The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas

My first experience with The Mountain Goats was in winter of 2013. Looking back now, that time seems like it’s a part of someone else’s life, not mine. I’d just moved to northern Japan and I was working as an English teacher. I’d never even seen snow before that winter, when I found myself living in Aomori prefecture. It’s a place blanketed in snow for a good five-six months per year. I listened to All Hail West Texas a lot that winter. I remember waiting at a bus stop, ankle-deep in the snow, my socks drenched because I didn’t own a pair of winter boots. I’d listen to ‘The Mess Inside’ over and over again as my toes turned to ice, mouthing “I wanted you to love me like you used to do” over and over again.

It was a momentous time in my life; I had just turned 24 and I’d never lived away from home before, apart from a semester abroad in Osaka while I was doing my degree. I was living in this little city on the coast in a country that wasn’t my own, I was working my first full-time job, and I was experiencing all this shit that I’d never felt or done before. It was a weird time, but I was happy. Life was terrifying and wonderful and for the first time in my life I was a part of a community. I lived in a city with sixteen other ESL teachers from all over the world and I felt like I finally belonged somewhere.

Things have changed a lot since then. I’m back in Australia, and it never snows here. Most of the people I was friends with in Japan live thousands of kilometres away. We’re separated by distance and time and new jobs and new relationships and new things to do and see. But every time I listen to All Hail West Texas I’m transported back there; this album sums up the feelings of freedom, of belonging, of that indefinable ache that I can remember feeling so clearly back then.

The Mountain Goats have been around, in various forms, since the early 90s, but the one constant has always been singer/songwriter/lyricist/guitarist John Darnielle. Their early work is characterised by a low-fi aesthetic; until 2002 their albums were recorded on his Panasonic boom box. Darnielle has always been ridiculously prolific; during his career, he’s recorded and released over 500 songs. But in 2002, he released two albums that are considered his best; All Hail West Texas in February and Tallahassee in November. Tallahassee marked a shift in tone for The Mountain Goats, as all their subsequent albums have been recorded with other band members in a studio.

All Hail West Texas is the last of The Mountain Goats’ lo-fi recordings; in the background of every single song you can hear the whirr of Darnielle’s Panasonic RX-FT500- it’s as much a part of this album as the music itself. In the album’s liner notes Darnielle writes about his boom box:

“… When you’d punch ‘Record’, a large triangular piece of plastic just to the left of the spindles would begin jutting in and out of the view frame, bringing with it a clicking noise whose arrythmic clatter could in no way be incorporated into any songs one might be trying to record on such a low-tech piece of equipment… The results are what you have with you now: the sound of a long-broken machine deciding, on its own and without the interference of repairmen or excessive prayer vigils, to function again. It is a painfully raw sound that can legitimately be thought of as a second performer on these otherwise unaccompanied recordings.”

The hiss of Darnielle’s gradually disintegrating boombox is vital to these recordings; you feel like you’re sitting on the floor of his house and these songs are being sung directly to you. Or perhaps they’ve been recorded live onto a tape just for you to listen to, and nobody else. I’ve always loved lo-fi recordings because there’s a sense of intimacy to them; it almost feels like you’re the only person in the world who’s listening to this music. They’re kind of sloppy and authentic, but there’s a real charm to these songs.

As for the songs themselves- John Darnielle is not a guitar virtuoso. In fact, in one of his songs he jokes about always using the same five chords. He’s got this high-pitched untrained singing voice which is probably not to everyone’s taste- hell, it took me a while to get used to it. But he’s a genius lyricist. I’d say that’s the main appeal of The Mountain Goats; their music is so emotional and cathartic. Who cares if all the songs are simplistic when you’ve got lyrics like “After one long season of waiting, after one long season of wanting, I am breaking open”? Or “We were the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have his eyes on?”? Or “I wish the West Texas Highway was a Mobius strip, I could ride it out forever”?

I relate to this entire album so much. At this point they’ve almost become a part of me. I’ve never properly been in love, and I’ve never had to deal with the aftermath of a failed relationship, but I have spent months in my room staring at the ceiling wondering when I was going to finally start living. I’ve stood on a train platform and said goodbye to my best friend. I’ve sat in someone’s car before and felt kind of safe and free and alive. I’ve found a sense of home in a place that isn’t home. I’ll always carry these things around with me.


I’ll go to work, and I’ll go to sleep, and I’ll love the littler things

I like to think that the title of Mitski’s 2016 album, Puberty 2, is a reference to your 20s. Think about it- your 20s are your second puberty. By the time you hit 21 all the acne, and the hormones, and the constant emotional rollercoaster bullshit should be over, but it’s not. I’d say I’m far more emotionally unstable now that I’m supposed to be a proper adult- being sixteen was a cakewalk compared to this. At least when I was 16 I felt like I had enough time to change the path I was headed down. Now I’m 27 years old and I feel time intensely- it drags, it goes too fast, and I feel like I’m too late for everything. I change my mind about the future fifty times a day and my indecision is starting to weigh so heavily on my mind.

A few months ago I attended my ten-year high school reunion. It was kind of terrifying to be surrounded by people I’d gone to school with- I felt like I was seeing the potential of what my life COULD have been like by now, if only I’d managed to get my shit together in time. My peers are now married, buying houses, having successful careers. What have I done with myself? I got a useless honours degree, lived overseas for a bit and now I work a low-level administrative job in an office. I like my job but it’s not a career and I feel like I’m years behind everyone else. I just don’t know if I’m ever going to really get started at this point. It makes me miss being a kid- at least back then there was the hope that things would get better.

