Tracking live is like that. You’re actually hearing something which actually happened. 1

This is a song I declined to release. I had people say, ‘please, people want to hear that song.’ I say ‘yeah, but it’s better live, it’s better live, it’s better live.’ And they go, ‘Yes, but people would like to hear it.’ ‘It’s - it’s better live.’”

I was writing these poems… but… nobody wanted to read any poems. You show up, you show up with your poems, people, they’re “busy”, they “have a thing to do”. But if you’re writing poems, probably like, [you’d] like some attention for these poems - it’s why I write them, because I need attention. So I started setting them to music, and then they seemed less offensive then…

The music for the song was improvised during the only time it was performed live,

8 to 20 On a Weapons Charge is a bonus track from 1 copy of Taking the Dative… YouTube user DoctorSinatra discovered [Like A Bullet] on a “beat up old cassette” he found, where it was the only song on the tape salvageable.

John has repeatedly threatened on social media that when he dies, all his notebooks and tapes and hard drives die with him. Very conservatively, there’s probably 100-200 songs floating around John’s office that could be considered more or less finished.

They were all in Nall’s closet but Nall burnt those tapes years ago.

let fiction be fiction

Reality has a lot of lore. But not enough, so we make more. The world of the Mountain Goats is a world entire, with lost civilizations and frightening violence and opinions about little truck stops outside Gothenburg and that sort of thing. It has a history and a historiography.

Many of my tasteful friends disdain even his softer hi-fi work, and some of my tasteless friends are much enamoured of the whole lot. 6 Just like anyone, I cannot rule out that I like it because I’ve put a lot of work into it.

There’s just a lot to it. He has a lot to say, a lot to remember. He does a dozen interviews a year, and I watch em all, and he remains full of new stories, recommendations, enthusiasms and disgusts. He writes where others only output text.

You’d think that writing this post makes me some kind of superfan but I think I am not. (I only ever bought the CDs.) A real fan wouldn’t write this post or concoct this data. I’m past all that.

It’s impossible to be the Darnielle completist I am. On top of the maybe 400 commercial objects are way more than 400 tracks of arcana: a completed unreleased album, three dozen online-only ephemeral downloads, a hundred covers, a hundred live-only bootleg-only songs, 48 known “missing” songs, songs with no attestation but a title or a verse, and who knows how many more we couldn’t snatch from him out of the air. Thirteen songs are actively disowned and he asks you not to listen; one or two are deprecated for feminist reasons. Some of his best have been performed exactly once and probably never again. 3

You could view this as ingenious marketing (artificial scarcity and artificial grandeur) except most people don’t know and don’t care about the great obscure half of him.

Because I am heathen born I decided to go through everything, B sides, deep cuts, no-cuts. (One hair-raising fact is that 4 fansites have done what I am doing and all of them are dead.)

How do we know these songs ever existed if he never played them live?

My emotions are hopelessly tied up with the first eleven Mountain Goats albums, but I will try to explain as if that were not true. Lyrically, he is one of the few psychological realists in rock music, i.e. like Zola or Hamsun or Henry James - but, musically, draws power directly from banality and pop culture - TV theme melodies, self-help platitudes, 80s metal and the Satanic Panic. This was also Talking Heads’ claim to art.

my interest is in really evoking place, proceeding from there. So when I write about, say, a video store in southern California in the early '90s, I call the place Cinema Video — because I knew a Cinema Video in my town and that was the style in naming these mom-and-pop video stores — nothing really fancy, something sort of placeholdery. Which was different in different parts of the country, which is interesting and evocative to me! I specify in the hopes of drawing people into a vision, so I look at street names and native flora and fauna and so on, trying to make everything vivid and visible.

I have always had a sort of religious awe of geography… For whatever reason, towns that I don’t know anything about, I don’t know where they are, what country they’re in, it’s just the sounds of the words, combined with the knowledge that that refers to some place, that have always rung like a bell being struck in in my head. Like ‘Ah! Belize!’ But I couldn’t find Belize on a map to save my soul.

I’ve been to Crete [Greece] and seen the Cretan [mountain goats], and they can climb these walls and they can cling to the walls like they’re spiders. But also, every year, many of them die from misjudging a gap that they think they can jump, and then down they plunge. And I thought, ‘Well this is hubris.’

