The Mountain Goats
All Hail West Texas
, August 16th, 2013 08:20
Just off Texas State Highway 21, a route followed by migrating buffalo centuries ago, sits the town of Dime Box. When author William Least Heat-Moon visited during a cross-country expedition–later chronicled in his landmark travel-writing tome Blue Highways–Dime Box was a town where the cafes had screen doors and the sidewalks were constructed of wood planks. Small children gathered in the barber shop to stare at a large mounted bass outfitted with steer horns. At the post office, a local captured Dime Box in a few clipped sentences: "City people don't think anything important happens in a place like Dime Box. And usually it doesn't. Unless you call conflict important. Or love or babies or dying."
Tiny lives on immense stages. Big dreams in small spaces. Ordinary days filled with extraordinary peril. Plain words depicting the cruel urgency of life. It all resides in the Mountain Goats' 2002 release All Hail West Texas, reissued by Merge, complete with a cleaned-up sound, seven bonus tracks, and a 1,800-word essay by the group's brains and brawn, John Darnielle. All Hail West Texas – originally released by the Austin label Emperor Jones – is undeniably Texan in both content and character: A star high school running back averages 8.3 yards per carry; phosphorescent sunsets paint the world orange; knife-straight roads seem to stretch on forever; wide open landscapes make those feelings of vulnerability, shame, and affection more intense. But Darnielle's genius for transforming the raw messiness of everyday human existence into something that's equal parts heartbreaking, gorgeous, and whimsical is what makes the album so universally alluring. All Hail West Texas may as well be chronicling the personal tales of Dime Box or one of the countless other detached and forgotten small towns scattered throughout America.
For Darnielle enthusiasts – a phylum of music fan typically classified as erudite, detail-obsessed, full-blown fanatical, and a smidge overbearing – All Hail West Texas generates much chatter on account of its recording process: It was the last Mountain Goats album cut with Darnielle's fabled Panasonic RX-FT500. (It has its own fan page here; again, full-blown fanatical.) A sizable chunk of Darnielle's early material was recorded on the boom box, the singer-songwriter hammering away on his acoustic guitar while murmuring and howling into the device's built-in condenser microphone. Much of this material remains the finest of his rather prolific career; the songs are exhilarating, intimate, tightly-wound, immediate, positively rough-hewn. (In the original liner notes for All Hail West Texas, Darnielle cited the boom box's two major failings: the condenser microphone didn't condense; and the machine's moving parts were placed too close to the mic, leading to some "pretty ferocious wheel-grind." It can be heard at the beginning and ending of tracks, and is akin to the sound of a small airplane flying overhead. The songs are remastered, but that wheel-grind – thankfully – remains.)
It feels destined in a way, even if a tad clichéd: The Panasonic RX-FT500, "a long-broken machine" (Darnielle's words), capturing the tragedies of long-broken men and women. There's the football great from 'Fall Of The Star High School Running Back', who shreds his knee junior year, turns to peddling drugs, and ultimately lands in federal prison ("Selling acid was a bad idea / But selling it to a cop was a worse one"). And teenagers Cyrus and Jeff, the aspiring and innocently misguided musicians from 'The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton', castigated by hysterical grown-ups when their group's brand strays a little too close to the dark side ("When you punish a person for dreaming his dream / Don't expect him to thank or forgive you"). Two songs with different perspectives on human calamity: When we're not being foolish ourselves we're at the mercy of the world's foolishness.
'Balance' is similarly affecting in how it illustrates the strife that results from colliding lives. Darnielle's use of sharp imagery and vivid detail only illuminates the drama. "Two tall glasses of sweet iced tea," the Mountain Goats frontman sings. "Underneath the sweet gum tree / And the love we once nurtured, you and me / Disintegrating violently."
Darnielle's novelistic approach to lyric-writing – densely-packed, spirited verses where not a single pulsing word is wasted – reminds me of an old Ernest Hemingway quote: "All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened." On All Hail West Texas, the narratives spring to life, threatening to overwhelm the listener. You want to shade your eyes during 'Jenny': "Our house faced west / So the big orange sun / Positioned at your back / Lit up your magnificent silhouette." Or pull the pillow over your ears during 'Absolute Lithops Effect': "The big trucks come up the highway / And the big wheels rattle my windows / And night, night comes to Texas."
Darnielle's aggressive acoustic guitar – which benefits from the remastering treatment – gives his well-crafted words even more punch. On 'Pink And Blue', his strumming is plaintive and slightly somber. On 'Jenny', he plays at a clipped pace, giving the song a subtle yet infectious rhythm. Bold, forceful chords make 'The Mess Inside' simply bristle.
The reissue's bonus material, culled from the original cassettes Darnielle recorded to, fails to outshine the album's original tracks, but does offer a few highlights: the apocalyptic 'Hardpan Song'; 'Midland', with its overtures of peace, respite, and air-conditioned spaces; and 'Answering The Phone', which concludes with, as Darnielle put it, "arguably the best yelp of my entire boombox era."
All Hail West Texas is turbulent yet thrilling. It's the sound of the dismayed believing they have gained some expertise on how to survive in the world and then suddenly, without warning, the world up and changes on them. It's the sound of the tortured attempting to conquer their demons, of the hopeful believing they are still worthy of being saved. It's Darnielle informing us that all the same things go on everywhere, whether it's West Texas, Dime Box, or some other small town in the middle of nowhere.