I wrote myself a letter when I was 17, and I only just reread it for the first time. I’d made a list of things I hoped to achieve by the time I was 27- I wanted to be a published author, I wanted to be a journalist. I’ve done absolutely nothing to make this happen. I bet on losing dogs. 

And when you go, take this heart
I’ll make no more use of it when there’s no more you

I spent two years in Japan teaching English, from the ages of 23 to 25. I loved living overseas, but my life there was transient. I was surrounded by the most amazing community of people, but it could never last. I’ve never felt like I fit in here, in my tiny hometown at the edge of an enormous desert, and it was only when I went to Japan that I discovered the home I’d been looking for all along. Then I had to leave it all behind, and I’ve come back to this place, and everything has changed and I feel even less of a connection to people than I did before. I can’t connect with people here. All the people I love are thousands of kilometres away.

And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry

I’m getting completely off topic.

Mitski’s Puberty 2 was released in June of 2016. The entire album brims with melancholy, a barely-disguised anxiety and dissatisfaction that bubbles just under the surface. She constantly sounds on the verge of tears or on the edge of some sort of intense personal revelation; the whole album bubbles with anxiety and dissatisfaction, hidden just under the surface. I feel like she’s nailed some of the dilemmas that come with the modern 20something existence, like a desire for something greater coupled with a need for practicality (I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent/ I wanna see the whole world)

I don’t know. Life just feels so empty nowadays, but Mitski kind of gets it- at the very least she’s not afraid to articulate it. Things are easier than ever- we’re more connected, more educated, living longer lives, free to travel, free to chose what path we go down in life. So why aren’t we happy? (It’s been a long hard twenty-year summer vacation/ All these twenty years trying to fill the void)

I just want to wrap myself up in this album like it’s a blanket, because I find it infinitely comforting- I’m not the only one out there who feels like this, I’m not alone.

Dancing On My Own

I bought a new car a few weeks ago. Well, it’s not exactly new- it’s a 1998 Ford Laser, with peeling green paint and missing hubcaps. Whenever I drive up a hill, the speed drops to 50km/h, even if I’ve got my foot pressed flat to the floor. But despite all these things, I like it. I don’t mind driving a piece of shit because it means people are less likely to park next to me in a crowded carpark, and people don’t tailgate me because they assume I don’t have comprehensive insurance on my 18-year-old car.

The one thing, though- the only major drawback- is the fact that it doesn’t have a CD player. Instead I’m stuck with an ancient tape deck and a radio that isn’t tuned properly. This means I have to listen to commercial radio on my commute to and from work- shit! I don’t exactly have high expectations for the music content on mainstream radio, but I find myself constantly shocked at the sheer amount of shit music they play. I really wish Perth had a dedicated classic rock station which just played music that you can actually drive to, but we don’t, so I usually find myself flipping between Triple J, RTR, and (very reluctantly) 96FM and 94.5.

I don’t tend to listen to a lot of popular music (my tastes tend towards the pretentiously obscure, stuff that isn’t in English, or field recordings of melting glaciers/numbers stations) so I suppose it’s been kind of interesting? having to listen to the kind of stuff that’s deemed popular by Austereo. Most of the time I can tune it out, but a few days ago I heard this one song that just totally rubbed me the wrong way. I’m referring to Calum Scott’s cover of Robyn’s 2010 single “Dancing on my Own”.

Look, it’s probably a bit over the top, but this song infuriates me. I thought I was past that stage in my life where I was deeply, personally offended by covers of songs that I love; nope, they still annoy me. Obviously I haven’t matured much since I was fifteen. I don’t mind covers if they’re interesting, if they’re examining the original from a different perspective, but I just think it can be lazy when singers take a song and just slow it down and sing it over a piano or an acoustic guitar or whatever.

The thing is, though, if you just listen to the lyrics of “Dancing on my Own”, you’ll see that it actually probably suits Scott’s approach. It’s either a song about unrequited love or about a failed relationship, and it can certainly be seen as a last, desperate attempt to numb the pain by dancing your arse off at the club. So, this version isn’t radical or interesting in the slightest; it’s what you’d expect if you’d never heard the song before. It’s the original that flips the narrative of the song on its head and is by far the more interesting version.

Despite the lyrics and content of this song, Robyn makes “Dancing on my Own” into a song about female empowerment, about reclaiming yourself after dealing with a bunch of emotional bullshit. I love this song. I think it’s so relatable- we’ve all been the girl in this song, haven’t we? In spite of the lyrics, this has always struck me as such a hopeful track, like eventually things will get better, you can eventually be reborn while dancing with a hundred other people. Robyn’s a bad bitch- she’s hurting, but she’ll keep going, she’s going to keep dancing. I appreciate her version so much more.

“People have so many expectations when they go out, so many wishes about what their night is going to be: if they’re going to meet that person, have a fun time with their friends, have a good high, hear good music. People get drunk and turn into themselves in a way, and they go to experience some kind of emotion. But it’s not always about fun. There’s a destructive side to it. But I’m more into the empowerment of going out, because it’s always been the place where I could be myself and get inspired. Even if I’m sad, dancing is a way to let stuff out.” – Pitchfork Interview, 2010