Sheer breadth of reference

I’m really attracted to things once they have have passed their sell-by date, you know, people, and their careers

Once you're no longer in the day job, you don't know what's going on with people... Even if you're not a hermit, you're talking to people as an observer, and an observer can never know what a participant can know... I seemed to have less to say... If a writer disengages from people at large, his ability to describe the behaviour of people is going to suffer. 4

I pride myself on the breadth and scrappiness of my life course. I’ve lived in 11 countries for at least a couple months. I have arts and science and opinions on Malebranche and people like that. I worked 40 jobs, waiting tables and calculating the state of a whole nation and coding in bonds in the belly of a Fortune 100.

But you and I are not like John. We haven’t slept in jail, got into and quit meth, watched our rentboy friends die, nearly died half a dozen times ourselves. We haven’t put together a lounge band. We feel for the methheads but not like this. We have no pangs. The good things in our lives are just good things and not miracles. 11

I go to church, but I don’t have the faith of the people there. So it’s weird, because if people get stuck in a conversation with you, you don’t want to say, “I’m kind of on the outside here.” It’s interesting… I go to church as often as I can, but I will also go to ISKCON Centers and chant Hare Krishna. I like feeling part of an ecclesiastical body. I like feeling that feeling of faith community. I like being around it. I like being able to catch some of the energy, whatever I can or can’t believe.

It’s literary pop music, in the sense of closely observed and emotionally sophisticated. He’s an ex-con. Recovered junkie. Quasi-Christian. English major / classicist lifelong-learner type. Late bloomer. Metalhead. Dad. MTG nerd. Twitter liberal. Strong opinions about contemporary French translation.

Things he has some scholarly grasp of:

  • Latin grammar
  • Exegetic Chains
  • Black Sabbath
  • Chaucer 10
  • Early years education
  • The emotional side of Hinduism
  • The original wave of Dungeons and Dragons and the Satanic Panic
  • American professional wrestling in its regional days (NWA, UWF, AWA) before corporatization
  • The lo-fi and cassette scene (Inland Empire etc) (1988-1999)
  • The folk history of North Carolina
  • The nursing of juveniles involuntarily committed to mental institutions
  • Ancient history and dark age Europe
    • in re the Christianisation of the pagans of Greece and the Balkans

His keynote is outcasts, the equivalence of heretics and scapegoats, speedfreaks and metalheads in rural Christian towns. Heretics and lost souls is his theme despite his own deep vibing with Christianity!! Songs for Pierre Chuvin is about Christianity destroying paganism in deeply unchristian brutality. 5

Why be obscure?

there’s a sense in which if you know everything about your work while you’re doing it, then it’s probably not very interesting work. It needs to in some ways be obscure to you. You have to be trying to chase something that you can’t quite get.

This digitization of ephemera preserves the work but destroys its transience.

there was once a third tape… but I threw a temper tantrum one day years later and pitched it into the garbage, which I’d almost regret doing, except that the idea of lost and unrecoverable work has this dumb romantic appeal to me, so when I think of that tape off in oblivion somewhere, rotting away, I get the sort of moony-eyed stupid look on my face that is the exclusive domain of dumb romantics. Naturally, there’s also more dumb romantic appeal for me in the degradation of original sources. I can’t help it.

I combed through the stuff I have that’s on two of the computers in this house and I got seven demos for you. One or two of them haven’t been released in any form I think. I don’t know though. I don’t keep such good track of what has or hasn’t been released. Anyhow, these are just my way of saying how sorry I did not get to see you this month… Dudes who like to crosspost stuff from this forum to another/on your lj/etc etc, I wish you wouldn’t, I can’t stop you, there I’ve said my piece.

There are many, many Mountain Goats songs that were never intended for everyone (or in many cases, anyone) to hear. With newer material, this is generally because John Darnielle has an affinity for ephemera, placing cast-off tracks inside art magazines curated by friends, audiobooks that he doesn’t expect most fans of the band to simply happen across, or concerts where taping is discouraged prior to play. He doesn’t announce or discuss these things publicly specifically because they’re meant to be found at random, a special surprise for the Mountain Goats fan who happens to be in the right place at the right time. For these works, wide public availability of a track spoils the intent of its careful placement. That’s not to say that John will come after anybody for posting a track on YouTube, but it’s the sort of thing that is meant to be enjoyed in a different way.

my heart belongs to Ennius, and to Calvus, and to those writers of whom only a few lines survive.

Completism like this post is out of keeping. Darnielle likes lost arcana and transience so much that he systematically manufactures it. 7 I am imposing a system on something which he has repeatedly and very explicitly tried to keep unsystematic and oddly private (for a guy with say 10 million streams a year).

