Interviewing John Darnielle is not unlike fencing. The cutting, thrusting, and parrying are verbal, and the encounter’s always polite, but there remains a small chance of injury—and while the Georgia Straight escaped its latest encounter with the Mountain Goats singer unbloodied, other journalists have not fared as well.
“I had an interview a couple of weeks ago where all the questions were variations on ”˜What do you mean when you say this?’ ” Darnielle recalls, from his North Carolina home. “And I was like, ”˜Man, you’re asking me to wreck the record for you.’
“It’s like you’ll never get your own meaning from any of it; it will always be about these specific, concrete situations,” he adds. “I try to avoid those to some extent, but I’m not against elucidation.”
The record in question is the Mountain Goats’ just-released All Eternals Deck. It’s arguably the band’s most ambitious undertaking, at least on a musical level: understated strings and the nuanced piano stylings of new member Yuval Semo bring a sophisticated gloss to the bare-bones songcraft of Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes, and drummer John Wurster. But what hasn’t changed is Darnielle’s ability to write lyrics that are both emotionally gripping and tantalizingly opaque.
A good example would be the new album’s “Age of Kings”, a rarity in the Mountain Goats catalogue in that it seems to be a love song, albeit one with wolves stalking the perimeter.
“For me,” says the songwriter, “that song was trying to express something sweet, something delicate, delicate but strong. So it’s right up against cliché. When we were doing that, we were constantly conscious of the fact that the orchestration and the lyric and everything was just this side of the song that you don’t want to write, if you’re a literary songwriter: the one that settles for a general kind of statement, that doesn’t come from the heart or from some deeper place.”
Elsewhere on All Eternals Deck, Darnielle turns his attention to show-biz icons Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and Charles Bronson, dedicating a song to each.
“Judy Garland was the first celebrity whose name I really knew,” he explains. “I saw The Wizard of Oz when I was a child and was really super-taken with it, and I was really, really distressed when I found that she was dead.”¦When you’re a child and you see someone on a screen, you assume that they are still alive. So you want to learn their story, and, I mean, she is a survivor of childhood abuse, like me, although hers was considerably worse than mine.
“I was in love with her as a child, and then Liza is her daughter, and was raised by a person who didn’t really get to have a childhood. I find that she [Minnelli] has a compelling, compelling stage presence. But also I have to admit that Liza and Charles Bronson are people that I’m super-fascinated by, personally, even though I can’t really get that into their work. I can dig some Charles Bronson movies, but he’s nobody as an actor. He just carved out a space for himself, and he sort of did it with his bare hands. And he comes from crushing poverty—no advantages at all. So, yeah, I consider all three of these figures survivors in some way, and I’m very into survivors.”
Darnielle also reveals that several of his new songs draw from his teenage experiences in Portland, Oregon, a city whose gritty side belies its rose-scented reputation.
“If you hear a song of mine and you suspect it takes place in Portland, then it’s for sure autobiographical,” he notes. “There’s several Portland songs on this record.”
True to form, though, he’s not about to tell us which they are.
“I could,” he says. “But that would ruin all the fun!”
The Mountain Goats play the Biltmore Cabaret next Friday (June 17).