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.