PRINT April 1996


the Mountain Goats

I was 29 years old, rolling through New Jersey suburbs in the Vista Cruiser, when the Mountain Goats saved my life. I didn’t know who they were, didn’t even know that they were a band. All I understood was that there was this reedy, not-quite Neil Young, not-quite-tenor voice humming out of the car radio in gorgeous lo-fi, backed up by equally gorgeous lo-fi lone guitar. The voice sang: and Bill Gates/will single-handedly spearhead the Heaven 17 revival/and the Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league/and the Tampa Bay Bucs will make it all the way to the top/and I will love you again. . . .

Then the song was over, there was this little silence, and I almost wept because I realized that I had just heard the truth. Which is (in this particular case), that even our worst moments may eventually be redeemed, because there is always the chance that they can become something as simultaneously hilarious and glorious as “Cubs in Five”—the greatest lost-love-and-revenge song since the Guess Who went into the studio and hammered out “American Woman.”

After that, I sat in the car, by the side of a suburban reservoir road, and just listened as the DJ played two whole albums, Nine Black Poppies (Trance, 1995) and Zopilote Machine (Ajax, 1994), all the way through. Sometimes there was a woman’s voice singing along with the man’s, and sometimes a bass or second guitar; sometimes I could make out snatches of other music—the guitar line from “Paint It Black,” reggae riffs, echoes of Jonathan Richman—obviously much loved and now reworked. Each song, in its way, was just as beautiful, just as funny and sad and smart and true, as the ones that had come before.

Later, when I had bought both albums, and then Sweden (Shrimper, 1995), I realized that the Mountain Goats just might represent a whole other way of doing things, an alternative to The Alternative. Where you could understand, as John Darnielle and Rachel Ware have, that touring and being famous (even when you’re in your 20s) sucks. On the other hand, maybe I was getting a little carried away with the rhetoric of the lo-fi revolution; maybe the Mountain Goats were simply amazing songwriters—some of the best around—and no A&R guy had gotten around to signing them. In which case, they might yet be on MTV after all: heavy rotation, rich and famous. Cubs in five for ’96.