The Mountain Goats
We Shall All Be Healed
ohn Darnielle differs from your standard singer/songwriter in more than one way, but the distinction most pertinent to this review is his unusual dual role as a critic and a musician. He, like us reviewers, is a “professional appreciator,” to put it in High Fidelity terms. Yet he has also, against all odds, created countless great songs over the past twelve years.
The ability to grasp all nuances of quality, all measures of cliché and originality, is not a desirable trait in a musician; with these as guiding concerns, an artist cannot progress, for he/she will inevitably be too much of a perfectionist and too apprehensive of his/her failures to successfully advance. How then, did Darnielle, who—through his own Last Plane to Jakarta and his contributions to Neumu.net—has proven himself to possess this keen judgment, make it through his self-admittedly rough musical beginnings to eventually create masterpieces of superlative emotional complexity? Or, more importantly at the moment, how could he release We Shall All Be Healed, an album that is grossly insubstantial and weak when compared to his recent albums?
We Shall All Be Healed masquerades itself as a grand statement, replete with sounds of broken glass, spoken-word ballads juxtaposed with triumphantly jarring rockers, and intimations of atonement and revelation, yet it only discusses the theme its title elicits in superficial, ineffectual terms. It is a gravely underdeveloped album, and John Vanderslice’s undeniably pretty production is not even enough to suppress this conclusion.
One of the governing philosophies to pre-4AD Mountain Goats’ music was the necessity of understatement to avoid the potential pretensions of Darnielle’s literate and philosophical leanings; therefore, humor was an integral aspect to the band’s lyrics. This approach was abandoned for 2002’s Tallahassee, which unapologetically and dramatically chronicled a marriage falling apart, but the result was a brilliantly realized concept album whose lyrics, while occasionally excessive in their imagery, reached heights on “No Children” that are rarely, if ever, equaled in pop music.
The following are lines on this album that make me wish John Darnielle were still writing odes to obscure peanut brands:
We are what we are/ Get in the goddamn car (“Slow West Vultures”)
Eating the utterly inedible (“Slow West Vultures”)
Martin calls to say he's sending old electrical equipment/ That's good, we can always use some more electrical equipment (“Letter from Belgium”)
Three instances is not bad, considering that Darnielle has always had his weaker moments to balance out his spurts of brilliance (as anyone with over 400 songs does); however, these are disgusting examples of tedium and self-plagiarism. The former two attempt to evoke a desperate scene in so tired a manner that even the song’s shaky dulcimer sounds as sterile and flat as the head of a nail. The latter employs Darnielle’s oldest trick in the book—see fan favorite “Going to Georgia”: The most amazing thing about you standing in the doorway/ Is that it’s you…and you’re standing in the doorway—yet fails at its own prank, leaving the couplet standing on its own, instead of quickly moving on, which conveys the spurious notion that it should be regarded as substantial or deep.
Musically, the album is similarly by the numbers, with some thankful exceptions. “All Up the Seething Coast” is the sterile ballad, “Home Again Garden Grove” the token redemption rocker. Yet, a few emerge above the rest, namely the all-too-short-fuzz-rocker-with-strings “Quito,” the intense single “Palmcorder Yajna,” and the remarkably assured closer (before characteristic epilogue) “Against Pollution.”
Likewise, there are lyrical highlights amidst the tired imagery. “Cotton” proves Darnielle still maintains a sympathetic, insightful charm as he beautifully declares, “This song is for the people/ Who tell their families that they're sorry/ For things they can't and won't feel sorry for.” “Against Pollution” sums up the album with its central lines, “When the last days come/ We shall see visions…We will recognize each other/ And see ourselves for the first time/ The way we really are.”
The downside of recognizing these peaks, of course, is that one notices the many songs on We Shall All Be Healed that fall slightly short of insight. “Mole,” for instance, seems to introduce ideas as yet absent from Darnielle’s repertoire, yet is too sorely disjointed and inconclusive to follow through on any of its possible intentions. “Letter from Belgium” has some legitimately good lines, but is unforgivably impeded by moments like the aforementioned one.
In the end, the question remains as to why John Darnielle, rock critic, released We Shall All Be Healed, an underdeveloped and frail album. The reason, as evidenced by its many good moments as well as several of the just above average ones, is that this effort is not very far off. In fact, the rock critic will see We Shall All Be Healed as a pleasant indie-rock album, occasionally weary, but often quite good, and rather mature when compared to albums from similarly acclaimed singer/songwriters. I certainly subscribe to this view sometimes, while other, more rash times I bemoan the cruel fate that deprived me of my dearest friend. As always, the critic and the fan boy have very different opinions, and as always, you’ll have to decide which to trust.
Reviewed by: Kareem Estefan
Reviewed on: 2004-02-10