Mountain Goats

“You just show up and play as hard as you can. Whether you’re playing for one person or a thousand people you try to bring the same intensity,” said John Darnielle, who has steadily released thirteen albums under the moniker Mountain Goats over the course of twenty years. In those two decades the singer and songwriter has seen his musical project grow from a cult favorite to broad popular acceptance; The New Yorker magazine famously called him America’s “non hip hop lyricist,” and featured in Time Magazine. Friday, October 19, he’ll return to Ithaca for a show at the Haunt; tickets are $17.50 in advance, and $20 at the door.

Darnielle’s songs, initially recorded with technology so rudimentary that a hissing tape noise contended with the singer’s reedy voice, are delivered with the conviction and sense of urgency rarely heard in any musical genre, especially folk. His new record, Transcendental Youth, “is full of songs about people who madly, stupidly, blessedly won’t stop surviving, no matter who gives up on them.”

“To some extent there are people setting it up this up for me,” Darnielle noted. “I am kind of like a child in a way, and I try to focus on making stuff and doing stuff. To some extent there is validation, and I really do appreciate that there are people on Twitter telling me that something made my day. I think when I was a lot younger the size of the person mattered [whether it was Time Magazine or Spin], but we are at a point in history that someone can tell you how your music makes me feel.”

Darnielle belongs to a camp whose members include authors Dave Eggers and the late David Foster Wallace, indie rock musicians like the Decembrists, Josh Ritter, and Andrew Bird, and visual artists like Matthew Barney. The height of the Lit Pop movement on paper occurred in the late 90s, when (predominantly) young, white men looked around, decided that they were the most interesting people in the room, and ran with it. It’s no surprise that the movement filtered down to popular music; the Mountain Goats’ success is due in large part to the fact that they transfer this hyper-intellectualism to a pop song format. Unlike most popular contemporary bands, the Mountain Goats doesn’t so much rock as reflect.

One should not confuse self-regarding with self-indulgent. Wallace’s stories may be overloaded with information – but no one would confuse them with autobiography. Darnielle voice, like few others in the indie rock world, adeptly blurs the line between the author and narrator. If his lyrics echo Morrissey’s structure and approach, his voice also matches Morrissey’s in providing the motivation. His vocal delivery is emotional, if not emo – and as a result is a compelling listen.

And lately the Mountain Goats really rock. Now a trio comprising Darnielle, longtime bassist Peter Hughes, and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, Transcendental Youth even features a horn section. In addition to a full tour schedule, Darnielle is an active commentator, fundraiser, and general good citizen. He’s been a strong advocate for two local causes – both Farm Sanctuary, located in Watkins Glen, and independent bookstores – sharing something on his Twitter feed about Buffalo Street Books last year. “There is that feeling that when more people hear you when you speak, you have an obligation to speak more often. But I try not to over-think it.”

Asked about other lyricists, Darnielle admitted to not being current in hip hop, but praised “Ghostface [who] does something for poetry nerds like me.” He praised Mary Chapin Carpenter, who recently stopped by Ithaca as well, but noted that with lyrics “I had this [negative] image of ‘70s acoustic guitar music – [and actually] it is a lot better. This image of guy sharing his feelings, but if you think of James Taylor for instance, doesn’t sound like you think it does.”

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