John Darnielle in Vancouver.
John Darnielle, leader of the band The Mountain Goats, avid Role Playing Game fan, and death metal devotee, released his first novel in 2014, though he has been telling stories for a while now. Folk rock, indie rock, lo-fi; However you want to define them, The Mountain Goats have been telling stories as dense as novels since their first full length album, Zopilote Machine, came out in 1994. Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester, came out this February.
Darnielle grew up on “Johnson Avenue in San Luis Obispo,” as he sings on “Dance Music,” a track on his autobiographical 2005 album The Sunset Tree. The album traces his childhood in southern California with an abusive stepfather. Some songs sketch this trauma directly while others merely evoke a general mood of frustration or foreboding. A common thread, though, is escapism through entertainment. “Dance Music” has a five-year-old Darnielle hiding in his room discovering what “the volume knob’s for” as a fight ensues downstairs; in “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” an older Darnielle puts on his headphones to enter a “dream chamber”; “This Year” shows his high school-aged self losing himself in video games.
It is easy to imagine, then, how Darnielle’s concise yet complex three-minute narrative songs functioned as miniature dry runs for his novels today. His songs and books share literal similarities too, as his first novel was also a tale of escapism through video games. Wolf in White Van, longlisted for the National Book Award in 2014, follows a comic book-loving game designer who seeks to deeply envelop himself in fantasy worlds in order to distract himself from a traumatic incident.
All of Darnielle’s albums deal with these same themes, perhaps to the point of repetitiveness. Another one of these commonalities is the settings of the American South and West, which Darnielle portrays with the romantic reverence of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor (both of whom he regularly cites as influences). For example, the album All Hail West Texas explores the ethos of those living in that vast stretch of empty desert. The album Tallahassee is in essence a Southern Gothic about a rocky relationship in Florida. His most recent album, Beat the Champ, came out in 2015 and creatively uses professional wrestling fandom in the Southwest as a lens to explore – you guessed it – escapism through entertainment, among other things.
His most recent novel, Universal Harvester, mimics this pattern almost exactly; set in the town of Nevada, Iowa, it tells the story of a lonely video store clerk who tries to discover why a series of disturbing video clips have been spliced into some of the store’s VHS tapes. Of course, the book is really less about this peculiar mystery and more about that same rural despair to which all Darnielle’s work always returns. His prose is sparse and unpretentious, and it sounds phenomenal when read aloud; the same foot-tapping language that animates the Mountain Goats’ anthems is clearly audible. Like his music, too, the book emphasizes the subjective and the telling personal detail, which are the backbone of his songwriting and why The New Yorker christened him “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.” Echoes of his music abound when he’s writing novels, just as his song lyrics contain multitudes.
In addition, Darnielle has had a third medium for lyrical expression: his now defunct blog. The blog, titled “Last Plane to Jakarta,” hosted anything from questions from fans to poems to unclassifiable prose and allowed him to write things in the moment and without self-scrutiny, while still honing his storytelling ability.
This year the Mountain Goats will release a new album, Goths, which promises to be classic misanthropic and morose Darnielle at his best. It will also be the group’s first album not to feature guitars, a signature instrument for them; one hopes that a welcome reinvention of all the band’s usual tropes is in the works. Darnielle will surely be an artist to treasure and watch in the coming years. Having distinguished himself in music and fiction, it would not be surprising if he went on to experiment with and succeed in many more artistic mediums. Until then, we will just have to enjoy his current oeuvre of literary songs and lyrical novels.