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Mountain Goats' Darnielle Adopts A More Hi-Fi Sound

What was in 2002 an unexpected departure for the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle — the use of a full band and a professional recording space for his seventh full-length release, Tallahassee (4AD/Beggar's Group) — is now standard operating procedure, much to the expected chagrin of the traditionalist segment of Darnielle's fan-base.

Darnielle's latest album, We Shall All Be Healed, which hit stores on Feb. 3, was produced by John Vanderslice and features a band that includes Mountain Goats touring bassist Peter Hughes and songwriter Franklin Bruno (who's also Darnielle's partner in the Extra Glenns) on keyboards. Danielle's also got a new Web site, created specifically for his new album.

An established solo performer, Darnielle for years recorded most of his songs alone, on four-tracks, boom-boxes, and other rudimentary recording equipment. Aside from the occasional violin or keyboard part, the majority of the Mountain Goats' recorded output is a one-man show, a show that has garnered Darnielle cult recognition and critical exuberance, but not much in the way of album sales. All Hail West Texas, the 2003 release that preceded Tallahassee, epitomized Darnielle's solo work ethic: fictional songs about people and places, sung to the rolling background hiss of a broken four-track.

With …Healed, those two most important elements have changed. No longer does the tape hiss compete with the vocals for the listener's ears. And, more importantly, this song cycle, the focus of which is a rag-tag group of drug addicts and their acquaintances, marks the first time since The Coroner's Gambit, and one of the only times ever, that Darnielle's personal life has made it onto one of his records.

"I've always resisted writing autobiographical stuff — like, ardently resisted it," Darnielle said. "So when I wrote 'Palmcorder Yajna,' and I sang out this street intersection that's a real intersection, there was a real transgressive thrill in it for me." Though he never makes clear his position within the group of characters he sings about on …Healed, Darnielle's first-person accounts aim for the same emotional truths he tries to unearth in his more fictional songs.

…Healed and Tallahassee are both concept albums, the former about an unwieldy group, the latter about two carefully defined lovers slowly destroying each other. Darnielle insists that he never plans his stories out before starting an album. "The songs come first," he said. "It's only later that I notice that they're inhabited by recurring characters. With this album I was about four songs deep when I said to myself, 'Hey — these people all live on the same block, more or less!' and then I sharpened my focus.

"The stories (bearing in mind that most of the stories on the new album came from a very heady period of my youth, so they're less stories than things I cobbled together from memory) occur really naturally: I don't plot them out first. People used to tell me when I was a kid that you were supposed to outline a story before you wrote it, but that always seemed like a terrible idea to me — I just write and let the story materialize. It's like a magic act: rabbits from hats, only the rabbits spit poison."

There is certainly poison in this album, from the narrator in "All Up the Seething Coast" who "heap[s] the sugar high and white on everything I eat," to the two men in "Home Again Garden Grove," desperately trying to reclaim the optimism of their teenage years in dark alleys and through the promise of open roads. It's a poison that seeps its way into the hearts of all the album's characters.

"[They're] a loose-knit group," Darnielle said about the friends and enemies that populate …Healed. "They don't all know each other, and some of them would be completely appalled at being in the same company with some of the others. They're bound by some deeply-buried pernicious spiritual defect, I think. Only one person's defect is another person's triumph!"

…Healed employs a wider musical palette with which to tell these stories, wider even than the relative expansiveness of Tallahassee's sound, and it's Vanderslice who imparted the instrumental breadth found on the album. Quite a few of the songs on …Healed sound as if they were written with a full-band arrangement in mind, while much of Tallahassee's instrumentation felt like after-the-fact additions.

"With Tallahassee I was trying to keep in mind that there'd be other people playing," Darnielle said. "But at the end of the day I write the same way: focus on the song and try to make it as good as I can get it."

Added Vanderslice, "We really let everything happen in real time, which was nerve-wracking. Once we figured out where the song was going, we attacked it with overdubs. Usually we let John track the acoustic guitar and vocals together and then we added everything else on top."

The result is an album with more sonic depth than anything Darnielle has produced before. "John and Peter gave [engineer] Scott [Solter] and I leeway to travel down those sonic backroads and cul-de-sacs," Vanderslice said.

"I think working with others is (maybe paradoxically) more likely to give full life to one's vision, as odd as it is to hear myself saying that," Darnielle said.

The Mountain Goats will be touring in Europe during late March and April in support of …Healed, though without all the extra help he received in the studio. Darnielle says he won't soon be touring with a full band.

"Logistics — ugh," he said. "Once you've done a simple two-person tour it's hard to imagine wanting to make it harder." — Neal Block [Monday, March 15, 2003]

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