You know, sometimes I feel bad for responding so late to cultural phenomenon. But then I remember that in order to go “viral” it has to have something like 5 million views in a week, which still means most people haven’t seen a thing that “everybody is talking about.”
I also remember that this is a one-man operation and I only have so much attention to give to things, especially now that I have less free time than ever due to some night classes I’m taking to bolster my resume. There’s only so much of me I can devote to things.
It is with these factors in mind that I come to a podcast released just shy of two years ago about a band I love hosted by a podcast I love, I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats. The premise is simple and brilliant: Joseph Fink and John Darnielle are going through The Mountain Goats’ 2002 album, All Hail West Texas song by song. Each episode “opens” with them playing the song, talking about it (and whatever else comes to mind), then talking to a special guest about the song (usually the person/band who covered it for the podcast), and then the episode closes with a cover of the song in question. At the end of the podcast they released an album of all of the songs.
I’m admittedly not done with the podcast yet, but their discussions have me reflecting on my own relationship with the band and how we integrate and synthesize new art into our lives. My favorite stories are the few where the cover-artist hadn’t really listened to The Mountain Goats prior to being a part of the project–it’s exciting to hear people come to this as fresh as I once had as a late-comer to the party.
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The first time I heard about The Mountain Goats was in grad-school: I had just moved from Peoria, IL to Worcester, MA with nothing but some clothes, some books, and a laptop. The first month or so I slept on an inflatable mattress (pre-Casper, we’re talking little more than a pool floaty here). I knew no one, I had no job, and until classes started a few weeks after my move I had nothing to do but read House of Leaves. Which is great, but when that’s your only option it puts you in a weird head-space.
So I did what any adult would do: I approached someone I recognized from orientation and her hip-looking friends smoking cigarettes outside of the library and awkwardly asked if they also smoked weed (they did). And from that moment on I spent just about all of my free time, real or imagined, with one or all of them.
We did the things new friends do where they share some of their more obvious interests and hobbies. I don’t remember what I brought to the table as someone new who just sort of latched on to a pre-existing dynamic, but I do remember there was much 30 Rock to be shared and much music exchanged. And while I learned a lot about these friends and a great cultural exchange was had by all, somehow The Mountain Goats escaped this phase.
I later became aware of my friend’s obsession with the band, but somehow we never got around to listening to them. I think the band’s 13 album discography at the time (not including boot legs, live recordings, etc) brought about a fear of scaring people off. And I get it, it’s a tall thing to ask of a new listener. I have avoided sharing The Mountain Goats with plenty of people because it’s hard to know where to even start with the band.
After graduating grad school, I moved back to Illinois, mostly to be with my then-girlfriend-now-wife as she was still finishing her own grad-school program. She had much better job prospects, our friends and family still lived in Chicago-land, and I had no better reason to stay than “I like it out here and I like my new friends.”
Which is valid, cause I’ve largely fallen out of contact with that group sans the occasional Skype hangout. It’s no fault of anyone’s–being an adult is just hard and it’s easy to lose touch of people who aren’t in your immediate proximity. But I was looking to delay the inevitable and I remembered that there was this band one of them really liked. I had just heard the WTF interview with John Darnielle and he mentioned that in many ways he considered The Sunset Tree as the “first” Mountain Goats album, or at least marked a change in how he approached song-writing. When an un-related friend posted a few songs by the band on her Facebook, I accepted that this was a thing I was going to have to look into for myself.
I bought the album on a whim and I’m not going to lie, it floored me. As someone who grew up with an alcoholic mother, I could identify with the narrative themes of neglect and abuse (though my own situation wasn’t nearly as extreme or dramatic as what was presented in the album). But I was also extremely impressed with the musicality and intimacy of the songs. I was immediately hooked.
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A few months go by and I largely forget about The Mountain Goats, or least don’t bother looking into more of their discography. But when I got my first record player a few months later, I found some of their records and eagerly purchased them. It’s now a habit of mine to check their section to see if anything I don’t own is there, but it seems every record store has the same 5-7 albums that I do plus or minus Beat the Champ and Goths, both of which I have heard on Spotify but haven’t gotten around to purchasing yet (no shade, just broke).
I have but a handful of Mountain Goats albums, which sometimes makes me feel like a bad fan. Only owning and truly loving about a third of a band’s discography makes it hard to say that I love them sometimes, despite that absolutely being the case. Because the truth of the matter is I own more records by them than almost any other artist (I think Bruce Springsteen tops them, but only because I inherited a bunch of his records from an aunt).
In this way my collection of records by The Mountain Goats has come to reflect my overall journey into vinyl, which is not only a fun way to discover and collect music, but also a way to personalize my experience with the record. It’s become less about my reaching out to other people and more my own exploration and delve into the depths of this discography.
Sometimes when we listen to music I think we do so mostly for the cultural capitol of saying we’re keeping up. This seems like a strange concept to apply to a still relatively small and “indie” band like The Mountain Goats, but as it turns out since taking my own dive into their music people from unlikely corners have spoken up, admitting “Oh yea, I love those guys.” I sometimes feel hurt by this in a “why wasn’t I invited to this club before now?” kind of way, but mostly it’s exciting to see how deep the roots go and how far-spread they are.
If you asked me to choose my favorite of their records, I’m sure it would be whatever album I heard last. But if we’re being honest, that album is usually All Hail West Texas. This is the sole lo-fi album of theirs I own–and if we’re being honest it’s about the edge of where I can stand lo-fi’s production quality (I don’t know when I became such a snob, but it happened and there’s no going back)–but it’s so damn pure and wonderful I can’t help but give it a spin as often as I can. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” is easily top 5 songs of theirs, and when I reach for the album I’m usually reaching for this song specifically.
Which is why I was so excited when I finally gave I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats a chance and realized that they would be exclusively covering All Hail West Texas for the first season. I was also excited to learn the format of the show, since I could listen to John Darnielle talk all day (I’ve listened to that episode of WTF more times than I care to admit). But mostly I’m excited to keep re-integrating his music into my life.