The Mountain Goats, “Songs for Pierre Chuvin”

No band is more precious to me than the Mountain Goats and yet it has been quite some time since a release of theirs has landed with the weight of Songs for Pierre Chuvin, a surprise drop thanks in part to our current quarantine. Recent albums, from the humorous and touching paean to professional wrestling that was Beat the Champ, to last year’s fantasy epic In League With Dragons all feature outstanding moments that can be counted among my favourites in the vast Mountain Goats catalogue, and yet the albums rarely affect me as complete artefacts. After just one listen, Songs for Pierre Chuvin already feels like coming home.

For those of us whose first exposure to John Darnielle’s work came in the form of his early home recordings, the wavering buzz of his trusty Panasonic RX-FT500 was an instrument in itself. The shock of the first “big label” studio recordings, starting with 2002’s Tallahassee, was tempered by the rawness of those albums’ themes – any intimacy lost by the decision to dump the tape recorder was made up for in spades by the way Darnielle opened himself up.  Never one to avoid difficult subjects, he now turned the camera upon himself to face down his own past: drug addiction, familial dysfunction and abusive relationships abound; despite the relatively lush technical values, the soundtrack-ready songs and the future singalongs, the albums remain as starkly immediate as the grittiest early tape releases and I adore them for it in their entirety.

But eighteen years, eleven albums and much ephemera later, I never quite realised how much I missed that boombox.

Songs for Pierre Chuvin could conceivably end up as a companion piece to In League with Dragons, 2018’s patchy so-called “rock opera” about various forms of magic and wizardry. Inspired by the titular author’s 1990 book A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, which tells the story of Christianity’s influence in the Roman Empire, it is similar both thematically and lyrically; imagery of marble temples, hilltop beacons, warring religions, winged statues and campfire dances abounds, tailor-made for the same quaint treatment Owen Pallett gave to songs like “Clemency for the Wizard King.”  I suspect that one day in the future we may see the album re-recorded with a full band; I doubt it will be anything like as gripping and tender as the version we already have.

The album’s arrival could scarcely be more timely.  Packed with stories of isolation and the threat of extinction. Songs for Pierre Chuvin could accidentally become the first great COVID-19 record. “I sometimes forget there’s cities down there,” Darnielle opines from exile in the primitively tapped-out “The Wooded Hills Along the Black Sea,” and “Their Gods Do Not Have Surgeons” pleads wearily for the restoration of a desecrated community.  It gives rise to the flipside too, of course, because Darnielle is nothing if not resolute in the face of persecution. Whether he’s fighting the corner for those “whose paths were overtaken by the realities of life or its opposite,” as bassist Peter Hughes described the subjects of Goths, or fronting up to oncoming Christian armies, Darnielle’s always prepared to poke a few eyes.  “Let he who is without sin/throw the first one, like you said,” he sings in “Last Gasp at Calama,” before rounding it out with “let anyone else throw the second/as long as it connects with your head.”

The release format and recording method provides comfort to listeners and creator alike, but this is no step backwards for the Mountain Goats.  Lyrically and thematically, Songs for Pierre Chuvin is wholeheartedly of a piece with the bands’ recent concept albums and, despite recording solo, Darnielle has promised to pay the other band members in full for the involvement in the album’s creation, as well as those who work for him in a broader sense.  As a long-term fan I can’t lie and say I’m not thrilled by the development, though.

Stripped of the studio, Darnielle’s charmingly rough edges are again thrillingly evident.  Just as with the earliest tape releases, the singer sometimes introduces songs by setting the scene – “Until Olympius Returns” is an unplanned retake, he announces, due to a “mysterious seven-second gap” that became evident when he was mastering the approved version, and so keen is he to get on with “January 31, 438” he doesn’t have time to tune his guitar.  There are recalls of earlier favourites too; for the first time in I don’t know how long there’s a “Going to…” song (just seeing that on the tracklist should be enough to get fans’ hearts racing) – in this case a follow-up to the twenty-six-year-old (!) “Going to Lebanon” – and the gorgeous closer “Exegetic Chains” echoes arguably the band’s most popular song with its exhortation to “make it through this year/if it kills you outright.”  And yet, In League with Dragons, beneath all its luxuriant cloaks, pulled similar tricks.  Compare, if you will, the guitar riff from “Younger” with that of the 1993 Transmissions to Horace classic (and maybe my all-time favourite tMG song) “No, I Can’t.”

John Darnielle is a natural isolationist and a staunch supporter of the besieged. He thrives on quiet observation and the enrichment only the slow passage of time can afford.  COVID-19, I thank you for this perfect storm.