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And we are full-on fans. We cling to Darnielle's early cassette-only releases for reasons, we are starting to think, more biographical than qualitative. We mail-ordered, awaited, and then owned everything listed on his Internet discography (except the annoyingly "never released" projects), but were reduced to eBaying most of our archives to pay for our divorces. We started bands that ripped off the "Going To __________" titling habit he kicked long ago, and many of our sophomore efforts contain a song called "FM", embarrassingly attributed to Darnielle due to our ignorance that he was covering Steely Dan. We are thankful for how Darnielle expanded our definition of "punk" to contain acoustic odes to cartographers and unsexy species. We gather Darnielle's bootlegged covers (most recently of Suede and Neutral Milk Hotel) to survive the winter. Though Darnielle now maintains a degree of prodigality, we no longer view the fattening of his man-and-machine "production" as an evil on par with Converse's selling out to Nike, even if we're still unsteady about its political ramifications.
We always love to hear Darnielle again, though he never stays gone for long. On this album, he still decrees (rather than "sings") his lyrics with the adamancy of the virgin, as if he'd been a preoccupied town crier in a past life. Producer and friend John Vanderslice may lower the vocals and distort them, but Darnielle thankfully still sounds as if he's reporting from some Protestant, pre-compromise utopia under siege. But the only surprises Healed holds is that Darnielle has nothing new to teach us, and that the album triggers our memory of Donald Gibb's character Ogre, from that movie about the misfits with the same goals as the meatheads, rumbling "Nnnerrrds!"
Healed begins passionately enough, but by now we have a right to take Darnielle's consistency for granted: He has become that boring but dedicated partner whom we must leave because we can hear the club down the street, and we fear that we're missing some of the too-much that is going on. "Slow West Vultures" is an indictment of unsustainability that establishes the album's pace, tone and scope, but I don't buy any of it, with its "urgency" (the full-band Mountain Goats attempt rock to the extent that The View attempts in-depth current-events analysis), and its lyrics that go down like Maoist slogans with a sense of privation (except for "get in the goddamn car"), and its Aguilera-caliber vocal shudders, and its timid impression of a big finish.
"Palmcorder Yajna" manages more intensity, and a great image, though Darnielle will recycle it: "Reflective tape on our sweatpants." But the song's unjangly R.E.M.-ness never changes, sending the hungry collector back into his/her (okay, his) archives of Midnight Oil. "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent" proves to be a tease of a title, and fails to analyze how her most famous film was about the church's demonization of female sexuality; it's a ho-hum ching-a-linger about being "hungry for love" and "going downtown." Nora Danielson (who also played with Darnielle on 2001's Devil in the Shortwave) acquits herself on this song, and throughout the album, with her violinistry, but not distinctively: Except for the few seconds when she apes The Dirty Three, she evokes Alastair Gailbraith's earlier Goat complements.
"Letter from Belgium" and "Your Belgian Things" constitute the most prominent examples of Darnielle's trademark globalization, and they're limited to the land that hilariously tricked all of us into watching Marxist fantasia The Smurfs during the commie-blasting 80s. The second of these songs is the more effective, but Darnielle's nasal-Donahue emerges intermittently, and is less digestible than in previous years.
The rest of the album wallows in similar okayness (I am forgetting the name of the critic who wrote, in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, that television's success rests in its ability to provide 24-hour partial satisfaction). "Mole" is a cousin of Guided by Voices' "I Am a Tree", and it breaks from its Hill Street Blues-theme homage for a climax that has nothing to do with the rest of the song. "The Young Thousands" is, you know, rousing (dig that wall of Darnielles!), and boasts one of the album's few soul-rending lyrics, but we fans have heard this kind of heralder before.
So "Cotton" features a decent bebop breakdown, and we hangers-on can't complain about "Home Again Garden Grove"'s patented hyperharmonizing, anxious chords, and war/suicide/jellyfish imagery. As much as we may be proud that Darnielle has graduated from the Crayola artwork of Shrimper to 4AD's hegemonic cursive, as much as we may internalize his shoulders' evocation of our mother's osteoporosis, as much as we respect the Vanderslicing that coheres "Against Pollution", We Shall All Be Healed is complacent, formulaic for a trailblazer, lapped by Destroyer, optimistic-but-joyless in that it is pessimistic-but-punchy, and gooped with the silly putty of vagueness and clich�. Aw hell, this feels like narcking on a chum, but Darnielle has perhaps been made ironically complacent by his suspicions that humans are getting the world that they deserve. Either that, or his folk has outmatured us.
-William Bowers, February 03, 2004
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