“This song is about verb tenses.” John Darnielle, the leader of The Mountain Goats, took to the stage at the House of Blues in Boston on Oct. 18 to the resounding cheers of the grammar geeks and lonely hearts in the audience. “You all know the phrase, ‘Live to fight another day?’” Darnielle went on to explain that while the point of the cliché is that a person will persevere into tomorrow, he views it more antagonistically: “You will live to fight. What will you fight? Another day!”
It was an appropriate introduction for an artist with such remarkable lyrical chops. In 2005, the New Yorker billed Darnielle as “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist,” and this description has a vast ocean of musical evidence to support it. His songs are short, usually only two to four minutes, and pack emotional punches whose raw yearning and unapologetic darkness are nearly tangible. From his beginnings as a college student in Southern California doing home recordings on a boom box, Darnielle has put out 14 albums, as well as countless songs and singles, many of which are either extremely rare or lost altogether. His songs have a unique style that can best described as manic—the lyrics are complex, profound, and nearly busting through the seams of the spare guitar chords that usually hold them together.
Darnielle’s work is full of bitter longing punctuated by moments of pure, almost painfully sharp joy. In his song “Broom People” from his 2005 autobiographical album “The Sunset Tree,” he describes a depressing home environment—“White carpet thick with cat hair / Half eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer”—before going on to add his own self-consciously bald despair: “I write down good reasons to freeze to death / In my spiral ring notebook.” He answers this decidedly dark and grimy reality with a yelp of desperate love: “But in the long tresses of your hair / I am a babbling brook.” In this last moment of alliterative romance, Darnielle’s voice seems to unhinge itself from reality, breaking into a forceful, lingering cry that stays with listeners long past the song’s ending. And indeed, when Darnielle performed “Broom People” on Thursday night, the final line of the song brought forth raucous cries of empathy from the audience.
The audience at the House of Blues on Thursday night was populated by deeply devoted listeners of Darnielle’s canon. Most of the concert was more of a feverish singalong between Darnielle and the audience as opposed to a straight performance. When Darnielle played one of his most famous songs, the stunning “This Year,” the crowd became nearly electric, bouncing off one another as they shouted along to the anthemic chorus, “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.”
For all the honest tragedy and grueling depression that Darnielle sings about, his stage presence was shockingly upbeat. As he shouted about failed marriages and satanic worship, Darnielle heel kicked across the stage with a wicked grin reminiscent of the quintessential bad boy in teen comedies. In the rare moments where his smile fell away, Darnielle’s energy certainly didn’t flag—instead, he would enter a kind of seizing, full-body shake that made his jaw look as if it was about to drop from his face.
Darnielle’s performance of “Up the Wolves,” also from “The Sunset Tree,” captured the energy of the concert as a whole in a few short, intense minutes. As Darnielle launched into his powerful, heart-clenching lyrics, “I’m gonna bribe the officials / I’m gonna kill all the judges / It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage,” the audience shouted, shook, and fist-pumped along with him. Thursday’s show took Darnielle’s audience on a trip through tragedy, pain, and sickness, without ever losing view of the fact that, at least for The Mountain Goats, there is always value in continuing to fight.
—Staff writer Sorrel Nielsen can be reached at email@example.com.