The Mountain Goats
f the guy who wrote the Pitchformula program (which mathematically breaks down and analyzes music reviews before showing how to compose “successful” imitations) were to devise a similar algorithm for the Mountain Goats, the sterilized result would sound very much like “Ox Baker Triumphant,” the first track off the Babylon Springs EP. Containing all of the standard tropes and none of the exuberant vitality or profoundly humane empathy We Who Worship At The Altar Of Darnielle have come to associate with the Goats, the song invites suspicion that it began life, if not as a computerized simulacrum, then as a We Shall All Be Healed outtake. Not only does its wrestler title character appear in that album’s insert as one of the “Champions of the World,” but a line about “worry lines on my forehead” bears sufficient resemblance to the laugh lines inscribed on the faces of the tweakers in “Palmcorder Yajna.”
Then again, another line about the narrator feeling “a little worse for wear” invites recollections of “Color in Your Cheeks” from All Hail West Texas, so perhaps amateurish musical archaeology attempts are misplaced. More important is the would-be moment of catharsis, that point late in the song where Darnielle escalates the intensity of his voice to drive home that he means it, man. This trick has rarely failed him in the past, from “waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa Bay” to telling us to “get in the goddamn car,” but on “Ox Baker” he holds back the wild-eyed fervor, giving his concluding exclamation about “practically walking on air” a feel of either overwrought straightforwardness or underwrought passion. It may not be the worst song the Mountain Goats have ever offered, but it’s perhaps the least interesting one (even “Billy the Kid’s Dream of the Magic Shoes” had that deliriously seething call-out to the “rat bastards”).
Babylon Springs improves from there, but it never achieves lift-off. “Alibi” reveals the most fleshed-out sound the Goats have unveiled yet, complete with a compelling keyboard countermelody, but with its trite lyrics centered on a mundane act of infidelity, the song sounds as if Darnielle’s grand aspirations for the Mountain Goats’ “mature” stage is to settle into the middle of the indie road. He’s not forty miles from Atlanta anymore—he’s that distance from illicit consummation as he passes through West Covina here, so his destination could be Santa Monica, Long Beach, or San Bernardino—but this is nowhere, to be sure.
Metaphors fall unusually flat throughout the EP, and closing track “Wait for You” mistakes nearly inaudible fragility for emotional heft. Even Darnielle’s trusty covers radar, which has helped him claim Robert Johnson, Carly Simon, Steely Dan, Suede, and numerous others as his own fails him here. The overly-reverent take on Trembling Blue Stars’ “Sometimes I Still Feel the Bruise” adds little to the original beyond substituting Darnielle’s voice for the slightly more self-pitying Robert Wratten. It’s a lovely, moving song, both there and here, but its key conceit (“You made an impression / Sometimes I still feel the bruise”) only serves to illustrate how lackadaisical lines about “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” are elsewhere on the EP.
There’s no sense in being a tape-deck reactionary and wishing Darnielle were still going to Alaska or Lebanon or Queens. He’s past that now (but not unsympathetic to that fan contingent, as the vinyl-only demo collection Come, Come to the Sunset Tree proved), and his three 4AD albums stand alongside his best work. As on Beautiful Rat Sunset or On Juhu Beach, Darnielle uses the EP format here to bury some songs that aren’t quite bad enough to abandon, but which don’t quite merit inclusion on a proper album, either. Unlike those efforts, this lacks the sporadic bursts of startling clarity that define the Mountain Goats project.
But no five-song EP can dethrone the man from his current position as the world’s greatest working songwriter, whose penchant for descriptive language so deftly merges clichés with amazingly vivid metaphors that his songwriting voice is instantly recognizable even when being covered by, say, Atom and His Package, and whose cultural versatility has generated a body of work with allusions ranging from Sinaloan milk snakes to Blue Cheer to Tennyson. Someone should give the man a MacArthur genius grant—but not on account of Babylon Springs, a mediocrity safely hidden amidst a massive and brilliant body of work.