Trust us, you don't want John Darnielle's old pals to crash your party. They would show up on your doorstep all strung out, pissed off and half-wasted. They'd be ready to kill or fuck or scream at anything in their path. The Catholic convenience store employee is a real buzzkill when he brags about shooting some guy in the face. The vagabond tweaker in tape-covered sweatpants crowds the keg, freaking people out with chatter about cryptic symbols and invasive carpenter ants. Who the hell are these guys?
"These people are all real," Darnielle assures. And then quickly corrects himself, "Or they were. Probably three-quarters of them are dead. That's what happens to people who exist for parties and lots of amphetamines. There is just an edge to it that most people can't survive." When the topic of his old pals is approached, Darnielle himself gets pretty worked up, speaking in a caffeinated chatter. "And the ones who are alive are probably nothing like they were when they were 18 or 19 and skinny and freaked out. A lot of people I knew then were desperate and angry or violent."
But "desperate," "angry" and "violent" might be the best three adjectives to describe Darnielle's latest collection of songs, "We Shall All Be Healed." Or maybe the record -- Darnielle's twelfth official release -- is more like a reunion for his speed-freak party pals of yesteryear. Under the pluralist moniker of his one-man band, the Mountain Goats, Darnielle sings panicked odes to a motley cast of meth-head revolutionaries, paranoid freeloaders and assorted pals who are the very definition of sketchy. He delivers their monologues with the Mountain Goats' distinctive calling card: a kind of sweaty-palmed acoustic-guitar spazzing, a nasal vocal howl and that particular recklessness that might be likened to taking just a few too many hits.
"That is the nature of the drugs and the times that I was thinking about when I was working on this," he says. "Drugs are about urgency. Drugs are about drawing out the present so that you can experience more and more of it. Drugs are about getting to this place where time doesn't matter, and once you get there you are panicked to lose it."
The Converse-wearing minions who have made Darnielle into something of a cult hero over the last few years may bemoan the loss of the "Alpha Couple." Their dysfunctional love was the obsession of the last handful of Mountain Goats releases, most of which were recorded on a Panasonic hand-held tape recorder (truly, a new standard in low-fi). But "We Shall All Be Healed" leaves the primitive recording process behind as well, presenting Darnielle's new subjects with the glistening high-fidelity resolution first heard on 2002's acclaimed "Tallahassee."
But change is good, and the characters on "We Shall All Be Healed" are a refreshing lot. "Let's go where the jackals are breathing ... Wrap this bandana around your head, don't let anyone see that you're bleeding," Darnielle narrates in "Home Again Garden Grove." Then he explains: "Our dreams were like fugitive warlords ... plotting triumphant returns to the city, keeping Tec-9s tucked under the floorboards." It's the most hair-raising moment of the 13-song collection, and it bristles with desperate urgency. Other notables, like "Palmcorder Yajna" and "Quito," are equally high-octane folk jams, and though the ballads ("Mole," "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent") sag in comparison, without them it would be hard to catch your breath.
"There is the feeling of a thrill ride `with the new songs`," Darnielle says. "Like having a secret and only telling part of it. Everyone wants to think that these songs are about me, but I don't have to tell. I'm not talking about the level of engagement I had with these activities and there is a particular rush about that."
All told, that rush is contagious, making for a record that is jammed with awkward moments, searing images and raw energy. From the moment that Darnielle introduces his cronies, they are impossible to forget. And once they crash your party, they invite themselves to stay for a while. Once they get in, trust that they'll stay -- living on your couch, sallow-skinned and cold-sweating, eating junk food and plotting to run weapons -- long after the party's over.