A little more than a decade ago, a wandering singer-songwriter named John Darnielle released an album under the name of his sometimes-band/sometimes-solo project, The Mountain Goats. The songs are simple compositions, featuring mostly just Darnielle’s slightly nasal voice and acoustic guitar.
That album, All Hail West Texas, was reissued by Merge Records last month after being out of print for years. It’s about as unlikely a hit record as you’ll find, but in a strange way, a hit is exactly what it is. All Hail West Texas was a breakout record for Darnielle, who had been recording as The Mountain Goats since the early ’90s. The album, which has grown in popularity over the years, helped bring Darnielle critical admiration and an ever-growing, intensely devoted fan base. After All Hail West Texas, Darnielle moved on to better production in real studios. Today, his concerts sell out and it’s common to find The Mountain Goats’ music on NPR and other mainstream outlets.
With its tape wobble, unintended distortion, and Darnielle’s unconventional voice, All Hail West Texas touches a nerve that’s both authentic to its namesake and strikingly universal. The album cover promises “14 songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys,” and in this description, so oddly specific and simultaneously vague, you’ll find a hint about the album’s themes: the tension between freedom and feeling trapped, whether in a relationship, a town, or in pursuit of dreams.
It’s easy to see why Darnielle picked West Texas, with its expansive landscapes and small towns, as the setting for his characters’ struggles. It’s an epic place that’s hatched many outsized ambitions, and where it’s equally easy to feel reined in by isolation. Kids strive to escape external constraints in the album’s first two songs, “Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton” and “The Fall of the Star High School Running Back.” The former tells the story of two friends, Cyrus and Jeff, who dream of “stage lights and Lear Jets, fortune and fame,” but who are split apart when Cyrus is sent away to a distant school, where he’s told his dream is impossible.
“When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you,” Darnielle warns, before promising triumphantly, “the best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you.”
Darnielle also tells less victorious tales, including “Jenny,” which suggests the arc of a love story that doesn’t seem to have outpaced or outlived anyone. By “Source Decay,” the second to last song, Darnielle is remembering the past through occasional postcards from someone he once lived with. They’re not especially welcome memories, and it’s clear Darnielle wants to escape them. “I wish the West Texas highway was a Mobius strip,” he sings. “I could ride it out forever when I feel my heart break.”
It’s one of many instances in which the Texas landscape, suggesting both freedom and lonely captivity, plays an emotional role on the album.
We never learn exactly who the seven people mentioned on the cover are, but that’s not really the point. With All Hail West Texas, Darnielle constructed an homage that will be achingly familiar anyone who’s ever felt smothered and comforted by the place they call home. With the album’s reissue, it’s a place worth visiting again.