Review Summary: Ceci n'est pas une boomboxe
A planet on lock down and a tanking global economy to go with, chocolate and vanilla soft serve all swirled together. It’s a period of regression, defined just as much by what used to be, even a couple months ago, as what is right now. Jobs bled dry, a humming anxiety with every trip to the grocery, rents still due as regularly as the postman. In so many ways, the present has come shuddering to a halt.
Enter John Darnielle, the hiss of that long dormant boombox announcing his own return to a time that even a year ago seemed forever past tense. In the Year of the Novel Coronavirus, The Mountain Goats is once again a singular noun. And it couldn’t feel more fitting.
The Mountain Goats, with John Darnielle at the center, have always dove into history and fiction and fictionalized history as a mirror to living in the modern age, always broken, always beautiful. It’s the reason two decades on, with his hair going gray at the temples, every show still sees the audience yelling back in single-minded fervor that They hope they die. They hope they all die.
The unfortunate irony is that now, with lines like these ringing as true as they ever have, they cannot be shouted back in throngs. The unfortunate truth that the return of the catharsis of live music is still more than likely a very distant horizon. So even if the studios hadn’t closed, even if the bands could get together and track guitars and bass and drums and horns and choirs, it wouldn’t feel like the mirror it always has. So call it circumstance or choice or anything else, the Mountain Goats for 2020 are a thin voice, a couple chords, maybe a synth here or there, and stories about long dead folks when they were full of life, for the folks alive right now.
"Songs for Pierre Chuvin" is ostensibly a record so consumed with the minutiae of ancient historical happenings it might as well just have been an exercise in Darnielle keeping himself occupied through weeks that bleed more and more together. Hell, with his one song per day approach to the recording, it probably was. But it doesn’t stop there, and it never has. These songs of Pagans surviving under the malicious eye of Christian armies all too happy to kill in the name of saving souls are told with his trademark plain-spoken poetry. The sort where simple clauses and well worn aphorisms belie the rich detail that colors them in.
“Take note of what will be gone in the blink of an eye,” he intones in the chorus of "Going to Lebanon 2," and who knows if he’s talking about Pagan temples or bars, schools, and National Parks. And who knows if the distinction makes any difference at all, when the words themselves ring so urgent. A forlorn cry for lives irreparably changed and the normal uprooted with only liminality in its place. Strikingly contemporary, down to the month, for a song whose very title attaches itself to a very different era of lyrical puzzles and explorations scrawled into the margins of hospital patient notes, when a living in music seemed a far fetched notion. "Going to Lebanon 2," for the aspiring musicians who've been dealt a blow with the collapse of traditional performance and recording. "This is just a momentary ripple in the stream."
Most of these quick little song snapshots are carried along comfortably on the backs of unhurried chords, or the occasional hum of a lo-fi synth. The latter element in “The Wooded Hills Along the Black Sea” suggests a time when “Blues in Dallas” was a newly fresh cut. It’s moments like this that display the gentle magic of "Pierre Chuvin." Glances at the rearview mirror not from a misplaced nostalgia, but because nothing else would feel right during a time so many people have put plans for the future on hold to move back into the houses where they grew up. When the momentum of careers and moves to new cities have turned to smoke as quickly as Marcellus of Apamea at Aulon, who let his plans get just a little too far ahead of himself.
There isn't much in the way of grand declarations, statements of purpose to one day be shouted back by the displaced concert-goers. The closest comes with closing "Exegetic Chains," and even then only through it's pointed update of the "This Year" calling card. No Hail Satans. No Dance Music anywhere to be found. Just the quiet assurance from a songwriter whose empathy for the people real and made up, alive and dead, has always been the tide carrying those cathartic moments along.
The past and present are just a little bit closer together than they used to be. Or maybe they always were. The boombox never really went anywhere, sitting up there in some room in a house until the time circled back around once more. The things we’ve all built lives on are so fragile, and could be gone in the blink of an eye. Make peace with family, tell your friends you love them, and make it through this year, if it kills you outright.