All Hail West Texas is a lonesome album, the product of an idle summer at a dead-end job. Its sole songwriter and performer in his sixth album as The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle, worked at a health care facility during the day, the bulk of which time he spent listening to a supervisor read him rote instructions from a piece of paper. Under these circumstances, keeping an active imagination was a practical requirement—Darnielle took to scribbling notes in the margins of the mimeographed handouts.
After work, he reached for his guitar and spilled the tunelets in his head to an old cassette recorder, the Panasonic RX-FT500. The machine was more than a little worse-for-wear; as he recalls in the vinyl reissue liner notes, “the designers hadn’t thought to situate the actual moving parts (that is, the gears) as far as cosmetically possible from this unusually sensitive microphone.” The result was a low, grinding whirr in the background of every track.
Another songwriter might have looked for a way around the nuisance, but Darnielle heard something more. In the liner notes of the vinyl reissue, he’s explicit on this element’s importance for the album’s mood, going so far as to call it “a painfully raw sound that can legitimately be thought of as a second performer on these otherwise unaccompanied recordings.” There’s a romantic appeal here, too: supposedly, when it came time to start recording, the FT500 somehow started working again after being completely out of commission. “Its inexplicable self-originating will to go on echoes some of the boneheaded ideas that motivate the people who populate these little songs,” says Darnielle. This uniquely perfect marriage of form and content is inseparable from the legacy of All Hail West Texas.
Over the FT500’s wheel-grind, Darnielle gives us 14 interlocking vignettes of “seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.” Speculating on which of these characters pop up in which songs is one of the albums many pleasures (is that the disgraced football player from “Fall of the Star High School Running Back” traveling after three nights in jail in “Jeff Davis County Blues”? Who’s exchanging those postcards in “Source Decay”—could it be the dreamers Jeff and Cyrus of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton”?)
With each of these songs, Darnielle manages a clever frame for his estranged characters against a world both arid and teeming with possibilities. “Balance” transfigures a human problem, mounting debt, into a string of natural processes: “Two slow summer hours spent picking at the bones / Figuring the interest on delinquent loans,” “Wet your finger, place it toward the wind, feel disaster in the air.” “Pink and Blue” follows with landscape snapshots (“The crows discuss their future in the branches of their Louisiana live oaks…Strange wind all full of new smells, rust and fur and Reception Sticks,”) only haltingly revealing itself as a story of new fatherhood. The song is gorgeous and hopeful without being in the least sentimental.
Two almost unbearably sad songs in the middle, “Riches and Wonders” and “The Mess Inside,” recount the gnawing tension and emotional collapse (respectively) of doomed lovers. In “Riches and Wonders,” the couple tries hard to make things work at home (“We are strong, we are faithful / We are guardians of a rare thing.”) When that doesn’t work, they take a series of vacations in an attempt to reignite their passion, but the exotic changes in scenery only bring “the mess inside” into sharper relief: “We took a weekend, drove to Provo / The snow was white and fluffy / A weekend in Utah won’t fix what’s wrong with us / The gray sky was vast and real cryptic above me.”
With the exception of a dusty keyboard part in “Blues in Dallas,” Darnielle’s acoustic guitar is the only instrument on the album. You could describe his playing in a lot of ways, pretty and refined not among them. It’s not a question of recording quality—no amount of studio polish could have eclipsed the roughshod way Darnielle uses his strumming hand. He plays almost all open chords, the rare arpeggio more ornamental than central to any song’s structure. There are far more down-strums than up-strums. On higher-energy cuts like “Fall of the Star High School Running Back,” “Jenny” and “Source Decay,” he plays sped-up patterns like an over-excited student who’s just learned to transition between G and E-minor. Even on the subdued songs, Darnielle’s playing is never smooth. The odd string buzzes, a percussive element persists.
These are not criticisms. Darnielle’s style shows us how much he has invested in these characters beyond his words. After all, he recorded most of these songs hours (or minutes) after writing them. Though economically sketched, these characters are deeply felt, and that emotion spills into the guitar. More intricate playing, additional tracks or overdubs would have dampened the effect.
Darnielle doesn’t sing with traditional beauty or skill, either. His nasally timbre is an acquired taste. But this rough quality fits the stories he tells, turning on a dime from breathless reportage, to pained emotional expression, to a joyous “Hail Satan!” Crucially, his delivery elevates certain lines that would otherwise come off too prosaic. “Tried to fight the creeping sense of dread with temporal things” is a clunky line until you hear the way Darnielle fires those syllables off. But when he needs to, he can draw deep wells of meaning from much simpler turns of phrase. “I want to go home, but I am home,” from “Riches and Wonders,” is the line to end all lines about paralysis in an unfulfilling relationship – boring deep into the roots of that feeling, sung in a broken quaver like Darnielle can barely muster the strength. No other words are needed.
All Hail West Texas is now 20 years old, but the number feels irrelevant. The album is more like a time capsule than a cultural object for re-evaluation—a breathless collection of great stories with a throughline you feel. Whether in 20, 30 or 50 years, these songs won’t sound any less immediate or forward than they do now, because they were made from few essentials: a writer of wide-ranging images, the zeal to set them to music, and a motor grinding its gears against all odds in the negative space.
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Casey Burke is a published music journalist and creative writer with a wide-ranging taste in music. His work has appeared in Grandma Sophia’s Cookies, Brainchild Literary & Arts Magazine, and blogs for WTJU and Plaze Music.