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.