The eponymous best-ever death-metal band, John Darnielle informs us, “was a couple of guys who’d been friends since grade school,” and we—being fans of literate indie rock, putatively unfamiliar with the knuckle-dragging end of the pop-music continuum—immediately wonder: just how effective is a two-piece death-metal band?
This carefully packaged information arrives in the first lines of the first song on All Hail West Texas, one of two albums Darnielle released as the Mountain Goats in 2002. Like everything else on the album, as well as virtually all of the Mountain Goats’ prior recorded output, its sonic palette consists solely of Darnielle’s acoustic guitar and his precise, insistent voice, recorded on a consumer-grade Panasonic boom box with a degree of clarity that makes most lo-fi indie rock sound like it was produced by Giorgio Moroder. The song’s lack of drums and heavy riffage and cosmic doom, plus the groundedness and sincerity signified by its asceticism, puts it well outside death-metal territory.
Back to the band: it was just two kids, Cyrus and Jeff. Even if we ourselves don’t listen to death metal, we’re fluent enough in its folkways to wonder again: wouldn’t the names “Cyrus” and “Jeff” be judged inadequate in a subculture populated by characters with menacing appellations like “Cronos” and “Destructhor”? Further, Darnielle tells us, the boys never did get around to naming the band itself, although “after weeks of debate” they narrowed the field to three finalists: Satan’s Fingers, the Killers, and the Hospital Bombers. These options strike us, respectively, as silly, overused, and just perplexing.
In the third verse, after an overview of the fame and fortune the boys “believed in their hearts” lay within reach of their calloused fingers, Darnielle reports that “in script that made prominent use of a pentagram, they stenciled their drumheads and guitars with their names.” That fastidious subordinate clause—“prominent use of a pentagram”—is the clue that lends credence to our suspicion: these kids are clueless dorks, blinded by naïveté and grandiosity to their own hopeless ineptitude. We’re sure we can hear Darnielle smirk as he adds this detail.
We are mistaken. “And this,” he explains in the next line—opening the trapdoor, curdling our grins—“was how Cyrus got sent to the school where they told him he’d never be famous. / And this was why Jeff, in the letters he’d write to his friend, helped develop a plan to get even.”
All schools function primarily as detention centers, needless to say, but those of us who grew up in suburban Texas in the 1980s knew kids who got sent to, or at least threatened with, “military school,” the term parents used for privately run boot-camp-style behavior-modification facilities, presumably to reassure themselves and others that their shipped-off children were being forged into righteous warriors for God and country, not just warehoused as inconveniences and embarrassments. Cyrus’s parents, it seems, found no humor in that pentagram.
So the song we are listening to is not the song we thought we were listening to. We begin to replay it in our memories, hunting for shadows we ignored before, and return with a sudden jolt of understanding to Jeff’s “plan to get even”: this is really a story about how gentle peer-mockery and ill-considered parental discipline can trigger violence when directed at a truly messed-up kid.
Wrong again. Troubled teens do shoot up schools, yes, but far more common and less remarked upon are those instances when a young person simply says or does something that makes authorities nervous, and thereby earns not involuntary enrollment in “military school” but rather a more serious extended stay in what might be called—to borrow a phrase that is printed on the cover of All Hail West Texas—“a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.” Those aren’t the words Jeff’s people would use, of course: they’d just say that he went to a “hospital.” Which explains that oddball third contender in the running for the duo’s band name.
We have to piece this together on our own, because at this point we have all the information that Darnielle’s going to give us. He’s known all along what we’re just figuring out: that we haven’t really been listening, that what we heard through the scrim of tape hiss as wry humor was actually rage, that almost every line in this song is a trap set for our ungenerous assumptions. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” has identified its enemies—parental authoritarianism, religious paranoia—but its enemies, which cannot be resisted in an indie rock song, are not its targets. Its targets are us, people who listen to Mountain Goats records: independent sophisticates, educated and citified, given to observation and commentary but not inclined to engage or commit. Us, whose reflex response to dumb kids like these is a superior chuckle, maybe with an inward wince of recognition, instead of a proper measure of sympathy and respect. We like to believe we oppose the coercive forces of small-mindedness as a matter of personal politics, when in fact we’ve probably just fled them; others, meanwhile, are in that fight up to their ears. Here, as elsewhere, Darnielle’s angry, earnest, defiantly uncool project is to reclaim for awkward adolescence—which has no escape route, no better option than to stand its ground and reject what would assimilate it—the moral authority that is its rightful due.
Darnielle finishes by switching out of the narrative past tense into the future: “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream,” he sings, “don’t expect him to thank or forgive you. The best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you.” The real story has slipped by in our blind spots. Darnielle’s parting promise is all we’re left with, which is probably more than we’ve earned.