THING IS THOUGH he is extremely familiar with and in recovery from the fan mindset, the speedfreak alphabetization.

So I shouldn’t dismiss his hostility to catalogues and nosiness. The line between something being a thought and an artefact is now fiercely thin. We lay claim to his thoughts. We harvest the time-bound flower and freeze it, chain it to our phones. He sometimes takes some of them back.

We don’t even need to push a cynical line about scarce things being more desirable. It’s just an honest rare aesthetic: the public artist who wants some things to be private and then die.

I’m often happy when things that have run their course are gone; it’s satisfying to me. Nothing is allowed to just go away any more; the archival nature of the web means if you make something, you’re consenting to its decontextualization and reuse forever. Things that exist for a season and are gone are some of the loveliest things in the world, in my opinion; few share that opinion now, but that’s ok, too.

the internet’s transformation of old-school tape trading ethics into a rabid rarities hunt has meant that the old forums, Twitter, and other outlets were polluted constantly by people asking John or the community around him for links to tracks they didn’t yet have. These people generally had very little interaction otherwise with the community: they’d create a forum account, post a thread asking for links to downloads, and would never be heard from again. This turned John’s curated conversation spaces (which began in the 90s with letters and emails before morphing into the forums) into much more stressful places, and detracted from meaningful conversation. That all came to a head when John canceled the release of West Texas Orphans in response to a new forum user who relentlessly asked for a leaked downloadable copy of Moon Colony Bloodbath. After that point, John slowly disappeared from his own forums, and eventually closed them to new accounts and finally shut them down at the end of last year. That might all seem inevitable, but it represented a transformation of a cohesive community into something more transactional.

His insane hardcore live aesthetic, which epitomised Real Lo-Fi, has long passed. But the quixotic request to let some things be private, to not record his most intimate songs, to not photograph him, has survived his aesthetic convulsion. It’s quixotic because recording and tabulating is unilateral and there are thousands of ruffians like me.

But he knows there are people like me (and he’s not like Grothendieck or Perelman or anything, a seraph withdrawing from the fallen world with its beady little minds like mine).

you often think of the titles of your songs as keys to unlocking what the song is actually about. This idea of solving a puzzle—playing games, uncovering secrets

I work in reveals. The reveal is a big part of what I do. The unveiling and the unmasking is a constantly recurring theme, I think. As with a lot of stuff for me, I think it ties in with my spirituality, which is Catholic. I left the Church a long time ago, but you’re always Catholic, right? This is what we say in the mass: “Let us celebrate the mystery of faith.” Catholicism is all about mystery. It’s about approaching the unapproachable, it’s acknowledging that, when you get close to that, it’s not definable, not knowable. Yeats uses the word “mystery” in some amazing ways. That’s the stuff for me, always. I like things that I don’t understand.

With some of my work, to some people, this is frustrating. Especially in the Internet age, people want to annotate things, to say “this means this, this means this.” With my stuff, I always want it to reach a nexus of, Can you sit with something that doesn’t resolve, and be happy there? Or not even be happy, but be present. That’s what I like, in art. That’s what I like in novels, especially. With songs, if the lyric doesn’t resolve, the music does. When that happens, that’s mystery itself

Cataloguing despite it all

Good Morning to All Vultures

All that said,


  • He has destroyed about 50
  • there’s maybe 200 demos that never went anywhere
  • And about 70 have only ever been played live. A couple of those weren’t recorded.
  • several exist ambiguously - in title only perhaps
  • A new track was found on one copy of an early cassette
  • And no other copy of that cassette


I think there’s one song in the catalogue prior to [2015] that [has modulation], and it literally only modulates on the last chord

His work has shifted profoundly over the last 20 years. Not just sound, genre, not just lyrical attitude, not merely moving from basic chords to composition, and not just moving to personal confessions. No: he tired of his two strongest artistic choices: being nearly completely alone and him rejecting all Production. The eras are

  1. Shrimper: Acoustic thrash + nasal wail + panasonic + Shrimper + Young David Byrne / Tim Kinsella face 9 (1985 - 2001). Divorces looming; mythologies coursing through the young.

  2. 4AD: Electric reverb + big ass studio + muttering + 4AD + John Oliver face (2002 - 2013). Autobiography begins in 2004 and tenderises him.

