Podcast of the Week: I ONLY LISTEN TO THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
There are a lot of very good artists who can never really articulate how they do what they do in a way that makes sense to the rest of us. There are also a decent amount of artists who care a little too much about craft to the point of just being dull. Then there’s John Darnielle, the heart and soul of the prolific band the Mountain Goats, who has always had a gift for not only being immensely charming in interviews, but having a real knack of plainly and simply explaining his process as a writer and a musician.
If you’re not familiar with the Mountain Goats, they are a band that people either absolutely adore or are completely indifferent towards. John Darnielle crafts gut-punching, literary songs about the destitute and wretched people on the fringes of American culture, with a sort of love and precision that’s really hard to duplicate. His voice is also odd and vaguely unsettling, so a lot of people never get around to really digging into the Mountain Goats’ music, which is a tragedy. However, even if you’ve never engaged with their music, I ONLY LISTEN TO THE MOUNTAIN GOATS is an exceptional podcast for anyone who cares about art, fandom, and the process of creating.
The format of the show is as simple as it is brilliant: every week the host, Joseph Fink (of WELCOME TO NIGHTVALE fame) sits down with Darnielle to talk about one song from the Mountain Goats catalogue. Each season goes through a complete album, with the first season going through the exceptional ALL HAIL WEST TEXAS. At the end of each episode, a different artist covers the song in question, putting their own spin on the song. This show could presumably go on forever, since the Mountain Goats have been making albums since 1994, and I’m hopeful that it really might.
When I really think about it, I can’t think of too many musicians who could really have their work dissected and discussed at length the way Darnielle can. Sure, your Bob Dylans and your Leonard Cohens could warrant that kind of study of their entire catalogue, but can you really imagine those artists willingly sitting down to record a podcast like this? The thing that makes Darnielle so special is his generosity, the way he doesn’t talk about his music as a point of self-indulgence, but rather as a way of continuing a conversation with the people who have shared his music with him over the course of a lifetime. In every episode, it’s clear that Joseph Fink is living out a fantasy of getting to hangout with one of his favorite artists, but the show never feels self-serving. These are two people who are very earnestly dedicated to their respective crafts, and they love talking shop with a fellow artist.
The more podcasts I listen to, the more I realize what the medium is really about. At its best, podcasts are interesting people sharing a genuine connection, and documenting it for the whole world to later eavesdrop on. I ONLY LISTEN TO THE MOUNTAIN GOATS fits this perfectly: many of the episodes are recorded in the basement of Darnielle’s house and there is nothing fancy to them, despite the relative fame of both the subject and the host. On some episodes, the pair will get wildly off-topic and discuss the limits of appreciating HP Lovecraft, or the relative importance of putting art in its historical context. Other times, Fink asks questions that only an absolutely obsessive fan with nothing but time could possibly think to ask, and you can hear Darnielle’s genuine surprise at being presented with how another person has interpreted his art over the years. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you love the Mountain Goats, this podcast is simply a remarkable document of what art can do for the spirit and how it can form bonds between us.