All Hail West Texas

All Hail West Texas

I am not going to take this any more. I am going to take this a little while longer. I’ll take as much of this as I can possibly bear. Our house is a lovely southwestern ranch. Our house would be a lovely southwestern ranch if it had a roof. We have no house. You are lovely beyond compare. You are not what you used to be. You have really let yourself go, let yourself go, let yourself go. It’s easy to get out if you just believe in yourself. You can get out if you’re committed to the effort. There are no windows or doors and the walls are on fire. I love you. I loved you. You can’t make me leave. Drive out to the airport. Take the train down here if you get a chance. Stay wherever the hell you are. Stay wherever the hell you are. Take the train down here if you get a chance. Drive out to the airport. You can’t make me leave. I loved you. I love you. There are no windows or doors and the walls are on fire. You can get out if you’re committed to the effort. It’s easy to get out if you just believe in yourself. You have really let yourself go. You are not what you used to be. You are lovely beyond compare, beyond compare, beyond compare. We have no house. Our house would be a lovely southwestern ranch if it had a roof. Our house is a lovely southwestern ranch. I’ll take as much of this as I can possibly bear. I am going to take this a little while longer. I am not going to take this any more.

That’s the quote from the inside flap of The Mountain Goats’ 2002 album All Hail West Texas. For a long time, that quote also adorned the Favorite Quotes section of my Facebook profile, from the time that there was a Favorite Quotes section on Facebook until approximately two months ago when I finally axed it on the grounds that I spend far too much quoting other people in real life, and the last thing I need to start doing is perpetuate that cycle online.

I love that quote, though. The symmetry of it. It’s inspired. A tad depressing, but inspired. Life is a process of circling back on yourself and on everyone around you. We have really Let Ourselves Go. We are Lovely Beyond Compare.

It’s worth noting that for the album’s recent reissue courtesy of Merge Records (marking, amongst other things, the first time the album has ever been pressed on vinyl, a format it was made for), the quote is still there, but the chronology of it has been altered. It begins now with “Believe In Yourself.” It ends the same. Elsewhere on the reissue’s liner notes (if you could even call the quote “liner notes” in the first place; dubious), John Darnielle reflects a bit about the album’s conception, recording, and release – and he offers a collection of gratitude in the “Special Thanks” part of the credits that’s as direct and uncluttered and moving as his songs are (the reissue is dedicated to Matt Fraction; “because we’re both still here, and who would’ve guessed it”).

All Hail West Texas wasn’t the first album I ever listened to by The Mountain Goats. But it is my favorite, although picking a “favorite” album by songwriter whose fecundity is second to perhaps only Robert Pollard is, in many ways, a fool’s errand. It’s an album that’s crystalized in my memory because of how revelatory listening to it for the first time was. It’s a jarring record to take in at first, the music’s honesty and clarity running inverse to the manner in which it is presented. Much has been made about how the album is comprised of the last collection of recordings from Darnielle’s trusty Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox, and how West Texas represents a sort of swan song for an unseen performer in that respect, a curtain call for a stagehand of ten odd years or so. This feeling is only magnified in presence by the reissue. “All of our previous full lengths”, writes Darnielle, “had been mixtures of home recorded songs and takes from radio shows, and ventures into Bob Durkee’s studio; all were, to larger or lesser extents, collaborative, featuring other musicians or singers. All Hail is really the only one that fits the ‘one guy recording alone in his house’ description.”

People may balk at it, but it’s easy to get elegiac about that Panasonic boombox, this thing that didn’t live but died nonetheless – especially if you have the foreknowledge of The Mountain Goats’ current fondness for polished studio recordings (and the subsequent kneejerk backlash they generated – scrounge up some early reviews of We Shall All Be Healed or Tallahasee if you don’t believe me). All Hail really did mark the end of an era. And that Panasonic’s spirit exists in every part of it. The tape gears grind monotonously in the background, and withered sheen the built-in microphone imparts to every aspect of the recording’s frequency spectrum – thin, frail highs, a boxy overdriven midrange and virtually non-existent lows – is a large part of what makes the album so special. There’s little in the way of out and out charm in All Hail’s sound. It’s not nostalgic in the way that Iron and Wine’s The Creek Drank The Cradle is, for example (it’s a fair comparison; both albums were released in 2002). But the simplicity of Darnielle’s songs, and the conviction with which he performs them is so strong that they transcend their shoddy sonic origins.