  3. Merge: BAND. Power trio. Cool Dr. habil. jaja. Start to have like Arrangements. (2012 - 2017).

  4. Lounge: four-piece flirting with jangle, country-rock 8, and mere autobiography (Piano + winds + saccharine sprechgesang + lookin like Serj Tankian and Anton Chigurh). Fatherhood. (2017 - Present)

I can’t stand (4) but it’s largely just my allergy to the jazz keyboard hammond mellotron reverb and muted melisma muso production. Luckily he releases most of em as demos - better sound quality than 1993 cassettes and sometimes the same fire.

OK OK it’s not just the shift in sound but also the themes and AA-meeting flabby humanism. for GOD’S sake man i don’t want your warmth and i don’t need your acceptance. Bleed Out is passable because the old sociopathy and new mental illness come back. 2

It is the prerogative of the long time fan to get arsey about changes of direction and scream the names of the cult classics; it is the prerogative of the artist to pay literally zero attention to them.

Best songs since 2015

  • The Great Gold Sheep
  • For the Krishnacore Bands
  • Let Me Bathe In Demonic Light (bassoon cut only)
  • Shot, Repeatedly, at Close Range, in the Chest, by Your Love
  • For the Snakes
  • Heel Turn 2
  • Foreign Object
  • Shelved
  • Sicilian Kitchen Stomp
  • Picture Of My Dress
  • Training Montage
  • Bleed Out (Jordan Lake)
  • Hand of Death
  • Elsa from Rialto
  • Incandescent Ruins
  • Hostages (WFPK)
  • Done Bleeding (Demo)
  • Mark on You
  • Tucson Fog
  • From the Lake Trials
  • Divided Sky Lane

The trouble is that between AHWT and TLotWTC he became a Musician. (He might have been also be attempting to gracefully sidestep the chord damage and ageing but he is still perfectly capable of (1). He just chooses not to.) That doesn’t explain the turn against guitars and towards jam-band.

Of course the original signal is never actually anywhere near any recordings anywhere, but you all already knew that. You have been sure of it for quite some time now. You see the proof everywhere. It is the reason you started reading these lines in the first place

See also


“[my] misunderstanding of the term ‘alpha privative’ which is the ‘a’ in front of a word that negates: moral, amoral, right. In Latin that's called alpha privative. When I first learned that I was like twenty and I was like, ‘Awesome, the letter that negates!’, you know. A couple years later I was talking to my Latin teacher about it and he was like, ‘Yeah, it just doesn’t carry that kind of force, nobody thinks of the term alpha privative as something you know, annihilating stuff.’ But I did.”

The other Mountain Goat

[The Panasonic RX-FT500's] built-in condenser microphone didn't condense (that is, it didn't react to changes in volume by automatically contracting its diaphragm) unless the levels with which it found itself confronted were truly overwhelming, which never happened; meanwhile, oblivious to this tic of mass production, the machine's designers hadn't thought to situate the actual moving parts (that is, the gears) as far as cosmetically possible from this unusually sensitive microphone. The results were uncannily accurate representations of sound complemented and complicated by some pretty ferocious wheel-grind.

Sometime around 1998, the Panasonic appeared to have breathed its last. When you'd punch "Record," a large triangular piece of plastic just to the left of the spindles would begin jutting in and out of the view frame, bringing with it a clicking noise whose arrhythmic clatter could in no way be incorporated into any songs one might be trying to record on such a low-tech piece of equipment. In the summer of 2000 6 having written a few new songs that took place in Texas and being frustrated with the uniform sound of the Marantz, we hauled the Panasonic out of its corner and gave it a shot, just in case it might have repaired itself during the long time it had spent standing all alone near the window.

The results are what you have with you now: the sound of a long-broken machine deciding, on its own and without the interference of repairmen or excessive prayer vigils, to function again... Its inexplicable self-originating will to go on echoes some of the boneheaded ideas that motivate the people who populate these little songs...

Of course the original signal is never actually anywhere near any recordings anywhere, but you all already knew that. You have been sure of it for quite some time now. You see the proof everywhere. It is the reason you started reading these lines in the first place.


