In League with Dragons, the new LP by the Mountain Goats, began its life as a concept album. John Darnielle, the band’s chief architect of songcraft, had grand plans for a fantasy rock opera that would take place in a fictional setting. The plot would revolve around an invasion by sea and a community protected by an ancient wizard.
“There were a whole bunch of songs — and then I get distracted,” Darnielle said.
The distraction was another song, “An Antidote For Strychnine,” that didn’t fit within the fantasy storyline. He abandoned the rock opera and began to craft an album that would include some of the songs intended for that album, but that didn’t entirely let go of fantasy as a theme either. He would zero in on how exceptional human beings who are past their prime can be compared to aging wizards whose powers are receding. A song about Doc Gooden, circa 1999, that centers on the famed Major League Baseball pitcher reminiscing over past accomplishments while visiting Seattle at the tail-end of his career fit this mold perfectly.
“Wizards grow more practiced in their craft as they age,” Darnielle explained. “They will learn more spells. They will be able to cast them more efficiently and so forth. But as those powers concentrate their strength declines. That’s true of us, too. We go along and we gather a lot of knowledge. We have more and more. If you’re living life right, you know more today than you did yesterday, every day of your life. But, at some point, your ability to actually use your knowledge 18 hours a day becomes 16 hours a day, becomes 14, becomes 12 becomes 10 until you become ancient and then you really have a good eight-hour window where you are at peak.”
“You’re here to learn the world, your power, and then you are going to vanish,” he concluded.
Even if he vanished today, Darnielle would leave behind a wealth of audio and written documents for future generations to enjoy. He is more prolific as a songwriter (there are cassette-only Mountain Goats releases that date back to 1991,) but over the past decade he has successfully dabbled in the world of literature via two well-received novels as well.
Which comes easier?
“I would say songs come easier, and I often wonder why that is. It’s not like writing fiction is harder, but it’s also bigger. If you’re writing a book, you’re returning to the same thing every day and it assumes many different shapes. Your book, unless you’re Jack Kerouac, is not going to be about the representation of a spontaneous moment that happened. Your book is going to be the mature expression of a thought you had — so the full exploration and indulgence of that thought, whatever it was,” he said.
- Tuesday, September 17, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
House of Blues,
1055 Fifth Avenue,
Darnielle spent his teenage years in Claremont (25 miles east of Los Angeles) and would often drive down with his parents to “see the ponies” race at Del Mar. He also recalled playing an early Mountain Goats gig with Rob Crow’s Heavy Vegetable here in 1994.
“You talk about people with amazing creativity and people who really understand that your creativity is not about what clothes you drape it in, but about your voice. Rob Crow, that guy is the real deal.”