John Darnielle is an artist who needs no introduction among fans of indie folk music. Since 1991, Darnielle has served as the songwriter (and occasionally the only member) of the Mountain Goats, a towering figure in the genre beloved as much for the humane honesty in his songs as he is for his wit – it’s not for nothing that Time magazine named him one of the best follows on Twitter.
Darnielle (that’s pronounced “dar-NEEL,” in case you should happen to run into him) is currently on tour with longtime collaborator Peter Hughes, and will be performing as the Mountain Goats at the Bottletree on Saturday, June 22. Because of the band’s stature, it should come as no surprise that the show has long since sold out.
One of the reasons that this show – and indeed, most Mountain Goats shows – sold out so quickly is that Darnielle and co. have developed an intensely devoted following akin to that of Neutral Milk Hotel, whose October show at Iron City sold out in less than an hour. Because of that following, Mountain Goats shows are famously interactive and raucous, full of sing-alongs and requests for deep cuts from among the hundreds of songs Darnielle has penned in a 22-year-long career.
Also like Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, John Darnielle has a voice that’s full of character. It’s an acquired taste, admittedly – it’s reedy and straining much of the time – but it’s one of the few immediately recognizable voices in indie music. More importantly, Darnielle communicates a level of sincerity in that voice that can bear the emotional weight of an album recorded on a boombox, as many of the Mountain Goats’ beautifully lo-fi early records were.
Part of the reason Darnielle can make the hard sell with his voice is that he’s done quite a bit of hard living himself. Abused by his stepfather as a child, Darnielle went through a number of phases he was lucky to escape from, which gradually coalesced into a miasma of theft, lies, failed relationships and drug abuse. He only obliquely draws on that experience in his songwriting, with the exception of 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed – which he affectionately refers to as “my tweaker record” – and the subsequent year’s The Sunset Tree.
“With The Sunset Tree,” Darnielle told Weld in an interview, “I started to question whether there was a sort of self-expression that wasn’t really selfish at all. I didn’t just want to be looking at my issues; I wanted to be finding, if not answering, questions.” The result is perhaps the finest of the 14 Mountain Goats LPs, a searing account of Darnielle’s abuse that has, in his anecdotal experience, served as a valuable lifeline for other people trying to get out of dark places.
When asked about his fascination with the dispossessed and disaffected, Darnielle replied with a laugh that “Those are my people. That’s where I’m from. … I’ve always been on the side of anyone getting hated on.” Though he’s often (somewhat lazily) called this generation’s Bob Dylan, Darnielle’s genuine and affectionate fascination with outsiders – as well as his stringent refusal to paint anyone with a single brush, as songs like “Cry for Judas” indicate – hews more closely to the darkly witty character sketches of early Elvis Costello and the solemn portraiture of Springsteen’s darker turns. It’s also solidified him as perhaps the most capable and economical storyteller working today.
Though the Mountain Goats catalog is now intimidating in its sheer scope, Darnielle bemusedly dismissed his reputation for being especially prolific. “This is what I do,” he said. “If I write one song a month, that’s 12 songs a year. One song a month doesn’t seem like a lot to ask of a songwriter. If I’m a bus driver and I drive one bus a month, I’m fired.
“I don’t wait for some bolt to come crashing down on my head,” he said of his process. “When I wake up in the morning, I go to the piano or I pick up a guitar. I’m not complaining about being called prolific, but the image of the songwriter as someone who only writes when an epiphany wells up in his chest – well, that’s not what it’s like for me. I have things I want to make and I take a great deal of pleasure in making them.”
Indeed, Darnielle exudes the shining self-assurance of someone who remembers darker times. Now a happy husband and father, there’s the palpable sense in his jokes and his tone that Darnielle is in the clear after many long years in the wilderness. And while he doesn’t explicitly write songs for this reason, lest he risk becoming “precious,” the Mountain Goats’ music has long served as a guiding light for the depressed and the defeated.
“I have stuff for people who I don’t know personally,” Darnielle said, “where we meet in an outsider space, and we recognize that we are strong, and that there’s a community out there.”
There are many reasons why the Mountain Goats show is worth getting excited about – seeing one of the best songwriters alive still working at the peak of his powers is certainly one of them – but that sense of community, however fleeting it may be, is the most important one. There’s nothing quite like it in rock music today.
The Mountain Goats will play the Bottletree on Saturday, June 22.