Reviewing and Re-encountering the Mountain Goats
I have started, in countless discussions of and writings about my favourite band, with the first listening. First song, when, where, and the trajectory thereafter. This time I will, instead, start with the last listening. Not the definitive last, I’m not that morbidly dramatic, but the most recent. It was a few hours ago – a song I hadn’t heard in some time but which suits the weather perfectly. It’s bright and chilly, and so are the upper guitar strings in the Mountain Goats’ ‘Going to Reykjavik’. I’ve been focused on other things since, like the new St. Vincent and finally getting around to listening to The New Pornographers’ Whiteout Conditions, released a whole nine months ago. It’s been a busy year and my indie cred is lagging behind. But it’s nice to pluck a song from thin air (or your Spotify library) so suited to the day you’re having, or the one you’d like to have. There’s something also about listening to recorded music in the wake of a live show and feeling your heart speed up a bit with the memory of queueing, neck-aching, lights-dimming anticipation. The recent past gets a little tangled up in your ears and your present.
For the past few years, I’ve mostly avoided going to gigs in big venues. Not due to any pretentious abandonment of my favourite artists once they’ve ‘made it’ or, more pessimistically, ‘sold out’, but because I just don’t enjoy the architecture of largeness when it comes to live music. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and isn’t something I’d even necessarily stand by when it comes to, say, Beyoncé. If I could afford a Beyoncé show, trust me, I’d be 500 rows back and sobbing. But there is not much I find more soothing than the structural embrace of beer-sticky floors, broken toilet doors adorned with Sharpie, and the fossilised layers of band stickers peeling from every surface. It’s not the exclusivity of being at a show, in those shabby rooms, with only 300 people, but the comfort in it.
The Mountain Goats are a band about whom it is ridiculous to be exclusive or possessive or superior. You could, if you wanted, be that way when it comes to One Direction. You’d be a dick, and any quantified measure of musical experience is a silly and classist thing, but it’s possible to hear every song in their release history and track down the unreleased songs, the live versions, the demos. It is not in anybody’s power to travel back to the inception of the Mountain Goats and immortalize for personal curation every song to have made its way through the innards of John Darnielle’s Casio. This is a band about which it is fun to be cultish, and impossible to ‘win.’ I go over this to emphasise how much I don’t mean that ‘small venues are better because fewer people are there and something something about devaluation through wider access or something something supply and demand.’
“the Mountain Goats are a band about whom it is ridiculous to be exclusive or possessive or superior.”
So, I saw the Mountain Goats twice on the UK leg of this tour, two nights in a row. I saw them most recently in Brighton, in a small capacity venue, with an early curfew and so a fairly abrupt finish. It was beautiful, I cried, some of my favourite people in the world were with me. When the support, Skylar Gudasz (whose songs ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘Play Nice’ have been stuck in my head for days – she’s great, check her out), had a capo malfunction, we sourced a pencil and hairbands so she could finish her set. That’s the kind of intimacy I crave in a small show – not that it’s my deepest desire to help with tech troubles, but the fact that I could, that there isn’t a barrier there other than that borne of respect, humanises and warms.
Here’s the twist: I adored the London show maybe just as much. Quite unexpectedly, this band, whose live music I’ve come to associate with an abundance of feelings overflowing in small places, filled Shepherd’s Bush Empire to the brim and again with the first encore and oh so very much again with the second. It’s not a stadium, this venue, but it’s not my favourite grubby bar featuring my third favourite back-of-the-toilet-door Mooncup debate either. That warmth I mentioned, the kind which emanates from and towards the stage at smaller capacity gigs, checked its bag into the cloakroom and rocked up in merch. It was there in purest form with every smile on Darnielle’s face, each moment of unmediated enthusiasm, and all those ‘I can’t believe this is my life’ glances towards Matt Douglas, the band’s ‘current multi-instrumentalist’, or the two local backing singers he invited to the stage for ‘Wear Black’ and ‘We Do It Different on the West Coast’. the Mountain Goats made the architecture of largeness small and kind to me.
I haven’t decided what the next song I listen to will be, whether it’ll be the reflection of a current mood or the leaning towards a desired one. There are, of course, so many to choose from. I’ve been thinking about how intimidating the Mountain Goats’ discography seems, and how I go about recommending them to friends. To view their music as a task, or something to consume, aiming to work your way through it systematically, is one way to do it. I won’t knock that way, for sure. But I think this music resists completion, not only because none of us will ever hear all of it. There is a largeness here too which I was once suspicious of, but whatever it was in the atmosphere that made Shepherd’s Bush Empire feel like the Camden Barfly (may it Rest in Peace) exists in the music itself. It makes itself, expansive and communal in essence, fit into the small places. It curls up and rests in you, and allows you to do the same. •