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Music Monday at BSD: The Mountain Goats - Songs for Pierre Chuvin

Today’s edition focuses on an album that was released early in the pandemic and stands out as one of my favorites this year.

The Mountain Goats Perform At O2 Shepherds Bush Empire In London Photo by C Brandon/Redferns

Despite some backlash from those who apparently hate music and fun, last week’s roll out of Music Monday at BSD sparked some really cool discussions in the comments about people’s likes and dislikes and some of what they’ve been listening to lately.

So this week we’re back for round two, and despite the picture of a man who I often feel resembles’s Ben Jones (all love, Ben), today’s review will be of The Mountain Goats’ album, Songs for Pierre Chuvin.

John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats have been writing and recording music since before I was born, so it’s understandable that they’d have some hits and misses along the way.

Albums like Tallahassee (2002) and The Sunset Tree (2005) are some of my favorites and I cannot recommend them enough, while All Eternals Deck (2011) and In League with Dragons (2019) I could completely do without. But hey, that’s what happens when you list a total of 18 studio albums.

The latest album, Songs for Pierre Chuvin, was released on April 10 and immediately jumps into that list of aforementioned favorites. The album was the first from the band since All Hail West Texas (2002) that featured only frontman John Darnielle and was also the first since then to be recorded entirely on a boombox.

As you can imagine from that last sentence, the sound is stripped down and simple, something that I loved about the prior TMG standout albums as well. The title and song concepts were derived largely from the book A Chronical of the Last Pagans by French historian Pierre Chuvin. Additionally, the album was recorded over a 10-day span in March and checks in at a neat and tidy 27 minutes and 17 seconds.

The songs, much like Chuvin’s book, tell stories of the spread of Christianity through the late Roman Empire from the perspective of, you guessed it, the last pagans.

Opener “Aulon Raid” sets the tone for the album, painting the pagans as defiant while telling the story of Bishop Marcellus of Apamea who rode into Aulon in 386 to destroy a pagan temple only to be met by the locals and burned alive. Darnielle’s somewhat whiny, yet soothing voice drones out the chorus refrain of “me and my crew, we will deal with you” as he drops you into the story and paints the pagans as protagonists who listeners can’t help but get behind.

He follows with “Until Olympius Returns” which pains a far different picture, one of a defeated Olympius fleeing north to Italy upon his city being overtook.

Darnielle’s wailing voice combined with the sometimes hollow sound of a lone acoustic guitar are standouts, but it’s the storytelling that takes the cake. Much like previous albums Beat the Champ (2015) and We Shall All Be Healed (2004), he finds an oft unexplored avenue and turns it into wonder stories about the small communities that society is built upon.

Later, on “The Wooded Hills Along the Black Sea,” he barks out the line “sometimes forget there’s cities down there” while displaying his own isolation and separation from society, something that seems extremely poignant in the given situation and echoes what we heard from him on the 2006 album Get Lonely.

Finally, Darnielle wraps the album with the solemn and somber “Exegetic Chains.” In which he urges listeners to “keep the chains tight, make it through this year, if it kills us outright”, hearkening back to the lines from “This Year,” the bands smash hit from The Sunset Tree.

In all, the album feels like the perfect collection of songs for the perfect time. It is thoughtful, at times a bit silly, and all the while comforting. Twenty-six years on from their first studio album, The Mountain Goats are showing that they still produce lo-fi folk music as well as anyone out there.