The Mountain Goats are, for all practical purposes, the endlessly clever and prolific John Darnielle and whomever he chooses to work with at the moment, which means the sound may change from project to project, but the overall tone and feel of his work remains remarkably consistent. Darnielle writes finely observed, impressionistic vignettes that blend a clear, realistic sense of detail with mildly surreal imaginings, giving his work a literary flavor that suits his status as a songwriter who is also a successful novelist. His early Mountain Goats releases were lo-fi, cassette-recorded efforts cut with a rotating cast of musicians, such as 1995′s Nine Black Poppies and 2000′s The Coroner's Gambit. By 2005′s The Sunset Tree, his recordings had become cleaner and less cluttered, but his character studies were just as vivid. As the Mountain Goats cohered into a stable lineup (with Darnielle joined by Peter Hughes, Matt Douglas, and Jon Wurster), they recorded tuneful, thematically unified albums such as Beat the Champ (2015) and Bleed Out (2022) that ranked with their finest work.
Taking the name from the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song “Big Yellow Coat,” Darnielle first donned the Mountain Goats moniker in 1991 while working as a nurse in a California state hospital, and he began releasing cassette-only albums for the Shrimper label. Despite attracting a devoted underground following (or, possibly, because of it), the Mountain Goats continued to release songs in cassette form only for many years, virtually using tape hiss as an additional instrument. Besides innumerable compilation tracks, the Mountain Goats have also released many 7” singles for over a dozen labels. Their full-length albums include Nine Black Poppies and Zopilote Machine (both released in 1995), Sweden (1996), Full Force Galesburg (1997), and Nothing for Juice (1997). Protein Source of the Future...NOW!, and Bitter Melon Farm (both 1999 releases) collected many early tape tracks and singles.
Darnielle began the new millennium with The Coroner's Gambit for Absolutely Kosher before signing to 4AD for the release of the surprisingly polished Tallahassee in 2002. We Shall All Be Healed followed in 2004, and one year later, Darnielle was back with The Sunset Tree. Remaining as prolific as ever, he turned away from the intensity of The Sunset Tree for a calmer, more reflective set of songs on 2006′s Get Lonely. The accessible and assured Heretic Pride appeared in 2008. Next up was the Bible verse-inspired The Life of the World to Come, the group’s sixth album for 4AD, in 2010. Switching to Merge Records in 2011, Darnielle released All Eternals Deck, which was recorded in four different studios in Brooklyn, Boston, North Carolina, and Florida with four different producers — John Congleton, Scott Solter, Brandon Eggleston, and Morbid Angel guitarist and Hate Eternal frontman Erik Rutan — helming various tracks. That year, the band were also handpicked by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel to perform at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival that he was curating in Minehead, England, but they were ultimately unable to appear due to scheduling issues.
In 2012, a reissue collecting long out-of-print Mountain Goats cassettes surfaced on Shrimper. The set gathered 1992′s The Hound Chronicles and 1993′s Hot Garden Stomp. Following the release of 2012′s dark Transcendental Youth, Darnielle shifted his focus to raising his young family and publishing his debut novel, Wolf in White Van. His subsequent return to recording came in the form of 2015′s Beat the Champ, a collection of songs about professional wrestling. In 2017, Darnielle kept himself busy with the release of recording and publishing projects: a concept album from the Mountain Goats titled Goths, and a novel, Universal Harvester. Another of Darnielle’s youthful obsessions, multiplayer role-playing games, informed his next set of incisive character studies, 2019′s In League with Dragons.
The Mountain Goats’ plans for touring in 2020 were scuttled due to the COVID-19 pandemic; in response, to help the group’s crew and accompanists recover some of their lost income, Darnielle wrote and released Songs for Pierre Chuvin in March 2020. Its ten songs were recorded using the same boombox he used for his early lo-fi releases, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. The full-band edition of the Mountain Goats returned in October 2020 with Getting into Knives, a sleek and tuneful effort that was recorded in Memphis shortly before the pandemic lockdown went into effect. Released in June 2021, Dark in Here would be the Mountain Goats’ third release in less than a year-and-a-half; recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, it featured keyboard work from the legendary songwriter and producer Spooner Oldham.
In January 2022, Darnielle published his third novel, Devil House, a thriller about a true crime writer who gets more than he bargained for when he’s invited to spend time at a house where a infamous murder took place. For the audiobook edition, Darnielle and his Mountain Goats bandmate Matt Douglas composed original music to accompany the narration. It wasn’t long after the book came out that Darnielle started work on the next Mountain Goats album. A collection of songs about getting even and the consequences of bad behavior informed by crime films of the 1970s and ’80s, Bleed Out was produced by Alicia Bognanno of the band Bully, who also played guitar and keyboards on the sessions. The album was released on Merge in August 2022. ~ Mark Deming & Steve Legget