The Mountain Goats
Zopilote Machine



by valrus USER (4 Reviews)
January 7th, 2009 | 17 replies

Release Date: 1994 | Tracklist

Review Summary: My personal introduction to the Mountain Goats' lo-fi era, and a better one I couldn't have hoped for. As with all tMG releases, slightly too uneven to be called a classic, but a superb listen nonetheless.

Okay, so here are some concerns you may have about other music that you can leave at the door before listening to this album (or reading this review): production, instrumentation, fidelity, virtuosity, arrangements. The answer to each is "N/A." They are beside the point. With the Mountain Goats, particularly early albums like Zopilote Machine, it really is all about the lyrics; everything else is a backdrop.

Sonically, here's the rundown of this album: Acoustic guitar and nasal, strident vocals that take some getting used to, recorded at the lowest fidelity you've ever heard in a commercially available recording. Short songs, too: Zopilote Machine contains nineteen songs and clocks in at just under forty-one minutes. Do the math. But John Darnielle has the ability to write songs like this and paint a picture so vivid it would take lesser lyricists fifteen minutes, a Moog, three guitar solos and a 40-piece orchestra to achieve the same.

As in all Mountain Goats releases, there are the crumbling relationships that Darnielle evokes with something as simple as a key breaking off in a lock ("Going to Bristol") or a person standing in a doorway and letting the rain in ("Orange Ball of Hate") and then moves on, leaving the listener to puzzle over how things got so bad.

But there are also the songs in which almost nothing happens, but one nonetheless gets the impression that the character in the song is deeply damaged. In "Quetzalcoatl Eats Plums," the singer tries to leave the house and then to call someone (a friend? a lover?), both times paralyzed halfway through by the sight of the plum tree in the front yard. Or: "The Black Ice Cream Song," where the singer, thinking he's dreaming of an August day in 1957, has his mate feed him some ice cream — which is, indeed, "blacker than the Devil's heart" — and hears their son's go-kart.

At first the songs seem to have nothing in common, but most of the songs have that feeling common to Mountain Goats songs of being about broken, or at least hurting, people. If there's a theme particular to Zopilote Machine, it seems to be the magical realism and dreamlike logic that many of the songs use to make their point or, more likely, pose their questions. What are the "bright feathers reflected in the sky" in "Azo Tle Nelli in Tlalticpac?" (and why is the title in Nahuatl?) Are the characters in "Standard Bitter Love Song #7" really surrounded by a "dense black cloud" of flies, or is the narrator just unhinged? When the singer of "Alpha Sun Hat" says "That's not music you hear, that's the Devil," he can't be serious. Can he? And surely it's not possible, in "Going to Georgia," that the world is really shining.

Well, maybe it is. "Going to Georgia" might be the quintessential Mountain Goats song, containing in its two minutes and fifteen second run-time more raw emotion than many entire albums. Other people have waxed more eloquent on the subject of this song than I could ever hope to, so I'll just say that it's the best example of where all the elements of the Mountain Goats' aesthetic — the simplicity, the distinctive vocals and the way the recording crackles when they overwhelm the boombox mic, and above all the inimitable lyrics — really come together.

I wanted to call Zopilote Machine a classic, but I can't. Despite the high praise for the lyrics above, I find many of those on Zopilote Machine too inscrutable or skeletal to be of much use: "The Black Ice Cream Song," for example, is evocative but so vague it has little emotional impact. "Bad Priestess," "We Have Seen the Enemy," and "Young Caesar 2000" are, similarly, bagatelles. And then there's "Song for Tura Satana." One of the "Casio songs," it has some beautiful imagery but I find it almost unlistenable due to the cheap keyboard backing track unless I'm in a charitable mood. These are personal preferences, of course, and others may love some of these songs and dismiss others that I enjoy. But I'm fairly confident that no one could call this album a perfect listen from start to finish. It is, however, superb. With nineteen tracks and hardly a serious misstep among them — provided you can get used to John Darnielle's voice — the result is utterly compelling and unique. A solid 4.5/5.

user ratings (98)

Comments:Add a Comment 
January 7th 2009


I love John Darnielle's work but this album kinda rubs me the wrong way. I think that The Coroner's Gambit and Nothing For Juice are the best of his lo-fi period. Going to Georgia kicks immense amounts of ass though.

January 7th 2009


But John Darnielle has the ability to write songs like this and paint a picture so vivid it would take lesser lyricists fifteen minutes, a Moog, three guitar solos and a 40-piece orchestra to achieve the same.

This sentence is fucking beautiful.

September 25th 2011


Album Rating: 4.0

My album rating for this is going to explode soon. Like it did for full force Galesburg and coroners gambit before it and nothing for juice before that and we shall all be healed before that and all hail west Texas before that and Ghana before that and Tallahassee before that and the sunset tree before that.

going to Goergia is a must listen for everyone with access to the Internet or a record store or knows someone with access to either or may have heard that a neighbor down the street has access to the Internet and could possibly let you borrow his Internet so you could listen to it a couple times.

December 1st 2011


Album Rating: 3.5

Azo Tle Nelli in Tlalticpac? is pretty much their best song imo

August 31st 2013


going to georgia is probably my favourite song of all time

June 1st 2014


Album Rating: 4.0

This is wonderful. Stripped down, lo-fi ballad music.

July 17th 2014


I heard the wind blow, I saw your sash come untiiieed,
blue water, white skyyyy

January 27th 2016


Going to Georgia is a fantastic tune.

March 5th 2017


This shit is downright excellent tbh

March 5th 2017


Album Rating: 4.0

Yeah, there ya go. Good rating!

Digging: A Witness - Red Snake

March 5th 2017


Nice dude didn't know you were into them! Honestly just heard of them from a comedy podcast haha

March 5th 2017


need to finally get around to checking out john's 90s shit

March 5th 2017


I'm not really familiar with lo fi acoustic folk rock at all so I don't know what you're expecting, I had no real expectations and I was pleasantly surprised!

March 5th 2017


bungy 4'd it so i expect it to be good. i've never disliked a tmg album to date.

March 5th 2017


This is my first from them and i'm definitely checking out more!

March 5th 2017


Album Rating: 3.5

all his lofi stuff rules

Digging: DJ Assault - Off the Chain for the Y2K

March 5th 2017


Album Rating: 4.0

Georgia best song [123456789]

Digging: Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking Rockwell

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