It would take an ungodly combination of dedicated scholarship and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder to reach the end of John Darnielle’s recorded works. Many fans have tried and some have even claimed supremacy over the months-long (or maybe years-long?) running time of his distended discography. But to the average Mountain Goats aficionado, lacking the time for Kabbalistic number-crunching or the memorization of national epics, falls the task of defining the canon for everyday access. Divorcing any new Darnielle release from the rest of that oversized oeuvre enough to honestly judge it on its own merits has become as impossible as it is irrelevant.
If you’re unfamiliar with this man’s work, I’d suggest you acquire Tallahassee and All Hail West Texas, the two 2002 releases that typify his lucid, nasal MO. If you’re not down with songs told from the point of view of Toad in Super Mario Bros. or odes to favorite peanut brands, then fuck off. While you do that, I’ll be here explaining to the converted why Undercard — the second full-length pieced together by the one constant Mountain Goat and his longtime friend, collaborator, and arranger Franklin Bruno (also leader of the 90s sleepers Nothing Painted Blue) under the name of The Extra Lens (née The Extra Glenns) — is the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Gospel of John Darnielle. Which is to say, apocryphal at best.
Judging by the record’s title, the duo seem aware of Undercard’s likely fate of being mostly ignored, and as such the stakes are pretty low. Their first LP, the solid Martial Arts Weekend, brought something new to the table; released between the two 2002 albums cited above, it presented Darnielle with a professional-sounding studio setup and backed by more than two instruments for the first time in his career. The absence of boombox fuzz and drawled three-AM introductions marked a definite change of pace. But nowadays, after a slew of Bruno-assisted Goats albums, including the impeccable The Sunset Tree and especially last year’s The Life of the World To Come (on which violin hero Owen Pallett laid down stately string arrangements), this more musical, richer Darnielle has become the norm. What, then, differentiates The Extra Lens?
For one, Bruno and Darnielle share the writing credit, although the songcraft remains distinctly Goats-ish. The guitars are louder than usual — too loud, actually, in many cases. The otherwise stellar “How I Left The Ministry” threatens to collapse under the weight of the trebly overdriven-guitar and glock treatment that Bruno subjects it to. He muffles Darnielle’s distinctive vocals, clearly the most vital element in all these lyric-driven songs, to the point of making them ineffectual. Frankly, Undercard sounds like it was mixed by amateurs. This disconnect between the voice and acoustic guitar at each song’s core and all the bright, overzealous drapery on top no doubt stems from the nature of the process: Darnielle recorded the songs alone, then Bruno taped arrangements over them while his collaborator continued his day-job elsewhere.
It’s a shame, though, as the songs remain consistently compelling. Sure, some missteps stick out, like an overly-earnest, musical-theater-sounding cover of Paul Newman’s “In Germany Before the War”; and the writing on the album’s final two tracks, “Rockin’ Rockin’ Twilight of the Gods” and “Dogs of Clinic 17,” is rendered more or less inaudible behind some truly homely guitar work. “Only Existing Footage” outlines the collapsing life of a low-budget filmmaker en route to Serbia, featuring some typically direct, Darnielle-ian lines, like the narrator’s complaint that “Oblivion’s been knocking since I gave it my address.” “Programmed Cell Death” is a vivid, surreal vignette in which a congregation of humans await what may be the rapture, extraterrestrial apotheosis, or something in a grocery store aisle. On the gently apocalyptic “Ambivalent Landscape Z,” the protagonist, hunkering down in a corn field under the “cold gaze of the universal harvester,” warns that “Every creature on earth needs a fallout shelter/ This one’s mine.” It’s evocative, creative stuff and makes it worth fighting through the album’s more sonically grating moments.
In the end, it’s one of the weaker entries in the extended discography of Darnielle, less vital even than some of the more obscure singles like “Jam Eater Blues” or the “Tropical Depression” split. No disrespect to the multitalented Franklin Bruno, who I hear tell is also a crackerjack music critic and philosophy professor, but Undercard tastes like diluted Darnielle. Nonetheless, there’s enough gold buried here to recommend it, even if it’s not strictly canonical by my personal reckoning.