SOMERVILLE — Witty, wordy, and well-read, John Darnielle has crafted a long career mining transcendence from gloom. Recording since 1991 as the Mountain Goats, his unmistakably intense cri de coeur has provided food for thought (and yearbook quotes) for more than one generation of brainy, alienated alterna-kids.
But though he’s written albums concerned with child abuse and mental illness, Darnielle is an upbeat and energetic guy.
“I do have a pretty dark imagination, and I’m given to depression, but at the same time, it would seem the best way to take care of myself is to be positive,” Darnielle says, speaking on the phone from his home in Durham, N.C. “I have a place where I can deal with those things in a way that’s constructive and creative and fun, and turn those moments and moods into something useful. It’s alchemy. Music is a way of engaging some darker places in a way that converts them into lighter places — without trying to deny them their own cool-ass darkness.”
The Mountain Goats, Erin McKeown
He’s nothing if not prolific. The 2012 record “Transcendental Youth” was his 14th proper full-length, but his creativity spills out in many ways.
His catholic interests are displayed wittily on Twitter, where he recently lauded a Mets home plate celebration as “a tonic for the universe” and bemoaned the “rampant misuse of the word ‘deconstruct.’ ” He’s even a noted enthusiast of heavy metal and wrote the entry on Black Sabbath’s album “Master of Reality” in the 33⅓ book series. After Justin Bieber had a confrontation with a photographer last year, Darnielle posted a fresh song defending the pop star’s right to get in and out of his car without harassment. “You could record an album of Mountain Goats covers and torpedo your career overnight,” he advises Bieber in the 90-second tune.
Though recording under a name that implies a full band, Darnielle was more or less a solo act for the first decade of his career, accruing an avalanche of songs featuring his acoustic guitar and distinctive, plaintive vocals. (Critics detect a shrill quality to his earliest vocals, though that’s evened out a bit.) He’s since toured as a duo and trio act, and expanded his musical palette on record with strings, horns, and other colors. He plays solo shows at Northampton’s Pearl Street Nightclub on Tuesday and a sold-out date at the Somerville Theatre on Wednesday.
“It has taken me a long career in music to really think hard about the many, many things you can do with music. I used to start with a very punk, primitive idea of just getting the song in its rawest form out there,” Darnielle, 47, says, “and that’s what I was about for a long time. But now I’ve gotten in contact with the vastness of possibilities for the way you might express a melody or orchestrate a song.”
The results are pleasing even to hardcore fans; though the Mountain Goats’ catalog is rich and sometimes challenging, it’s also surprisingly accessible. So when a horn section helps turn a 2012 song like “Cry for Judas” into something that could pass as a radio single, it feels fully in harmony with the spirit of the song. (And it opens with one of those hooky turns of phrase Darnielle offers by the dozen: “Some things you do just to see how bad they’ll make you feel.”)
A self-trained musician, he takes the most inspiration from writers. His finely detailed observations and vivid character studies have made him the poet laureate of indie-rock, but fans launched a petition on the White House website in 2012 to make him the official poet laureate of the United States. That honor eludes him, but he’ll reach a major personal milestone in September with the publication of his first novel, “Wolf in White Van.”
Listening to the Mountain Goats is “like talking to a very, very smart friend who plays the guitar,” says Erin McKeown, who will open some dates on Darnielle’s upcoming tour, including the local ones. She says she met him at a show in Brooklyn, N.Y., a few years ago, but has since corresponded on Twitter about their shared love of Judy Garland. (Garland and her daughter Liza Minnelli are referred to on a 2011 Mountain Goats album.) “He’s this wonderful mix of literate and musical at the same time. It’s his lyrics that I’m drawn the most to,” McKeown says, “but also I wouldn’t pay attention to his lyrics the way I do if the music wasn’t setting them so well.”
Darnielle says this year will mainly be about his upcoming novel, but he expects a new Mountain Goats album “by 2015.” His pace doesn’t seem to be slowing.
“There’s not a lot of dudes my age who are as up as I am,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m settling like a lot of my peers do. That’s not a way of saying they’ve gotten soft and I haven’t, but it’s just that the life we choose to live affects us differently. I’m not saying I’m not aging, obviously I am and I’m going to die at some point. But I don’t feel that very often.”
He has a pretty specific, non-chronological perception of his own age.
“I don’t feel 24, I don’t feel 31, but I don’t really feel much older than 33. I remember 33 and I feel more or less like the same guy — only a little heavier, a little smarter.”