Songs for Pierre Chuvin is The Mountain Goats’ latest album, recorded entirely on a Panasonic boombox, all since the pandemic. It’s based on “A Chronicle of the Last Pagans” by Pierre Chuvin, a French historian. Listening to this album, especially if you aren’t familiar with frontman John Darnielle’s work, requires a lot of trust.
If you know the Mountain Goats, you will know that this boombox is part of their lore. Darnielle began the band in the early 1990s with the very same one, since it was portable and allowed him to create his work right on the spot. As he brought on other musicians, the band expanded from their previous work, allowing in many different kinds of instrumentals. What this means is that stripped-down is not unfamiliar territory for the Mountain Goats: indeed it is some of their best.
Darnielle wrote this album over ten days when he returned home during the first month of the pandemic. The album feels so jarringly relevant that I wonder if it will have to wait until another remarkable and shocking event in order for it to make sense again. The first few songs begin with little spoken announcements. An arc emerges throughout the album, but if you listen to just the first few songs, they feel unfinished and bare.
Still, on “Until Olympius Returns,” some of the lyrics hit hard enough to move us to continue listening. “This is just a brief improvisation in the dance,” he sings in the context of a song about the pagan Olympious who is fleeing Italy; but it rings as an important reminder that our post-pandemic dance will return. “Change will come / stay warm inside the ripple of the panisonic hum,” hums a lyric on Exegetic Chains, the final song of the album and a nod to his own artistic process. The Mountain Goats is self-aware to a fault, which is very necessary when doing something this intense, artistic, and requiring concentration.
The only instruments on this album are the guitar itself, Darnielle’s novelty-song voice, and the gentle whirr of the Panasonic box itself. The musicality fits the lyrics: always aware of itself, the recording itself a character in the music, the musician and his whole history himself a character in the lyrics.
On “Last Gasp at Calama” I finally feel fully invested, ready to listen to what he has to say. The lines “one summer / then all of this is gone / one more summer / then no more swan,” are remarkably upsetting. Darnielle has the ability to make me contemplate the possibility of the end of civilization and in the same breath remind me why civilization is important in the first place. “For the Snakes” leans into similar feelings to similar effect. “We will bring memories of these things when we come” summons thoughts of big change, transformative and drastic change with only memories to remind us of the times before.
“The Wooded Hills Along the Black Sea” is a break: here, the gears and whirrs of the Panasonic feel much more noticeable than before, almost like a chorus behind the guitar-vocal track. Darnielle is a master of summoning gravitas, and his use of the box itself is crucial here to building the musical arc of the album, reminding us that something exists beyond just his voice.
There’s something about the urgency here that feels genuine. The album is urgent and rushed and not perfectly cohesive album. It feels like a collection of songs in their rawest form, the same thing you’d get if you ran into the guy at a party and he played them for you and you stuck around, even while wondering if he’s not just a little bit crazy. The lyricism is excellent, literary and sweet.
At the same time, some of the richness of their sonically larger work is lost. There is less ability to pay homage to sounds, to the sonic memory of the Mountain Goats’ historical references. In its stead, though, there is Darnielle’s isolation.
He is a human asking for help and yet he is a prophesizer. “Return the peace you took from me / give me back my community” (“Their Gods Do Not Have Surgeons”), he sings, feeling angry and asking for something, and yet on the other songs he acts instead as a wise advice-giver: “Take note of what will be gone in the blink of an eye / the blue blue water / the bone white sky” (“Going to Lebanon 2”).
There are only a few ways to summon the kind of richness that exists in these lyrics: a deeply crafted process through many days or drawn quickly, urgently, from work that is already rich.
“Songs for Pierre Chuvin” is the best kind of derivative work.
On “Exegetic Chains,” Darnielle nods to “This Year,” which is one of the Mountain Goats’ most famous songs. He repeats a lyric and changes it only slightly, to make it a command instead of a plea: “Make it through this year / if it kills us outright.”
This album is not just a stripping down to the roots. It also represents a stripping of resources and energy. But it was a necessary album to make. “Whirling in the city square / music on the air / the places where we met to share our secrets now and then / we will see them again,” sings Darnielle. I have to believe him, for my own sanity.