The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas (Remastered) (Merge Records)
A remastered and extended version of All Hail West Texas, the 2002 lo fi masterpiece by The Mountain Goats provides no answers to the problems raised by the original but is still a great excuse to go back and enjoy a superb piece of songwriting writes idp.
Every so often you meet someone who is so determined to convince you that their favourite songwriter is better than all the rest they end up saying something like – ‘If you write the words down on paper you find that they’re not just song lyrics – they’re poetry’. They say this with great solemnity, almost as if it meant something.
It’s not an entirely convincing line of reasoning and seems to be mostly advanced by people who don’t do poetry much. It’s hard to be sure exactly what point they think they’re making. Is poetry necessarily better than song writing? Just what is the distinction between the two?
Paraphrased the proposition seems not to amount to much more than this:
‘These songs are gibberish and I don’t understand them but I like the tune and the words sound complicated and important. When we were at school we did poetry. Poetry sounded complicated and important too and I didn’t understand that either. Therefore this must be poetry. Beelzebub has a devil set aside for me. You’re my champagne supernova wonderwall. In my jingle jangled morning I’ll come following you. It must be poetry. Otherwise it would just be shit and that can’t be right. Can it?’
What makes John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats almost unique among contemporary songwriters is that he is one of the very few whose lyrics, when written out on paper, are not just song words they’re also rather good prose. And among all of his albums All Hail West Texas, the last of The Mountain Goats truly lo-fi output, recorded in the basement on Darnielle’s Panasonic Boombox and now reissued in a remastered and expanded version by Merge Records, is one of the prosiest.
Snappily subtitled (in its original form) ‘fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys’, the album (which now features 20 songs and an alternative take) is a collection of short stories, or outlines for short stories, which cast a pitiless eye over the commonplace disappointments and humiliations of small town life.
There are no grand tragedies here – when the teenage band members of the local Best Ever Death Metal Band (as yet unnamed but the most likely choices are Satan’s Fingers, The Killers and The Hospital Bombers) have their dreams torn down they don’t go and shoot up the high school as they might in the works of other more melodramatically inclined song writers – instead they write each other postcards about how hard done by they are and how much they hate the town that has betrayed them. This is not a wound that will heal.
‘When you punish a person for dreaming their dream don’t expect them to thank or forgive you.’
The town in question is Denton, ‘the 27th most populous city in Texas and the 11th largest city in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex’ (thanks Wikipedia) – hometown to Don Henley, Bowling For Soup and lovable TV Detective Inspector Jack Frost played by David Jason and the fragmentary narratives on the album, which interweave without explanation or resolution, deal with dreams and the failure of dreams, motorbikes, sports injuries, interestingly shaped pebbles, childbirth, narcotics and the damage that people do to each other and to themselves and which they come to regret only when it’s much too late to do anything about it.
But although these are stories they’re not straightforward narratives. They begin and end abruptly and it’s frequently unclear which of the seven people are participating at any given point or which of the two houses they are in. To be honest even though this is one of my favourite albums and I have listened to it hundreds of times I’m not even sure who the seven people are – I can get six, or nine or more, but seven? Beats me. I’m not sure who does what either, or to whom or when, but I’m pretty sure they all regret it afterwards. Because they’re not bad people. They just do bad things.
In the absence of a clear narrative arc continuity is provided by the fact that all the songs seem to be narrated by the same authorial voice – dry humoured, precise and knowing but ever so slightly out of step with the world and the picture they paint of everyday West Texas life is unflinching and remorselessly downbeat. This is not a feel good album.
What raises All Hail above the merely glum and depressing is Darnielle’s knack for incorporating the textures of everyday speech into his songs while delivering remarkable levels of emotional and physical detail. The songs are reminiscent at times of the storytelling style of Haruki Murakami, elliptical, obscure but always intriguing. I’m thinking here particularly of After The Quake – a collection made up of stories connected only by the characters peripheral involvement in the aftermath of Kobe. On this album the bad things that happen to one character seem to spill over into the lives of others, almost without anyone realising.
It all seems at times to deliberately defy conventional song writing wisdom. These are songs with an untrustworthy narrator who clearly has a point that he is determined to make, which he spells out very carefully.
Try this for example, from Jenny –
‘You roared into the driveway of our south western ranch-style house on a new Kawasaki, all yellow and black, fresh out of the showroom. Our house faced west, so the big orange sun positioned at your back, lit up your magnificent silhouette.’
Or this from The Mess Inside –
‘We took two weeks in the Bahamas. Went out dancing every night. Tried to fight the creeping sense of dread with temporal things. Most of the time I guess I felt all right.’
They work just fine written out like that – great dialogue or spoken narrative but would anyone who was unfamiliar with them pick them for song lines? Probably not. One more example, this one from Waco, one of the new songs –
‘We’d tell each other jokes, waiting for the world to end. We knew our jokes were funny, but in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons, and we watched old George Romero movies and relished the short time left, waiting for the dead to rise up from their graves, waiting for Jesus to come along and save us and biding our time as best we know how’.
Not many writers try to pack that much information into a short song and backed by Darnielle’s fairly rudimentary guitar this prosiness could be a recipe for monotony but in fact the melodies are rather beautiful, picked out by the vocal delivery rather than by the instrumentation.
Many writers have criticised Hail Hail West Texas for the impenetrability of its narrative arc. Those who come to this remastered version looking for answers are going to be disappointed. There were rumoured to be fifteen more songs in the cycle which Darnielle intended to release for free at some point but which he destroyed when Hail And Farewell, Gothenburg was leaked. Possibly these songs contained the key to the story. I suspect not.
So the sketch map of Denton is one of those perplexing diagrams where the more you fill in the spaces between points the wider they get. The new songs just make the picture more baffling not more complete and a liner essay which recounts the history not of the songs on the album (in either of its versions) but of ten other imaginary songs from the same sequence is not much help in this context.
As far as the remastering goes the review copy I received doesn’t seem that different from the original. This was the last of The Mountain Goats purely lo-fi albums, recorded on John Darnielle’s boom box and issued on cassette. I’m pleased to say the tape noise is still there. I think I’d have liked these songs just as much without it if that was how I’d first heard them, but I’d miss it now and I’m not sure what remastering in this circumstance really means.
So there you go – a twelve year old masterpiece with a handful of new songs added. If you’ve never heard this album before and you like slightly bookish songs that leave you feeling a bit puzzled then get it and love it. If you’re already familiar with the songs then the new additions will be a welcome excuse to go back and revisit. I’ll give this one a 9/10.