The Lineup

The Mountain Goats

Durham, N.C.

It’s been two decades since John Darnielle first began recording into the Panasonic RX-FT500 boom box—the one with little speakers on both sides and the dual-tape deck beneath, forming an open mouth between them—that would come to define his style for years. Like a robot stuck in a deep Listerine gargle, the Panasonic’s wheel-grind hiss served as Darnielle’s only backup singer for much of his early career. Those days, the Mountain Goats were just a part-time hobby of a psychiatric nurse with a creaky condenser mic, a handful of chords and time to kill.

Dark, witty and sometimes startling, the short songs were comprised of erratic, reedy vocals over a steady backdrop of percussive strumming. Those travelogues, thrillers and stories of suffering and redemption hammered out on acoustic guitar found an audience. With their striking lyrical imagery, the tunes were quickly scooped up and distributed by ‘90s labels like Shrimper and Car in Car. Captivated by Darnielle’s ability to hold the scope of human emotion to a two-minute vignette, listeners began to collect and trade the tapes.

Monsters, restlessness and vindictive spouses crept through those early albums, lurking behind corners, creeping on all fours. Beneath the beating on his guitar and the bleating of his voice, you could sense Darnielle’s characters searching for a desperate exit. Even Darnielle himself seemed to share their sense of urgency; over his 20 years as the Mountain Goats, the hyper-prolific frontman has released 13 studio albums, six cassettes and an army of EPs.

Even that doesn’t constitute the whole of Darnielle’s output: A legion of unreleased songs float around the Internet like lost children, adopted and guarded with care by fans, while new songs not quickly recorded are often left in infant state, forgotten. During live performances, fans frequently beg for rarities. Darnielle chambers that unfailing round for a man whose brain houses hundreds of songs that span decades: “I can’t remember how it goes anymore.” Undeterred, the faithful inch his finger off the trigger with opening chords and lyrics.

Through the years, the Mountain Goats have acquired a dogmatic following, and Darnielle has evolved from an incandescent, wiry twenty-something into a full-time touring musician—and, most recently, a father. In other words, he’s grown up. So too have his songs; with bassist Peter Hughes and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster adding a powerful backbone, the Mountain Goats have finally become what you might actually call a band.

To wit, 2011’s All Eternals Deck serves as the Mountain Goats’ deepest exploration of sound yet, with rolling piano, rhythmic strings and even a trio of barbershop-style harmonies adding a sense of expansion and development. The Panasonic has long let loose its final breath (2001’s All Hail West Texas was the boom box’s rebirth and swan song), but the monsters and the yearning remain.

At Hopscotch, the Mountain Goats will play a solo set of rarities on acoustic guitar. Then, for the first time ever, Darnielle will play his first-ever set of covers—heavy metal tunes, on piano. —Tina Haver