For no particular reason I’ve found myself tag-teaming my brain with equal doses of The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats lately. Though, “no reason” isn’t really accurate. The two “indie” juggernauts are (not surprisingly) two of my favorite groups of the last six or seven years, respectively. I realize I may be running a significant risk of “dating” myself here (as neither artist has put out any substantial release since 2006), but the lingering nature of each group’s collective body of work lends itself to significant inspection. While their music almost completely appeals to different sonic mindsets, their link lies (quite obviously) within in the mouthpiece. I am definitely not the first to point this fact out, but there’s no harm in beating a dead horse this rich in depth.
While Craig Finn of The Hold Steady and John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats reside on separate sides of the musical spectrum in regards to taste, this odd couple (as it were) seems to employ similar methods to bring about reflection and life in their work. Though Finn and his barroom poetry style is most often compared to that of Springsteen (or viewed as the antithesis to someone like Colin Meloy of The Decemberists) his tenderness, matched with his curious narrative and story-telling style, seems inherently bonded with that of Darnielle’s. While the two artists (well known as friends) both understand that there is poetry in the mundane, they rely heavily on the power of saturation to illustrate this point to completion.
Darnielle’s methods can initially be passed off as melodramatic or perhaps self-indulgent, but closer examination will almost always find a stronger hand behind the wild emotion. John uses personal pain and stories of life to relay universal themes that are far more simplistic than they ever seem. There is a smallness to The Mountain Goats’ sweeping emotion that is almost inadvertently satisfying. You’d think it was all an accident if not for John’s smirking precision behind every large turn the group makes. He never seems to commit to one particular mindset, keeping you purposefully at bay. John perpetuates the idea of this weird marriage between quiet simplicity and grandness that is markedly effective in large doses. As he immerses himself in these vivid tales of seeming banality, one might find themselves lost within the particulars of each story. A maze is created and Darnielle is the only one to possess the map of escape. It’s within this abundance of sensation that The Mountain Goats are the most successful. He lulls you into a sense of calm, and then strikes at you with that soothing venom.
Finn, long referred to as indie rock’s own Poet Laureate, uses a marginally different method to inject the poison of time into his listeners--but the end results are largely the same. The Hold Steady infuse a classic rock platform with a decidedly cerebral personality to create a unique and satisfying blend of bounce and balladry. Finn, like Darnielle, likes to tell his stories with a distinct hint of pain and recognition. These sound like personal stories even if they are, in reality, not. However, whether or not they are linked to the actual life and times of Craig Finn is insignificant; they attach themselves to the listener and create a universal relation that makes the enjoyment all the more intense. Finn has a way of injecting life and hope--hell, even fun-- into almost any drunken junkie story that he tells. It is in this way that he and John Darnielle are the most alike.
Think about The Mountain Goats’ “This Year”; a song that uses a traditional folk pop aesthetic with maybe the most anthemic verse of the decade. However, the track is essentially about just how unhappy Darnielle is with the state of his life (at the time), and ends with him getting beaten by his stepfather. John guides the track in such a way, though, that makes it an uplifting song with uncommon strength and affirmation. Think about The Hold Steady’s “Killer Parties”; a song which, on the surface, is a bit of a laundry list of debauchery. Though, when the track unfolds, you begin to see the play on words used in the title. Ultimately, it points out the general need to escape things you surround yourself with, and the dangerous nature of a life of excess. The track is simply structured and is as fun as it is potent.
The fact that the points of these songs are both not quite on the surface as well not really difficult to figure out perfectly captures the true nature of both writers. They take the mundane and make it special; they take the pretentious and bring it to earth; they take the simple things and make them poetic. But they are still simple. It is a really uncomplicated process. The realization that the two really aren’t trying all that hard to do this--eliminating the hindering nature of indie posturing--is what makes their work so satisfying.
John and Craig apparently argue regularly over the merits of Death Metal vs. Punk Rock (I’ll let you pick who falls where), and I think this is a wonderful window into the differences and similarities of both artists. Death Metal and Punk Rock (and we are talking about old school punk here) are about as far removed as you can get from either writer’s particular musical style. However, the two genres, like Finn and Darnielle, share similar methods to reach their points. They appear and ARE quite different on the surface, but possess passion and purpose which sustain them. Each formula is easy to recognize, but it takes nothing away from the blood coursing through each vein. As 2008 approaches, both The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats have promised new albums. Whether or not they remain true to their successful formulas on these new LPs remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, however: whatever direction these frontmen take their respective groups in the coming future, I’m fairly certain that there hasn't been this much potency in self-indulgence since...forever.