I don't remember when the album came out, or how it did, or whether it met with favorable reviews. By the time it got released I was pretty heavily into that job I'd been going through orientation for. it involved working with children in a residential setting: rich, rewarding work. I do remember bringing my first copy into work one day and playing in on the house boombox after the children had gone off to school. I watched the door closely and kept my hand near the player so my supervisor wouldn't come in just in time to hear her morning shift guy singing "hail, Satan" through the speakers, and I had few plans for the future except to keep working at all the things I liked working at. I didn't know, at the time, that this would be the last album I'd make where all the takes were live within minutes of having written the songs

Once you're no longer in the day job, you don't know what's going on with people... Even if you're not a hermit, you're talking to people as an observer, and an observer can never know what a participant can know... I seemed to have less to say... If a writer disengages from people at large, his ability to describe the behaviour of people is going to suffer.

Sense organs

"you've got a sentence waiting on your tongue."
"the taste of your tongue was thick and pure and impossibly sweet."
"i wet my finger with my tongue and pressed it in the ashes, rubbed it up against your perfect eyelashes."
"life and liberty on my tongue."
"I've got Coca-Cola on my tongue."
"It was resting lightly on my tongue."
"I tasted chocolate on my tongue."
"It burned my tongue."
"Stick your tongue out, catch the pieces."
"We're all here chewing our tongues off."
"The taste of scotch rich on my tongue."
"Flicking my tongue out at the wet leaves."
"Now I taste jasmine on my tongue."
"Dead languages on our tongues."
"It's like I've got molasses on my tongue."
"My tongue struck dumb."
"Let every knee be bent and every tongue confess."
"Battle cry rising from your tongue."
"Capsule just in case underneath my tongue."
"Tongue swollen with prayer."
"Songs of the great god wild on my tongue."

Psychological realism

There is a whole literary genre, "psychological realism", for novels which focus on the details of their characters' minds. In them, self-narrative and (usually self-delusion) are more important than plot, truth, denouement: the "actual" events. Does anyone write psychological rock?</p>
Well now yes. All Eternals Deck is just that, retaining the perfectly tuned Gothic aesthetic in which the the later psych novels wallowed. (Note: 'psychedelic' rock is the opposite of what I'm looking for - it's a candy-coloured flight from ordinary inner life.) So AED isn't just about how frickin cool tarot or black metal is, or how real ghosts are, or any of that: it's about the power of ideas over us. Also our perversity. (To be haunted is to not let a ghost go, and not as we usually say, the converse.)</p>
"It's hard to tell gifts of the spirit from clever counterfeits."
- Darnielle's Cain

And you must know
All your secrets will go with me when I go

  1. I forget where I saw this, possibly his intro to The Mays XX.
  2. Wild Sage was really the first song I ever wrote about mental illness.
  3. Some categories of unreleased Mountain Goats song:

    1. didn't make the cut. Like the whole Gothenburg album. He has higher standards than you'd think for a guy with 800 public or semi-public songs.
    2. destroyed in a fit of pique or from the love of agency and whim. The survivors are more special for their sacrifice perhaps.
    3. "squibs" (gags and occasionals)
    4. too personal to record (about the emotions of other people, about his children)
    5. simple love of arcana and live performance and wanting to make the shows irreplaceable, which they are
  4. link
  5. that is, doing so in a fashion which is very Christian empirically, but not very Christian normatively
  6. My gf can't listen to him because he's too sad / neurotic on record. But he is ecstatic and jolly on stage. Major-key desolation
  7. This was him joking: "Plenty of people take up painting; me, I like to hand-make little booklets and tuck them away in a shoebox where they'll never be seen again. There are twenty-two such booklets so far, and they're some of the best work I've ever done, and my plan is to bury them in the backyard when I've finished with them. In partial shade. Near the raspberry bushes." But it's not outside the realm of possibility.
  8. The vocals go _really_ country after 2015.
  9. It's not that I only like him screaming but there has to be the possibility of him screaming.
  10. Actually one of his Ozzy songs has a Chaucer reference.
  11. I had this real bad blackout when I lived in Portland, I was kind of a mess up there, and I had this blackout where when I came to I didn't know what day it was, and I think I'd been out for four or five days, but I had it in my mind that I'd been out for longer than that. So elected to stay in the house longer until I could figure out what day it was. This was not really too bright,, but I was there for a couple more days convinced that, you know, convinced that I was [unintelligible] and I was pretty crazy, and finally I was like 'Well fuck it, I'm goin' outside!' And I combed my hair and I put on my hat and my sunglasses with which I did not leave the house, and I walked outside, and it wasn't cold anymore as it had been when I blacked out. And I looked around, and they'd put flowers in the planters in downtown Portland. And I was was like the whole world was transformed


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