It’s fitting that on the heels of the announcement of Cassette Store Day we see the release of a remastered version of All Hail West Texas, an album that utilized cassette home recording for the final time (so far) in John Darnielle’s career as The Mountain Goats. Of course, by the time the album came out in 2002, cassette listening had already had already joined CompuServe as a rapidly fading memory, and we were happy to replace tapes with CDs, which allowed skipping to specific songs with ease, didn’t need to be flipped for listening to the second half of a collection and were thin enough to inspire a wealth of creative space-saving storage options.
Of course, Millennials might not know this, but tapes were kind of fun, too. As a kid, you could load up your boombox or stereo with a blank tape and wait for a certain song to come on the radio and press record, making mixtapes of all the current radio hits to listen to on demand. When you were sick of those, you could record over them.
And, of course, you could record yourself. Some albums recorded on four-track recorders have legends built around them, classics like Nebraska and Bee Thousand that made the most out of their recording conditions, and though this method is seldom utilized now for anything beyond demos, with the capabilities of the computers in everyone’s backpacks far superior, there is a beauty in the hiss of a tape recording. With a four-track, your bedroom could become a recording studio and a traveling musician could easily put an idea on tape before heading to a studio, an idea that’s hard in 2013 to view through the lens of the past.
Darnielle didn’t use a multi-track recorder often; after all, there was often just one of him recording. But as Darnielle notes in the new liner notes for this release, The Mountain Goats were mostly a collaborative project at some point of each album, and All Hail West Texas is the only actual release that fits the paradigm of a lone guy and a tape recorder playing songs live, typically recording them on the same day they were written. So, it was a single track recorder, a Panasonic RX-FT500 Boombox, that captured this album and much of the first decade of his songwriting, with All Hail West Texas ending that era on a high note. On his website, Darnielle notes that he still uses tapes to jot down ideas and lives by the motto of “seldom saying never.”
Though it’s impossible to poll fans of The Mountain Goats on this with any authority, it is generally understood that initially many were disappointed with the move from “bi-fi” to studio recordings after this, occurring the very same year as this album, with the release of Tallahassee in 2002 on 4AD. Today The Mountain Goats is a legitimate three-piece band, with bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster, and despite any nostalgia for the golden cassette era, the project is now more dynamic and Darnielle has not lost one bit of urgency, as some worried would happen.
But, there is something special about Darnielle’s early work that isn’t better or worse, but enlightening. With the prolific nature of his person, his listeners feel like they know him in a way they wouldn’t claim of many other musicians. And the tape-era Darnielle is a person who is gone forever. Opening track “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton,” along with “No Children,” is one of the two most well-known songs in his repertoire, and it seems impossible to imagine The Mountain Goats producing a song like that today. Though Darnielle will always be a rebellious spirit, he’s mellowed out enough to make a song that concludes with a chant of “Hail Satan” highly unlikely.
Everyone remembers the “Hail Satan” conclusion of the song, but the lead track is beautiful and funny and insightful far beyond that. The details, often the backbone of Darnielle’s work, are expertly peppered in, from the pentagram to “The Hospital Bombers.” And, the message that a person shouldn’t be ”punished for dreaming his dream” matters. It’s a pillar of our existence, and it gets lost for most a little more each year, but when put like this, as two kids who want to be metal stars, the purity and unlikelihood of it is precious to a point, until you realize that your dream is likely a memory that it takes a song to recall. Speaking as someone who is living his dream as he types this, hail Satan indeed.
All Hail West Texas is not always empowering in the way this first track suggests, and many of the songs trace some pretty unfortunate events happening to people who seem to deserve a little better. The events loosely tie together in a Robert Altman sort of way, but even at his most linear and narrative, trying to trace plot in Darnielle is not really the point of his songs. Rather, Darnielle writes to express capital-T Truth in human experience and our silly emotions and the insignificance of it all and how it’s still important despite how tiny we all are.
But the gems on All Hail West Texas capture the pain and beauty of humans’ entanglements with each other. “Source Decay” in a few minutes hits on longing, bitterness, affection, desperation and nostalgia. “The Mess Inside” traces the dissolving of a love and a couple’s painful attempt to try to save a romance, with Darnielle repeating, “I wanted you to love you like you used to do,” ultimately admitting that it can’t happen. And “Distant Stations” lays out the absurdity of self-torture, summed up by the singer noting “I waited on the steps for you, and then I hid in the bush every time I saw a car pull into the parking lot.”
The songs feel slight at times, not out of a lack of quality, but just in the shadow of the career that Darnielle has built. That being said, songs also change in their personal value over time, much like the bonus tracks featured were now deemed interesting enough by the songwriter to share with the world, and commentary on each and the general recording process is included in the reissue that I’ve tried not to spoil for fans who will get this on CD or, for the first time, vinyl.
These days it’s the loneliness of the album, and just the idea of the space that is West Texas, a vast and largely unpopulated sprawl, that hits home, particularly on “Blues in Dallas,” with the shitty stock percussion from whatever little used keyboard Darnielle is playing. His hushed voice is almost a whisper as he’s singing, but really there was no one there for him to disturb, and maybe it’s just habit that keeps him quiet when he’s singing this song. It’s imaginable that any of the songs in the collection could connect at the right time. And that has ultimately been his goal, to write useful things, sentiments that will help people survive through life’s consistent struggles like he has survived. And the magnitude of just what that accomplishment is cannot be understated or recorded on a boom box or contained on a record or tape or digital file. It makes Texas seem small.