My phone conversation with Mountain Goats mastermind John Darnielle gets off to a bad start when I ask him about his love of black metal. He corrects me: he is a fan of death metal, not black metal. “They are different genres.”
The Mountain Goats do not sound like any kind of metal, but a conversation with Darnielle tends to jump from genre to genre, from Morbid Angel to Mel Tormé. Since the 1990s, Darnielle has been playing a kind of folk-rock, usually based on his acoustic-guitar playing and singing. But the focus is always on his lyrics. He’s often cited as one of the best lyricists working today, and rightly so.
On the recent Transcendental Youth, Darnielle packs a lot of meaning into every line. “Harlem Roulette” paints a character portrait of the R&B singer Frankie Lymon near the end of his short life. Darnielle’s deceptively simple refrain, “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again,” encompasses Lymon’s tragedy, the loneliness of people listening to his music decades later, and the way that music can comfort the lonely.
“Concision is very important,” Darnielle says. “It’s a lifelong journey. I used to be hyper-verbose in my writing. Now I want my words to have a very high atomic weight. The master of that is Mary Chapin Carpenter.”
Would he consider recording with a country artist like Carpenter? “I’d be really intimidated,” he says, “because the level of musicianship of those Nashville players is so high. I bet I could put wood on a baseball, but don’t put me on a major-league team!”
MOUNTAIN GOATS: The Irenic, Monday, December 10, 7 p.m. 619-624-9335. $20