Somewhere buried deep beneath Pennypacker Hall, in the coffins of WHRB’s Record Hospital, sits a compact disc without liner notes; they fell out long ago. Now white labels cover the case, with the scrawling of many hands over every square inch. The record is Zopilote Machine by the Mountain Goats, and the writing logs every date and time a Record Hospital disc jockey experienced a moment of epiphany listening to the soaring “Going To Georgia”—to this day the most powerful song in the Goats’ prolific catalog.
Almost a decade later, the Mountain Goats are one album deep into the second phase of their career, signed to 4AD Records and with a little less of the DIY power that lent their longs such urgency back then. While 2002’s stunning Tallahassee finally made the Mountain Goats’ incomparable songwriting accessible, on the recently-released We Shall All Be Healed, songwriter John Darnielle tiredly rehashes concepts, playing the same guitar lines he’s stuck to his entire musical career. And though every old-time Mountain Goats fan will want to blame the professional major-label recording, this lackluster release’s flaws have nothing to do with that.
The problem is that there’s nothing new here. John Darnielle strums at ferocious speed, making a vaguely unsettling rhythm that refuses to cease its presence in these songs. It’s always there, churning and beating. Moments of departure, like the scattered piano bits and rare lead guitar, make such a difference that it’s disappointing when most songs offer nothing more than furious rhythm guitar. “Linda Blair Was Born Innocent,” the single exception, is a harmonious blend of single-note guitar plucks and a sweeping violin behind lyrics that have nothing to do with The Exorcist.
The Mountain Goats’ lyrics have always been their strong point, making up for the fact that the singer can’t sing or play guitar very well. But poetic lyricism is absent on We Shall—the ultimate tragedy of the album. Darnielle’s poetry suffers from a lack of any coherence; it’s unclear by the end whether this is supposed to be a concept album or not. Some images recur (cargo ships in a harbor, broken electrical equipment, unearthed specters) but add up to nothing. Darnielle’s Homeric similes of albums past are gone, and the only extended metaphor—“I am a mole,” from the song “Mole”—fails to make parallels beyond a loose association to the mole’s shy peeking out from underground.
Like Stereolab’s recent Margerine Eclipse, We Shall All Be Healed is an example of a great band refusing to go any farther than their long-stayed course. There’s nothing particularly bad on the album, so for one unacquainted with the Goats, it represents them well. But considering their prolific and prodigious output, this release of rehashed songs and half-developed concepts seems nothing more than a sad tear-jerking waste.
—Christopher A. Kukstis