The Mountain Goats, from left to right: Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes… (Handout photo, D.L. Anderson )
John Darnielle moved for the first time in seven years last summer. His moves are unique, not just because they're rare, but because they typically precipitate a new musical direction.
"For me moving, is always a big opportunity. It's just a enough of a shift in outlook that every time I move, it seems to open something up," he said.
When he entered his new living room in Durham, N.C., he found a natural reverb and started writing a song that would become part of his new album, "All Eternals Deck." He and his band, The Mountain Goats, perform Friday at the 9:30 Club in Washington.
"It had a totally different vibe — cowboy gothic horror — and I chased it all summer long," he said.
Darnielle has been making music independently now for more than 15 years. Even though he is lionized by critics and other indie musicians, his songs are routinely misinterpreted or looked over by mainstream audiences and critics as too complicated, too dense — too TL;DR (Web-speak for "too long, didn't read").
They are fiercely iconoclastic, intricate and heavy on obscure literary allusions and Bible passages. The new album is no different, and it met a similar reaction.
"With such spooky inspiration, we're beginning to understand just why Mr. Darnielle tends to pick up and shed band mates," snipped one writer.
But while the 13 tracks on the album don't skimp on the references - name-checking 1970s horror, movie star suicides and prehistoric graves - the clues Darnielle leaves behind suggest an album that is stubbornly life-affirming.
Though the songs sound macabre at first — there's one called "Beautiful Gas Mask" — they're more like dreams taken to their logical conclusions, Darnielle said.
"What I'm trying to do is bring these nightmares into the world and see how I relate to them. To look at these portents and fortunes and try to get a clear read of the landscape within them," he said.
The two surprising figures that anchor the album - Judy Garland, who died of a drug overdose, and her daughter, Liza Minnelli - actually provide a helpful coda.
The songs that reference them - "The Autopsy Garland" and "Liza Forever Minnelli" - came out of a walk Darnielle took in Los Angeles a few years ago where he passed both Garland's and Minnelli's stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"It was just this moment where I thought of people who survive things and people who don't. People who can read the clues and dodge those bullets," he said.
While Garland should be every performer's role model — her Carnegie Hall live album is about "the nature of delivering to your audience, standing on stage and giving every last drop you have," he said — she was an unhappy character. Minnelli, on the other hand, has had her share of ups and downs but seems to be perennially ebullient.
"When you're born into a showbiz family, the deck is stacked against you," Darnielle said. "But Liza managed to convert herself into a shockingly great performer. When you see her interviews, she's so present."
Darnielle, aware that this might surprise some of his fans, continued, "I know for some people, cool is not something you think of when you think Liza, but, frankly, those people are wrong."
To hear him praise Garland's devotion to performing is not surprising. Mountain Goats' shows are known for Darnielle's intensity.
"I used to break three or for strings a night, and the show would be over because I didn't know how to change the strings," he said.
That still happens, though now he has a backup guitar ready to go, or as it happened after a manic performance two years ago at a concert in St. Augustine, he asked singer John Vanderslice to help him fix his busted guitar on stage.
Though he's always writing — songs, essays on hockey, a longtime-in-the-works novel — the stage is where he's most comfortable, something says he shares with Garland.
"I relate to her because I'm kind of a hermit. The better I get at writing songs, the harder it seems to be to relate to people," he said. "But when I get on stage, I'm extremely happy."
If you go
The Mountain Goats perform a sold-out show Friday at the 9:30 club, 815 V Street Northwest, Washington. Doors open at 8 p.m. The band will perform April 14 at the Ottobar. Tickets cost $18. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.