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The Mountain Goats - Ghana

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Artist: The Mountain Goats

Album: Ghana

Label: 3 Beads of Sweat

Review date: Jul. 29, 2002

An impressive scholar of literature, John Darnielle clearly appreciates the power of lyrical association, engaging its nuanced meanderings to fill out the immaculate minutiae of each song’s respective context. Excepting a penchant for home recording and humorously oblique liner notes, but still more frequent than the oft-dropped reference to death-metal, this may well be the most consistently discernible element in the Mountain Goats’ extensive discography. Whereas most songwriters obscure emotional resonance with an overabundance of peripheral detail, or else suspend their subject matter in vagueness, Darnielle, often by simply referencing location, exercises an economy that creates a veritable world of the ballad genre. This has as much to with how much his music is integrated in his life, that it bears the color and texture of experience past, while his ability to purvey this same immediacy to an audience succeeds in recreating the personal moment as pervasive archetype.

A thoughtful archival project seems a perfectly unassuming manner in which to inaugurate a label, and cheers to Chicago’s nascent 3 Beads of Sweat for doing it well. Ghana is the last of three albums of relatively obscure Mountain Goats material, the first two previously available on the now defunct Ajax label. Compiling deleted tracks from cassettes, compilations, and the occasional wedding invitation 7”, the disc is no more completist fodder than anything in the Mountain Goats’ oeuvre, addressing everything from romantic dissolution to the death of Jimi Hendrix. Mostly occasional and generally abstract, the 31 tracks on Ghana are self-contained affairs; and while a collection by nature defies the thematic cohesion of Darnielle’s full-length explorations over the last five years, the format serves to highlight the short bursts of brilliance that the single format affords him.

In relation to these recent recordings for Emperor Jones and Absolutely Kosher, and, by all accounts, his forthcoming record on 4AD, much of the best material here romanticizes a similar daily viscera, the crushing myriad elements of travel, love, and lodging. On Ghana, the attention to detail is no less affecting for its specificity of observation, respective to each track. Per usual, most of Darnielle’s overarching focus resides with the direct object of his various exploits, the ineffable other, sometimes friend and often lover. “Going to Port Washington” and “Noctifer Birmingham” rank among the best of these second-person missives, framing love and despair amidst East Coast redneck splendor. Notably, there is a simultaneity of emotion that qualifies each instance of romance. And while the prospects of love and redemption are never quite secondary, the narrative tendency toward distraction carries devastating implications: lucidity can and must illuminate all, even the irrelevant and pejorative. For Darnielle, devastation is a form of resolution, if not resignation, displacing selective focus with a totality of observation, a sort of unchallenged existential beauty.

Nonetheless, the one-off dynamic that precipitated most of these tracks favors Darnielle’s talent for tumultuous, near-mystical abstraction, a beautiful but less accessible characteristic of his early material. “Please Come Home to Hamngatan” imbues an atmosphere of languid decay over any necessary understanding of adultery or snake oil. Even the facetious evangelism of “Golden Boy”, or the historical fetishism of “The Anglo Saxons” function in a manner of crazed fascination that brings relevance to the bizarre and seemingly incongruous. With fortitude reigns a crude but exacting logic.

Among the more distinguishing elements of the John Darnielle aesthetic, and an ample source of associative potency, is a fixation on travel, underlying a certain restless transience that throws these tales of human interaction into stark relief. Ghana provides a series of truncated glimpses at his slow, inexorable path across a series of creased AAA road maps. In this regard, the compilation functions as a sort of geographic compendium to other Mountain Goats recordings. Present are the Long Island autumns and the strange South Korean episodes of Sweden, the impressionistic fervor that Full Force Galesburg imparts of the beauty and depravity of California.

A passively ignorant media response to compositional integrity is the fate of most folk artists, and nearly all lo-fi enthusiasts, and yet the lyricism and instrumentation on Ghana work as parallel, singular achievements. Contrary to the production requisites of antiquarian purists, Darnielle’s guitar work is par with the best material of any academy-endorsed songwriter of the halcyon period of the British and American underground. Almost unanimously violent, the melodies underpinning the album are affecting on a primordial level. In one of the more standout segments of the disc, Darnielle even lends himself to the instance (albeit in post-production) of a collaboration. The four resulting tracks, originally appearing on the Orange Raja, Blood Royal 7”, pair Mountain Goats’ strumming with the mournful tones of Alastair Galbraith on violin. Still, even had Galbraith commissioned an entire orchestra for the 4-track transferal, Darnielle’s brilliance, in timbre of voice and intensity of perception, would remain undiminished.

Much as Darnielle’s unique approach rejects classification, the Mountain Goats’ trajectory coincides with a moment of historical precedence, when digital production has granted the adept producer an unchallenged position as adjunct musician. By comparison, these recordings forge beauty from austerity, minimal instrumentation, and the ineffable weight of experience, sparing a senseless and self-reflexive commentary on production values. Even if but momentarily, it’s reassuring to see the artificial superceded by a delegate of wistful, unapologetic humanity.

By Tom Roberts

Other Reviews of The Mountain Goats

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The Life of the World to Come

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View all articles by Tom Roberts

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