By Alec Lindner
Ten years ago Monday, the Mountain Goats, a North Carolina based indie-rock band fronted by and sometimes solely consisting of singer/songwriter John Darnielle, released We Shall All Be Healed, one of their most unloved albums. This cool reception is certainly due in part to the album’s unfortunate chronological placement in the Mountain Goats’ catalogue; the album was proceeded by Tallahassee, a fan favorite that marked the band’s important transition to recording in a traditional studio rather than Darnielle’s famous Panasonic boombox, and followed by The Sunset Tree, an autobiographical album often considered by fans to be the band’s overall finest. However, the album itself is simply an odd outlier compared to the rest of the band’s oeuvre. A semi-fictional chronicle of Darnielle’s youth as a methamphetamine addict, the album is grimier and more jagged than anything else in the Goats’ catalogue. This is not to say the album is necessarily darker than previous efforts; John’s nihilistic proclamation on Healed’s “Palmcorder Yajna” that “if anybody comes into our room while we’re asleep, I hope they incinerate everybody in it” doesn’t beat out Tallahassee’s male protagonist promising his wife that “you are coming down with me, hand in unlovable hand” in terms of sheer abject misery. The difference lies in Healed’s absolute unhingedness. There was at least some meaning behind the actions and lyrics of Darnielle’s previous protagonists; the seven people populating All Hail West Texas were broken, but they were at least making efforts to heal themselves; likewise, Tallahassee’s Alpha Couple may be destroying each other, but at the very least their codependence and dysfunction were based in a recognizable sense of love for each other. The images and characters presented in We Shall All Be Healed are without meaning and without hope; while there are at least recognizable reasons the protagonists in Tallahassee act as they do, Healed presents a scene of pure chaos. Its protagonists have disintegrated to the point where their actions and feelings are no longer comprehensible. The Mountain Goats’ fandom is based largely on its fans’ identification and empathy toward the characters expressed in the band’s songs, and while it’s easy to feel alienated and weird like the teenage subjects of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” or to scream along to Darnielle’s desperate hope for a better future in “This Year,” it is much harder to feel a kinship with a meth addict obsessing over scores of old electrical equipment and forgotten caches of makeup.
Despite the record’s fundamental differences compared to the rest of the Mountain Goats’ catalogue, it represents a significant development and evolution in the band’s sound. Musically, We Shall All Be Healed is the first Mountain Goats record to really take advantage of studio production and instrumental experimentation. While Tallahassee was the first Goats album recorded in studio, it didn’t really need to be recorded there. While Peter Hughes’s thumping bass on “Tallahassee” and Franklin Bruno’s wild electric guitar on “See America Right” were certainly an asset to these tracks, they could have easily been recorded by John solo on his boombox and not really lost much of their power or meaning. We Shall All Be Healed, on the other hand, absolutely depends on its studio production. Darnielle’s boombox recordings could certainly sound ragged, but they could never sound as absolutely nasty as Healed. Just a few seconds after the album kicks off with John’s jangly guitar on “Slow West Vultures,” he’s accompanied by a shrieking, out of tune violin that introduces the album’s chaotic, discordant tone. The song could exist without these strings, but they serve to deepen this tone to a point far beyond anything John could achieve with just his guitar and boombox. The rest of the album makes full use of the opportunities provided by the studio as well. The constant drone and fuzzed-up production on “Palmcorder Yajna” and “Letter from Belgium” communicate just how muddled and distorted their protagonists’ minds have become; later on the album, “Quito” augments this with a string section to great effect, creating a joyous anthem about a man overcoming his demons but subverting it by leaving in the fuzzy distortion to show that his triumphant fantasies are nothing more than something he tells himself to create a false sense of hope about his miserable existence. In contrast with this, Darnielle also uses the clarity afforded by the studio to great effect. It’s much easier to pick out the emotions conveyed by Darnielle’s lyrics in songs like “Your Belgian Things” and especially “Cotton” because of the fidelity of their recordings. Darnielle could have recorded them on his boombox, but some of the pain and hope in his voice would have been lost. And isn’t that really what the Mountain Goats are all about?
We Shall All Be Healed is also notable for being the first Mountain Goats album the content of which Darnielle wrote largely about his life and experiences. One of John Darnielle’s great strengths as a performer and songwriter is his ability to inhabit a wide range of characters in his songs. Darnielle sings from the point of view of schizophrenics, rapists, and Charles Bronson, and what makes these songs work is that he makes them all feel completely autobiographical when he performs them. However, it is always nice to get a look into the mind of our favorite musicians so we can better understand them and their artistic perspectives. Though The Sunset Tree is usually (and rightly) considered Darnielle’s autobiographical masterpiece, We Shall All Be Healed serves as an important prequel by allowing Darnielle to explore the concept of looking at his own life. The album doesn’t feature much in the way of introspection or revelation about Darnielle’s mind or thoughts, as he focuses on his lifestyle more than his exact experiences, but it allows us to at least get a feel for where he’s been in his life. The important exception to this is “Cotton,” a revelatory tale of Darnielle learning to move on from “the stick pins and the cottons” used to desperately squeeze the final vestiges out of a score of heroin. It’s the story of a man who forces himself to give up everything in his life simply because he still has just enough sense to realize he has no time left before he hits the point of no return. The song is a standout on the album because, as well as he can inhabit a wide range of characters, Darnielle finds something unique when he turns his pen toward himself.
We Shall All Be Healed will never be considered the pinnacle of the Mountain Goats’ discography simply because it is an album without motion or climax. Popular favorites like Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree feature characters at their absolute breaking points, running up against each other and reaching dizzying emotional heights. The songs on We Shall All Be Healed, however, don’t reach climaxes like “No Children” or “This Year” because the albums characters hit their climaxes long ago, and they are now lost without any chance of redemption. Despite this, I would put We Shall All Be Healed in my Mountain Goats top five. Very few artists will be able to achieve the sense of absolute hopelessness and misery Darnielle achieves on the album, and even if these usually aren’t desirable qualities, doing something better than everyone else is always good.