Review | the Mountain Goats - Songs For Pierre Chuvin
An unexpected return to extreme lo-fi recording sees the Mountain Goats stripped down to the basics.
In 2002, John Darnielle released All Hail West Texas, his sixth studio album under the moniker of the Mountain Goats. Like most of the band’s (Darnielle has, over the years, been accompanied by a shifting line-up of various other musicians, although both music recorded as a group and solely by Darnielle himself is collectively referred to as the Mountain Goats) earlier material, All Hail West Texas was recorded entirely on a Panasonic boombox which, at this point, had degraded in sound quality to the point where the humming and whirring of its tape in the background of these recordings is unmissable.
All Hail West Texas can be said to mark the end of the first era of the band - marked by extremely lo-fi recordings, mostly just of Darnielle’s strummed acoustic guitar and vocals. Later that same year, the second era began with Tallahassee, which began an extraordinary run of albums which kept Darnielle’s trademark sound - cryptic yet emotional lyricism set to simple, infectious song structures - yet transported the recording to the modern studio, and fleshed it out with added instrumentation. Although die-hard fans often express a preference for the band’s ‘90s lo-fi era, the ‘00s brought an increase in both commercial success and critical recognition, with albums like We Shall All Be Healed and The Sunset Tree displaying incredible songwriting that was emotionally devastating yet often bouncy and tuneful enough for tracks to sit comfortably on playlists alongside the most successful of the American indie rock acts of the era.
Fast-forward to 2020, and we don’t need Darnielle’s Bandcamp liner notes to remind us that the world is now “a very different place”. The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent social distancing have put a sudden, upsetting halt to almost every aspect of life, including music. The full band’s studio rehearsals, abandoned for the foreseeable future, led Darnielle to return to a relic of the past - his long-abandoned boombox. From the comfort and captivity of his own North Carolina home, Darnielle “wrote a song every day for the next ten days while reading (Pierre Chuvin’s history of the defeated opponents of Christianity in the Roman Empire) A Chronicle of the Last Pagans”. This is not the first time Darnielle has written an album about such a specific subject - 2015’s Beat the Champ explored themes of nostalgia, struggle and aging through the world of professional wrestling, 2017’s Goths explored the same themes applied to the topic of goth-rock bands, and 2019’s In League With Dragons carried this tradition to a fantasy-inspired setting.
Although the small-town troubles of All Hail West Texas’ downtrodden heroes, the relationship struggles and battles with addiction detailed in Tallahassee and We Shall All Be Healed, and The Sunset Tree’s unflinching autobiographical tales of childhood provide the most essential and emotionally resonant moments of the band’s repertoire, there is no denying that the most recent few albums’ specificity of subject matter was balanced by Darnielle’s skill at expressing relatable sentiments. On Songs For Pierre Chuvin, the fine line between alienating and engaging is frequently straddled - “Last Gasp at Calama” is just one of many tracks that features both highly specific historical references (“Carthage will rise again one day”) with fantastically witty and likable nods to mythology (“Let he who’s without sin throw the first one like you said / Let anyone else throw the second, as long as it connects with your head”).
While I undeniably prefer the band’s more kitchen-sink stories (Darnielle is a fantastic storyteller, whether in song or novel form) to their tales of dragons, wrestlers, and ancient Rome, Songs For Pierre Chuvin keeps the band’s trademark forward momentum and nervous energy, in songs that manage to sound full-bodied and powerful despite the extremely lo-fi recordings. Darnielle’s Catholicism has always been apparent in his propensity for inspiring (if vague) declarations of future salvation after troubled times - on “Until Olympius Returns” he declares, in his trademark nasal tones, that “this is just a momentary ripple in the stream”. The listener gets the sense that Darnielle is not just singing about pagans here, but some upheaval to life that may be more familiar (I wonder what that could be?).
Although every song is sparse, built around just guitar and vocal (with the exception of “The Wooded Hills Along the Black Sea”, which effectively evokes Twin Peaks and 1960s sci-fi-fi soundtracks with its eerie synth tones, yet suffers from an unmemorable vocal melody and abrupt ending), the songwriting is generally very strong, with tracks like “For the Snakes” and “January 31, 438” showcasing particularly infectious melodies and emotive vocal performances. The latter features some of the best lines on the album, with the striking imagery of “skin and bones around a campfire beneath the stars”, and the spirited defiance of “if they come catch me and arrest me, mid-step / let me go down dancing, let me be the last one left”. It is these moments where the Mountain Goats come into their own, where Darnielle’s writing makes these humble home recordings sound positively triumphant.
Snippets of speech left between songs lend the album a comforting feel that pleasantly juxtaposes against the grandiosity of its historical themes, making the listener feel almost as if they are in Darnielle’s home, or listening to a recording he has made just for them:
Hey, I'm totally in the full heat of this one, so I haven't bothered to tune, so I'm not at 4-40 here. I don't know what to tell you. I'm in G, anyway, if anybody's taking notes.
The album loses its way a little towards the end, with “Hopeful Assassins of Zeno” and “Their Gods Do Not Have Surgeons” suffering a little from the lack of instrumental layers (in different circumstances, more lyrically and vocally fragmented tracks such as these would have most likely been fleshed out a little by added strings, keys, and / or percussion), although the latter does contain some stunning poeticism - “they came like beasts who’d tasted blood / first a few and then the flood”.
Songs For Pierre Chuvin ends on such a high note that any gripes with earlier tracks are forgotten. The final - and best - track, “Exegetic Chains”, uses the practical limitations of its recording circumstances to its advantage, sounding beautifully brittle. The Mountain Goats have always been best at understated expressions of hope against crushing odds - perhaps the reason the band has built such a devoted cult following over the last three decades. “Exegetic Chains” demonstrates a cautious optimism that “change will come”, and that the narrator is “headed somewhere better, if I have to crawl there on all fours”.
Although this album was inspired by the true history of the pagans defeated by the forces of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Darnielle’s writing has always used analogy and comparison between past and present, myth and reality to evoke universal emotional themes unspecific to time and place. This self-referential final track acknowledges this - lyrically referencing the importance of stories to help us through uncertain times, as well as callbacks to earlier Mountain Goats songs such as “This Year”. The message of fragile yet undying hope that Songs for Pierre Chuvin leaves us with, over a gorgeously simple plucked guitar pattern, is just as applicable to the dark days that we are currently muddling our way through as it is to any tales from past millennia.
Best tracks: For the Snakes, January 31, 438, Exegetic Chains
Worst track: Hopeful Assassins of Zeno