The Mountain Goats began in 1991 with John Darnielle bellowing and bleating his songs into a boom box—a deeply troubled and sharp-eyed troubadour, all alone.
He did this until 2002's Tallahassee, which found him walking into a proper studio with a rather impressive band at his back. For some of those who became obsessed with the Mountain Goats during a late '90s stream of thrilling, lo-fi releases (or, retroactively, with this same output), the change inspired the kind of authenticity-obsessed outrage that legend reserves for Dylan's switch to the electric.
But now, Darnielle's embrace of the studio seems only yet another push forward by an artist no longer content to couch his sentiments and ideas in pop and hiss. Darnielle has spent the last decade taking risks with his music, driving it into new spheres. He's collaborated with guitarist Kaki King and co-written with old friend John Vanderslice, added a full-time rock 'n' roll band to the mix and sometimes swapped the guitar for the piano as his instrument of choice. The quality of the work has changed, but it hasn't suffered. To wit, at this year's Hopscotch Music Festival, Darnielle performed piano covers of heavy metal songs, enrapturing listeners with nervous, quiet takes on Ozzy Osbourne and Darkthrone. A few fans grumbled and walked out; some perceived it as a joke.
For Darnielle, an operating principle seems to be if you can't please everybody (and you can't), you might as well upset some by being very, very ambitious.
At a few recent live performances, Darnielle has delivered some of his standards and cuts from his new album, Transcendental Youth, with the help of Anonymous 4. An all-female a cappella quartet, Anonymous 4 specializes in breathing new life into very old, very early music. Something of a crew of singing historians, the ensemble might seem antithetical to the Mountain Goats' of-the-moment storytelling. Darnielle will bring the show to Durham this weekend; appropriately, however, the evening before returning to the stage with the Mountain Goats, Anonymous 4 will ease into Darnielle's narrow-casted universe via a collaborative performance with David Lang of Brooklyn's experimental chamber ensemble Bang on a Can.
love fail, Lang's latest project, is an Einstein on the Beach-esque collage of texts used to tell a fractured, frame-jumping, multi-sourced love story, based around the narrative of Tristan and Isolde. Considered in consecutive nights, the similarities between Lang and Darnielle's projects—as well as Anonymous 4's role with each—become more apparent. Both Lang and Darnielle send song cycles through the gorgeous, revivifying voices of the Anonymous 4. While Lang reaches through time and space, Darnielle focuses on the immediate: Transcendental Youth (on which Anonymous 4 does not appear) hangs out with a scrappy crew of addicts and society fall-outs in Washington state. Both performances should feel, at once, epic and insular.
Songs on Transcendental Youth focus on what should, by now, just be called Darnielle-ian slivers of detail—the army surplus jacket an angel-dust abuser sports, the CVS where a homeless man steals his sunscreen. But with the addition of a horn section, Transcendental Youth includes more gaps where lyrics aren't piling up and hitting a fever pitch, leaving the instruments to sell the drama. The horns raise the emotional stakes and voice temporary catharsis. Menacing bass reminds you of the dread lurking behind a jaunty composition. Even on record, these songs make space for more voices.
Anonymous 4 doesn't function as a set of conventional back-up singers, nor do they add simplistic a-bunch-of-voices bombast. They weave their whorls of what sound like wordless vocals through empty spaces, volleying certain phrases back and forth, and stretching vowels, allowing syllables to bump into each other. The pained grandiosity finally affords Darnielle's characters a sense of grandeur that the ridiculous thoughts in their heads and the feelings in their hearts merit.
And that might be hard to capture with a boom box.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Higher peaks."