To wit: give an average putz with a guitar one week and a room with a consumer tape deck, and they might make an album that kind of sounds like All Hail West Texas – but All Hail West Texas is an album that only John Darnielle could have made. It’s also the first album I ever heard that made me reshape my attitude towards lo-fidelity recording, a tactic I dismissed (incorrectly) as gimmicky and lazy from encounters with early albums by Darkthrone, Ulver, and Bathory. In the 2000 film Almost Famous, Lester Bangs remarks to another DJ the following: “Did you know that ‘The Letter’ by the Box Tops is a minute and fifty eight seconds long? It means nothing. But it takes them less than two minutes to accomplish what it takes Jethro Tull hours to NOT accomplish!”

I love Jethro Tull, but point taken, Lester.

That idea can be extended recording methods. Axl Rose spent over a decade and millions of dollars to create Chinese Democracy, and that album has all but been forgotten. This isn’t to say that All Hail is comparable to that record in some way, but it does speak to how easy it is to fall prey to artifice. How easy it is, to paraphrase Modest Mouse, build nothing out of something. Out of a lot of somethings. Like with anything, the more elements you have in play, the more your perspective dwindles. First you lose the forest, then the trees, then yourself, and then everyone else. But if you’ve got conviction in where you’re going, you’ll get there – and the “how” fades into irrelevancy. All Hail taught me this.

//

As I’ve said before, the songs here are pointedly, stupidly simple – but they hit on an emotional level that’s extra resonant because they don’t deal in abstractions, even when you think they might be tacitly doing so. Every song here tells a complete story, one sustained by its own merits and nothing else. Perfect example: the album’s first song, The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton. Take a look at that title, and marvel at how little room for interpretation there is with it. The song is about two boys, Jeff and Cyrus, “who’ve been friends since grade school”; their band practices “twice a week in Jeff’s bedroom.” How their story unfolds from there I won’t say (you can listen to the song below if you’re so inclined), but I will say that it’s a great way to kick an album off, and Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton is a contender for the Best Opening Song on a Mountain Goats Record, Ever.

I know, I know. Cue groans. “Are you serious? What about The Recognition Scene? What about Then The Letting Go? Cubs In Five?” I get it. I do. Maybe it’s because I share the same affinity for metal that the song’s author does (read almost any interview the Darnielle, and the conversation is bound to turn to metal at some point). But the best part of the song to me is that just when things start to get cryptic with Jeff and Cyrus’ story, it suddenly snaps into place with this lyric:

When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you.

A truth like that can cut through damn near anything.

And the song’s final line? Perfection. Run wild. Raise hell. Hail, hail.

Perusing the reissue of the album, I found that Darnielle actually thanks the two stars of that song in the credits: “Thanks, finally, from the truest and deepest depths of my heart, to Jeff and Cyrus: for making yourselves known to me, for raising your voices, and for refusing to go down without a fight.” They may not have earned their fortune and fame as Satan’s Fingers, but it’s good to know they’re loved.

One of the keys to why this album works so well is how deft it is with striking the perfect balance between so few components whose consistency across the record almost never alters. Jenny, for example, is the fourth song on the record, and it’s the fourth song composed of just voice and guitar. It’s a song that, if you distill it down to its essence, is about love, about traveling out into the vastness of an open space with someone close to you. Oh, and motorcycles. Can’t forget them motorcycles.

But listen to the guitar in Jenny. Notice how the biggest impact of the melody comes not from a chord, but from silence? And how in that silence, you can hear the dull roar of the Panasonic creep back into the fold for a moment? So, as the album build to its penultimate lyric –

And you pointed your headlamp toward the horizon/we were the one thing in the galaxy/God didn’t have his eyes on

– the minimalism of the guitar part takes on a new significance. Wind and sky. Open space. The music sounds as though it’s zooming past you as if you were actually on a motorcycle, tearing through the dsesert at dusk. A pirate’s life, indeed.

