Over the past 10 years, John Darnielle has been one of this country's most distinctive songwriters. The fact that his one-man band, the Mountain Goats, is hardly a household name has much to do with the roughness of his recordings and the peculiarity of his subject matter. Many of his early songs were recorded on a simple boombox; even his later four-track efforts can hardly be classified as hi-fi. His song topics -- whether they be Aztec gods, Roman tyrants, or hearts pumping blood -- tend to confirm his status as erstwhile grad student. Still, few eggheads wax poetic about the Easter Bunny and Russ Meyer characters, or suggest that Bill Gates may one day lead the synth-pop revival. And when Darnielle's strident voice and viciously strummed acoustic guitar reach critical mass, he can raise goose bumps the size of cherries.The Mountain Goats' first album in three years, The Coroner's Gambit, begins with a short sample of a scratchy blues tune, then launches into "Jaipur," one of the rawest songs of Darnielle's career. The record proceeds to seesaw between gut-punch minimalism and carefully decorated folk, trading no-fi scuzz for violin, accordion, and banjo accompaniment (thanks in part to longtime friend and fellow Midwestern songwriter Simon Joyner). On past songs, Darnielle either shouted or spoke his lyrics; now he sings as well, in a sweet, straining voice that suggests a pubescent boy mired in his first crush.
The album also shows a new depth to Darnielle's songwriting. Gone are the odes to ancient civilizations and rulers, as well as his penchant for dwelling on certain elements of nature. These songs are full of telling details, unwinding stories, and odd turns of phrase, offering clear anger ("My defenses might be working with a skeleton crew/ But I'll be skinned alive before I take this from you"), longing ("If I ever want to drive myself insane/ All I have to do is watch you breathing"), and bemused observation ("There's a lot of ways to make a living in this world/ But I can't recommend insurance fraud").
Live, Darnielle has been known to end shows with a stripped-down version of "The Sign" by Swedish dance-pop band Ace of Base. It's a telling moment, one in which he takes a piece of fluffy pop trash, and turns it into something beautiful. Darnielle is more than a singer/songwriter; he's an alchemist.