John Darnielle hasn't gone soft, and he wanted his audience to know it. During the Mountain Goats' tour kickoff show at Antone's in Austin on Thursday night, the singer reassured the packed and slowly roasting crowd that even though he recently became a parent, they won't hear overly sentimental "doting father" songs on the band's next album.
"Instead, you get the Satan record," he joked. He was referencing the Mountain Goats' album in progress, tentatively titled Transcendental Youth. It deals with religious and social outcasts and was written while tending to his infant son Roman in his Durham, North Carolina home. The day before the show at Antone's, Darnielle rehearsed the new songs with bandmates Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster for the first time; on Thursday, the group debuted four of the tracks and were greeted by a warm reception from their devoted crowd.
The new material showcased Darnielle's often-lauded eye for lyrical detail and character construction, with minor chords lending a somber and menacing feel that became increasingly dominant in such songs as "In Memory of Satan." Darnielle based the album on a loose cast of recurring characters and set it mostly in Washington state, yet it isn't a concept album in the strictest sense. The next morning, Darnielle chatted with Rolling Stone about four of its tracks and the overall tone of the record.
"In Memory of Satan"
Mid-tempo and piano-based, it's a look at the process of someone becoming a borderline recluse, getting inside their head and looking out at a world that seems too much to take. "Everyone has spent those years, or maybe entire seasons, indoors where you don't really leave," Darnielle said. "That's when you go into the inner realms of the spirit. This guy's in hiding, and it's this most spiritual realm. That old saying holds here, that you can't be in a cave unless there's an exit, or else it's a grave."
Sample lyric: "Something sacred, something blue/Crawl down here to dig for bones/One more season then I'm gone/Black drapes over the crosses"
The song uses piano to swing in what Darnielle termed an "Italian cafè style." It is something of a sister song to "In Memory of Satan" in that it looks at a couple on an antisocial downward spiral, although they are trying to move forward. "You look at this one as what ‘Satan' would be with more than one person involved. It gets into the coping strategies you use for mental illness, which are really the fabric of what keeps society moving forward at all," explained Darnielle.
Sample lyric: "Sing for ourselves alone/Speak into the microphone"
Of the four songs debuted on Thursday, this one is most likely to become an anthemic favorite for the band's fan base. Clocking in at under three minutes, it's a pounding piano number with an undeniable chorus – "Mercy for the Diaz brothers!" – and is based on the drug-dealing siblings referenced briefly in the movie Scarface. "Frank tells Tony he has to respect the Diaz brothers, and Tony tells him to eff the Diaz Brothers, and by the time we do see them, they're dead," said Darnielle. "I'm obsessed with people we never got to know but who we know about, because you have a sense of who they were and what became of them since they died, but they're essentially blocking characters in this story we all know. And we're all basically blocking characters in life, when you think about it."
Sample lyric: "Draw my arms into my hospital gown/Seeing the sky open up and rain down/Mercy for the Diaz Bothers!"
The only guitar-based song of the evening and also the most menacing in mood, its lyrics discuss someone fearful of a presence that remains just out of their sight. Darnielle said the "Jenny" referenced multiple times in it is the same character who got her own song on 2002's All Hail West Texas album and who has appeared in other Mountain Goats songs through the years. "She's one of those disruptive characters, really through no fault of her own," said Darnielle. "I hadn't planned on her reappearing but once I had an idea for the song's sound, I just tried barking out some random lyrics, which is how I usually start until I get to a chorus and just go from there. So I'm barking this stuff and there she was again and I was just, ‘Well, I'll be goddamned.'"
Sample lyric: "Jenny calls from Montana/She's only passing through/Probably never see her again in this life, I guess"
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