John Darnielle, the one-man band known as the Mountain Goats, is too smart for his own good. Overqualified for his rock-and-roll songwriting vocation, he's as much at ease expounding Mexican mythology and quoting Eugene O'Neill as he is peeling off a standard love-ditty chorus. Releasing albums with the regularity of an undergrad cranking out term papers, for more than a decade now Darnielle has had a following of college-radio initiates scrambling for their almanacs to decipher his obscurities. His songs dig deeply into the cultural consciousness to uncover just the right allusion or metaphor, be it from literature, sociology, or the agricultural sciences. It's a rare musician who pens a song cycle for the yam--or any crop, come to think of it.
The thing is, you don't need an encyclopedia and an IQ to match to follow along, because Darnielle understands that even the grandest narratives are interesting only when they have something to say about everyday life. On the latest Mountain Goats recording, The Coroner's Gambit, he makes the peculiar seem familiar, creating folk-song folktales that translate his bookish smarts and vast knowledge of ephemera into touching vignettes. So while it's tempting to read into the Roman-history references on "Trick Senecan Mirror" or the philosophical dichotomy of spirit and flesh in "Baboon," Darnielle's point is that uncooperative emotions and inescapable miscommunications complicate matters regardless of time or place.
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This universal understanding of how things work (and don't) helps the songs hang together. His strummy tones and homespun, four-track production values provide the common ground in his search for meaning. From the jangly, insistent opening track, "Jaipur," to the bare-bones nostalgia of the closing number, "We Are Patriots," The Coroner's Gambit occupies the gray area where one keeps on hoping in spite of knowing better. The intricately wrought character sketch on "Insurance Fraud #2" summarizes the thrills and dangers of dreaming with an analogy that only Darnielle would attempt. "There's a lot of ways to make money in this world/But I can't recommend insurance fraud," he interjects as the protagonist's plans go up in flames along with the family home. In his telling and original portraits of human nature, Darnielle fathoms thoughts and scenarios that would barely cross anyone else's mind.