodies. "Your Belgian Things" is a beautiful Tallahassee-ish ballad centered around a beyond-repair relationship (the cause of which shouldn’t require much conjecture), contrasting the relentless strumming of "The Young Thousands" wonderfully. Personal favorite "Quito" (the violin and general atmosphere on this one is unbelievable), the tale of a general contemplating his return to a normal life, gives the second side a much needed boost before "Cotton," which considering what follows really should have ended the record (not to mention that in general it just sounds like an excellent album closer), is as affecting as any of the slower numbers on Tallahassee.
Problem being that even with standout tracks like "Quito," "Slow West Vultures," "The Young Thousands" and "Palmcorder Yajna," there’s also a handful of frustrating moments that keep Healed from being truly great. Take the uncharacteristically cringe-worthy lyrics of "Against Pollution," for example ("When I worked down at the liquor store/ a gun with a shotgun came raging through the place/ muscled his way behind the counter/ I shot him in the face. . . a guy came in, tried to kill me/So I shot him in the face"), which aren’t exactly helped by the equally unremarkable melody; or the awkward description of a hospitalized friend in "Mole" (or the chorus proclamation that he is, yes, a mole sticking his head above the surface of the earth), which is otherwise one of the more immediate and dynamic songs here (Bruno’s beautiful piano work on the chorus being of particular note).
"Home Again Garden Grove" does well to capture the brash, distorted feel of his earlier work (especially after the relative calm of "Mole"), and though the lyrics are some of the best he’s written in years (they’ve been on a noticeably slow decline, but nothing to be worried about yet), the melody gives us little to remember it by. The same can be said for the spoken-word hush of "All Up the Seething Coast," "Letter from Belgium" and farcical "Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of," which ends the record on a coy, forfeiting note; "but you’re going to do what you want to do/ no matter what I ask of you."
Healed most likely won’t be remembered as one of his best (for me, it stands somewhere between Nine Black Poppies and Full Force Galesburg), but it will probably stand as one of his easiest listens, which is surprising considering the subject matter he decided to tackle here. I don’t feel disappointed by Healed as much as feel it could’ve accomplished so much more given Vanderslice’s attention to detail, Darnielle’s rare subjective, non-fictional investment, and the strength of songwriting like "Palmcorder Yajna" and "Quito." But just as "No Children" and "Oceanographer’s Choice" made Tallahassee a frustrating experience, or "Going to Georgia" and "Standard Bitter Love Song #7" for Zopilote Machine, it’s something we should eventually come to expect and, unfortunately, accept from the Mountain Goats. It’s impressive that a man so prolific could churn out albums as consistent as they’ve been, but if uneven records are what’s in store in the future, maybe giving the next record a little extra time wouldn’t hurt. You’ve made over a dozen albums now, John; feel free to take that much needed vacation.