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The Mountain Goats - We Shall All Be Healed

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Artist: The Mountain Goats

Album: We Shall All Be Healed

Label: 4AD

Review date: Mar. 3, 2004

As a lasting icon of low fidelity independent rock, John Darnielle has garnered an adoring fanbase throughout America and as far away as Japan, the types of fans who buy his record right when it comes out. A release-date devoted throng.

Darnielle (the Mountain Goat) is in the unenviable position of having to balance the yen to stretch and grow as a songwriter, while still keeping his fan-base happy and healthy. As music history has taught us, this is not easily done. Consider the multitude of artists who struggled in their move to go solo, or more specifically, Dylan plugging in. It's a metamorphosis that, naturally, can have its kinks. Darnielle's situation is especially unique – for over 10 years, on labels like Shrimper, Ajax and Emperor Jones, he operated on a boombox budget, developing his oh-so-engaging lo-fi aesthetic. Moreover, Darnielle's songwriting, which still sounds as distinguished and delightful today, was so remarkably different: invented people and places, fantasies and imagery seemingly ripped from his vocal chords. There remains nothing quite like it.

And now we are starting to see a new Darnielle, a writer prepared and unafraid to change. We Shall All Be Healed, his second album after the hi-fi transfiguration and also his second for 4AD, could be compared with Dylan's Self-Portrait, in that it is a calculated departure for one man's career.

Firstly, Darnielle has abandoned the fictional tales and daydreams of the past for the real-life tales of friends and family. Any member of the flock would recognize this is a seismic shift for the Mountain Goats, and it shows. The delivery is a little finer, a little more emotive and heavier, too. Darnielle is an erudite, consistent wordsmith: his Last Plane To Jakarta magazine appears at shops like Aquarius Records from time to time, and his website (www.lastplanetojakarta.com) is constantly updated. He is so good with words that in fact, like other prized songwriters, his admirers have grown to love the voice behind them, which is far from classically trained. It's those fine lyrics that have had kids snapping up OOP 7"s from Venice to Osaka.

This shift in lyrical context, whether fans have read the biography or not, is immediately apparent in songs like "Mole," which introduces itself with a reference to intensive care. This is not Mr. "Cubs in Five" anymore. Also, because it is self-professed non-fiction, you can't help but wonder, at times, what on earth he could be talking about. Particularly in "Your Belgian Things": "The men were here to get your Belgian things," he sings softly, "they'll store them for you in an airplane hanger." Then, in magnificent Darnielle imagery: "There's guys in Biohazard suits / Mud caking on their rubber boots / They've come to keep your pretty things from danger."

As we grew accustomed to his first album without his malfunctioning Panasonic RX-FT500, the completely fictional Tallahassee, we also settled into Darnielle's new studio sound, certainly plusher than the folding-chair style of his earlier material. We Shall All Be Healed fluffs the cushions up ever more. He's back at Tarbox Road studios with the most consummate musicians he knows: Peter Hughes, Franklin Bruno, Christopher McGuire and Nora Danielson. They sound great, especially Bruno’s piano, and help save "Cotton" and "Against Pollution," two of the more elaborate songs on the CD, if not necessarily the keenly written.

Yet we still have "Palmcorder Yajna." The first single is classic pure Mountain Goats, Darnielle's voice putting the microphone feed into the red, while short, swift strums push toward the chorus. By the time he hits the phrase "all you tweakers" (a Mountain Goats hook if there ever was one), you can practically see the spittle leaping from his mouth. It's glorious in its own way, and may well end up on a Mountain Goats Best Of… down the road. (In fact, it would do 4AD well to release an Introducing… of some variety to prepare a new generation of Darnielle fans. Something for my nephew, say.)

Like Darnielle’s shrill tone that many have come to love and now mourn, We Shall All Be Healed is sometimes on the mark, but often left of center. Its moments of clarity, although surely there, don't come around enough to keep it near the stereo. It seems rushed and a bit labor intensive. Either way, it's not one that best exemplifies Darnielle's talents. It's easy enough to absolve as an album of transition, however, because we know we'll still be hearing from Darnielle in 2024.

Or so we hope.

By David Day

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