The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle is my hero. I’m just going to get that out of the way right now. The man is kind of my own musical demigod. So naturally I was quite excited when I heard that he would be releasing another record with longtime collaborator Franklin Bruno under their moniker The Extra Lens(formerly The Extra Glenns). Their release on Merge Records, Undercard is the duo’s first since 2002’s under loved Martial Arts Weekend.
Back in 2002 Darnielle was still on the fringes of mainstream Indie Rock. Up until Martial Arts Weekend nearly all of his music featured just him, his guitar and his trusty boombox. That album represented his first foray into a professional studio and came out just a few months before his breakout, full studio opus Tallahassee. Nowadays The Mountain Goats output is all professionally recorded with a whole host of collaborators and big, sweeping compositions, and this Extra Lens release actually displays a step back into simpler song structures; especially when compared to the last Goats album, 2009’s The Life of the World to Come.
At first glance Undercard seems quite unremarkable. It’s hard to try and distinguish what might make the album different from anything The Mountain Goats have put out in the past decade. The lines become even more blurred when you take into account that the other half of The Extra Lens, Franklin Bruno, has actually been heavily featured as a composer on every Goats record since The Sunset Tree. To the uninitiated Undercard will just be a Mountain Goats record under a different name(Not that there’s anything wrong with that!). However, differences do exist. For example, album highlights such as “How I left the Ministry” and “Some Other Way” feature loud and swirling bursts of electric guitars, bristling with honest to goodness feedback or the song “Ambivalent Cityscape Z” which displays a kind of virtuosity on the guitar that we’re not used to from Darnielle.
But mostly, Undercard is exactly what anyone familiar with Darnielle or Bruno’s work would expect, up to and including Darnielle’s always stellar lyrical performance. Although not an album I would recommend to someone as a gateway to Darnielle’s work it is still well worth a listen. Albums like Undercard that represent a full front to back listen are a rarity these days. I would highly suggest taking a step back from the latest blog sensation or DIY celebrity to listen to one of independent music’s greatest living songwriters.
Undercard is available to purchase or Stream in full now from Merge Records.