As the album winds down, the instrumentation finally changes on the song Blue In Dallas. The guitar is traded out for a keyboard and drum machine, and the whole thing sounds more than a little similar to early Casiotone For The Painfully Alone. The song plods along, and to be frank, it’s a little sterile sounding. Adding to things, Darnielle sings the song in a hushed whisper. But tension arises out of this as the end of each verse gets more menacing, from “I will run a comb through my hair” to “I will let the minions flow” (presumably not these minions), to finally, “I have not learned how to forgive.” The character in this song seems bored by the waiting around they claim they’re doing in the chorus, but it seems there’s something a little more ominous at play, too. We don’t get the full picture, but we don’t need it; “I have not learned how to forgive” says all about the character’s motives we need to know. And I know what I said earlier about abstractions, and it still holds true here. There’s a difference between giving someone everything and giving them only what they need.

There’s a few folk(ish)hero ballads on All Hail, and they’ve always been the record’s low point for me. And while Fault Lines eventually grew in my estimation due to its persistence in comparing people’s weaknesses to structural failings (“I have termites in the framework/so do you”), I thought I’d never grow to appreciate Fall of the Star High School Running Back. It was a dud for me, and I couldn’t tell you why. But last week I listened to it again, walking home from work through the streets of downtown Chicago, and when I got to the lyric “selling acid was a bad idea/and selling it to a cop was a worse one”, I started laughing out loud. Laughing loudly. It took a whole block before I finally got myself under control. People must’ve thought I was deranged, and I know I probably looked it. Now I’m still far from being that song’s champion, but damn if it didn’t manage to coax something bizarre and unexpected out of me after all these years.

Most Mountain Goats songs don’t wade heavily into romantic waters without some sort of tangible tether to keep things from getting sappy. But some songs wade farther than others, and The Mess Inside is a song that stretches that tether to its breaking point – but it stays intact. As with other songs, it’s built around something universal that arrives on the heels of a story of two people:

I wanted you/to love me like you used to do

Everyone everywhere has felt that about someone or something at some point in their life. And Darnielle sings the line like it’s a matter of life and death, even though he knows that nothing will fix what’s wrong with these characters’ house, or their relationship to one another (it seems a recurring theme of the album is the relationship between people and the structures that they inhabit and build their lives around). It’s in our nature to yearn for things that have long since passed, and we sometimes we go through life by rote when doing so. But when something real is happening, and we’re no longer dealing with phantoms of the past, it’s undeniable. In a weird way, that’s why I’ve always thought that San Bernadino from Heretic Pride is the inverse twin of The Mess Inside; the two songs run the same path, but they head in opposite directions. So it goes.

//

So. A quick note about the new songs on this reissue: there’s six of them (plus an alt version of the aforementioned Jenny), and I haven’t listened to any of them. I know I probably will at some point, but given that these songs survived, and a whole second album’s worth of material was trashed, it seems unfair to consider them against the songs that are on the album proper and not against the rest of the songs that won’t ever see the light of day (like literally: Darnielle through out a whole tape of songs that were for potential inclusion on the record because he didn’t want another Hail and Farewell, Gothernburg on his hands). Which brings to me the most astounding thing about this reissue: the lyrics on the record, and the stories and the characters we meet in them, were written during a work orientation session.

Yeah. Darnielle actually wrote the lyrics of All Hail West Texas in the margins of the handouts he was given for his new hospital job. Naturally, he’s pretty nonchalant about it: “Orientation…involves getting a bunch of mimeographed handouts which the management is legally required to read to you as you read along. There’s at least five eight-hour days of this, and sometimes it goes on for two whole weeks. You can get a lot of lyric writing done in the margins of these handouts.”

I about fell over when I read that. I never really took time to consider the process by which the lyrics for this record were written, and I guess I always pictured something a little more…I don’t know. Writer-ly? Somehow? But it’s a beautiful thing to know that the bulk of something which has provided me with an abundance of joy over many years first sprang forth out of the ether because its creator was simply trying to pass the time in a room somewhere. Not to invite the comparison (thought it will), but for me, that’s akin to Tolkein scribbling what ended up being the first sentence of The Hobbit on the back of a term paper simply because it came to him. All Hail West Texas isn’t a novel, but it is an adventure, a journey, and ultimately we’re given exactly what the cover says: fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys – but the wonderful thing about the album is how it all adds up to so much more than that.

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