I don’t tend to think of early Mountain Goats as “songs” so much as poetry shouted over guitar chords. This is because I am a small-minded man and a reductive thinker, but it’s also because I forget about songs like “Weekend In Western Illinois.” John Darnielle is best known as a lyricist, but he’s also a long-time musical theater nerd who once recorded a cover of “Tomorrow” as a bonus track on the Japanese edition of Transcendental Youth and did a charming version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” for the AV Club. Dude knows his way around a melody, is what I’m saying, and that really shows through in a low-key way on “Weekend In Western Illinois.”
It doesn’t hurt that this is one of the early-period Mountain Goats song recorded in an actual studio with other musicians. The addition of Peter Hughes on electric guitar and Bob Durkee on organ really opens up the sound of this record, giving it a sense of space and scale as the additional instruments weave in and out as the song builds toward the chorus and then towards the even bigger climax.
(By the way, isn’t it always nice to hear Peter show up on early Mountain Goats songs? I don’t really have anything intelligent to say about that, I just like picturing him in his nice suit, bopping around with his bass guitar.)
But it isn’t just the additional musicians or the subtle, vaguely country-music melody that makes this song stand out — Darnielle’s vocal performance here, which builds from a low murmur (with that wonderful little trill on “thirst in our thro-oo-ooats”) and builds to a full shout. Galesburg is just a unremarkable town near Illinois-Iowa border (birthplace of George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., inventor of the Ferris Wheel!), but the way Darnielle sings about it at the end of this song, it might as well be an mythical lost city where good and evil come to battle it out in the form of howling stray dogs.
But even before all that, before the unique musicality of this song shows through, there’s something that grabs hold of my attention and won’t let go. The first few lines of “Weekend In Western Illinois” describe a romantic relationship between two characters in well-crafted but pretty standard romantic language, until Darnielle blows it all open with the couplet, “We are for some reason all the time bleeding/We are friendless.”
I don’t want to strangle the beauty out of that lyric by putting too much attention on it, but whenever I try to think about this song, I keep circling back to it. We never find out exactly what’s up with this couple, though there is the suggestion that they’re selling all their belongings and that they might be living outside. But those two lines tell us all we need to know about the frame of mind they’ve fallen into. Plus, it’s just a wonderfully written line, with the slightly off-kilter snytax, and then there’s the way that Darnielle drops his voice and almost mumbles the word “bleeding” — fantastic.
For those keeping track at home, this is the second time in five days that I’ve had to re-evaluate my feelings about pre-Tallahassee Mountain Goats and I am already feeling the full weight of my past ignorance settling over my shoulders. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new, more enlightened chapter in my life, where I don’t willfully ignore one-half of my favorite band’s catalogue.