Bitter, critically panned rockers such as Kiss should be very, very afraid of John Darnielle. While these has-beens love to sneer at rock critics as failed musicians, Darnielle (who contributes to the RFT and his own Web site, www.lastplanetojakarta.com, among other publications) has shown by fronting/being the Mountain Goats that he is as capable of making music as he is of judging it. In a career spanning more than a decade, the Mountain Goats have recorded over 300 songs, mostly on an old boom box that goes so far beyond lo-fi it makes Guided by Voices sound like Phil Spector. Until the late '90s, the Goats' music was issued only on cassettes, which found rabid cult followings.
While all of this might sound like a license to release undisciplined noodlings, nothing could be farther from the truth. Darnielle's lyrics combine the naked, confessional tone of an autobiography with the imagination of great short stories. His songs can be travelogues, portraits of down-market losers or even just excuses for imagery that can stop you cold with their specificity ("Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania"). He even has recurring themes and characters, most notably the "Alpha couple," participants in a failed, alcohol-fueled marriage who are always digging at each other's faults.
On 2002's Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats devoted an entire disc to the Alpha couple. This year's We Shall All Be Healed is another concept album, this time about California speed freaks and the bleak hope they subsist on. You're never clear if it's Darnielle's goodbye to some opportunists from his past or just another fiction, but the disc feels like a new beginning. His second release on major indie 4AD Records, Healed continues Darnielle's trend toward professionally recorded, capital-A Albums. The bleat of his distinctive voice now puts him in the company of brainy pop bands such as the Wedding Present, and his full-band arrangements allow you to focus on his work rather than his sonic quirks. All right, Gene Simmons, now you try writing a record review.