Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
A split-second of silence, followed by the whirring of gears. For many years, this is how most Mountain Goats songs began. John Darnielle’s Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox is almost as famous as the man who pressed record to document songs that, whether fictional or autobiographical, seemed intensely personal. The fact that the boombox recordings sound like unearthed artifacts certainly encourages that feeling, but when Darnielle started regularly recording in studios with full bands, the intimacy remained. Darnielle, it turned out, was just a damn good songwriter.
As Darnielle writes in the liner notes to the newly reissued Mountain Goats album All Hail West Texas, the 2002 record that closed out Darnielle’s boombox era, Texas is “really the only [record] that fits the ‘one guy recording alone in his house’ description” that he was known for. All previous Mountain Goats albums featured the RX-FT500, but they also included some combination of additional instrumentation, guest vocalists, clips of other musicians’ songs, and, yes, studio recordings. (2000’s The Coroner’s Gambit was especially eclectic in this regard.) The legend of The Mountain Goats, then, most readily applies to the record that dashed the legend completely—and it’s a hell of a record.
The cover of All Hail West Texas claims that the album consists of “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.” Without that description, it would be hard to guess that some characters reappear—despite their deeply emotional lyrics, the songs are mostly without defining characteristics. One exception is the album’s masterpiece of an opening track, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton,” a song that is as specific as West Texas’s songs get. Two friends named Cyrus and Jeff start a death metal band (with a progression of names including Satan’s Fingers, The Killers, and The Hospital Bombers). Then Cyrus is sent to a “school where they told him he’d never be famous,” which is assumedly the locked treatment facility of the album’s description. Jeff “helps develop a plan to get even,” and the song ends with Darnielle singing “Hail Satan! Hail! Hail!” This is all, Satan references included, set to a lilting waltz tempo usually reserved for romantic ballads.
The other masterpiece on All Hail West Texas is the heartbreaking “The Mess Inside,” a portrait of a disintegrating relationship that’s as matter-of-fact as it is heartbreaking. A couple travels to Utah, New Orleans, Manhattan, and the Bahamas in search of the solution to their problems, only to realize that no change of scenery could save them. “[We] looked hard for what we’d lost,” sings Darnielle. “It was painful to admit it, but we couldn’t find a thing.” All the while, Darnielle strums hard and unflinchingly, as if his narrator is finally coming to terms with failure. It’s a sad and gorgeous song, one of many on All Hail West Texas.
Darnielle had always been creative and prolific, but much of his pre-Texas work was slightly hesitant, unsure. This uncertain feel was likely the result of recording songs immediately after writing them, but Darnielle also used that method on Texas, whose songs sound fully formed. There are no botched chords, no lyrics that seem like rough drafts. The songs are simply better, and Darnielle had never sounded so sure of himself.
The reissue’s bonus tracks are songs from the same boombox sessions that produced All Hail West Texas. Though they aren’t bad, they’re not as engaging as the songs that made the final cut; their exclusion from the final product confirms the notion that Darnielle knew just what he was doing when assembling Texas. An alternate take of the Texas song “Jenny” is, as Darnielle writes in the liner notes, “slower, a little more sentimental,” with “some differences in the phrasing.” It’s also not as self-assured as its official version which, for a song that includes the lyrics “no outstanding warrants for my arrest, hi-diddle-dee-dee, goddamn, the pirate’s life for me,” is a pretty important quality.
As Darnielle broadened his sound over the years to include drums, bass, electric guitars, strings, and horns, the songs varied little in quality (his most recent record, 2012’s Transcendental Youth, is among the Mountain Goats’ best). Darnielle’s need to sing, to play, to work remains intact, his thirst for emotional truth unquenched. That determination never sounded so good as on All Hail West Texas, a collection that ushered in a new creative era for a man whose songs were already great.