The dark, intense podcast has been described as one of the best of all time

There’s something unusual about S-Town. There’s certainly something unusual about the town itself (we’ll get to that shortly), but even the S-Town podcast is remarkable.

It’s dark, very intense, feels like an underground cult piece and is, well, a podcast – which is still not the first platform you think of for making hits that everyone’s talking about.

And yet there is so much talk and excitement about it that the Internet is abuzz with S-Town chatter, and some respected publications have suggested it may be the best podcast of all time.

BuzzFeed described it as the “Best Podcast Of The Year”, and NME described it as “perfection.”

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It’s uncommon, and refreshing, for something with little hype, advertisement or coverage before its release to become so popular purely as a result of how good it is.

John B McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama

We’ll try to proceed without any spoilers (details, but no major spoilers) because although the S-Town podcast was first released at the end of March, its popularity is only now beginning to surge. Therefore, many people still have the pleasure of listening to it to look forward to.

If pleasure is the right word. While anyone with an appreciation of the creative arts will doubtless take joy from such a beautifully crafted piece of work, this is a podcast that very much looks at the troubled side of life.

Think True Detective Season 1, but real – as real as anything you’ve ever seen or heard.

S-Town comes from the makers of the Serial and This American Life podcasts. It’s a real-life investigation into disturbing goings on in an obscure town in Alabama, which is really called Woodstock but which is referred to as Shittown, or Shit Town, (hence the sanitised S-Town) by one of its residents, who contacted the makers of the above mentioned podcasts.

The S-Town podcast website gives this description:

“S-Town is a new podcast from Serial and This American Life, hosted by Brian Reed, about a man named John who despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it.

“He asks Brian to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, and the search for the truth leads to a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.”

Brian, a producer on This American Life, began looking into the story three years ago, following an email from John with the subject line: “John B McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama.”

Brian Reed spent a lot of time in John's unique home for the S-Town podcast
John B McLemore – a clockmaker among many other things. Source: Facebook/S-Town Podcast

It took a year of just talking to John on the phone or by email before Brian eventually went down to Alabama. During that first year, though, it’s fair to say Brian learned quite a lot about John, given that the man – an eccentric genius who is one of the country’s best clockmakers but lives with his mom – would talk for hours at a time and send emails pages long.

When Brian finally did go down there, John, despite their many hours of correspondence, greeted him without a handshake or a “good to finally meet you”, but instead just launched into his latest diatribe.

From climate change to tattoos

John talked to Brian on many subjects that he was both obsessed with and incredibly knowledgeable about. Climate change, and concerns for how it will destroy humanity, was a big one. Another was Shit Town.

John told Brian that the town was hopeless, full of people he despised who did nothing but get tattoos and commit crime. (John claimed to hate tattoos, but as with many things involving John, much more complexity of thought would be revealed later).

How the S-Town podcast wrote its own plot

Having seen John’s incredible maze in his sprawling garden, toured his creaking old house, and heard myriad complaints about the world, Brian finally got to investigating the alleged murder by the son of a wealthy family.

But the S-Town podcast is no simple murder mystery. The piece twists and turns in unbelievable directions, ending up as an examination of society, love, human nature and one unique and troubled man.

It also ends up as an examination of fascinating subjects such as master clockmaking, fire gilding – a dangerous and ancient process used to transfer gold onto other materials – and the effects of mercury on mental health.

A 19th-century mask used for protection while fire gilding. Source: Inverse

Because S-Town is real, very real, and the narrative was created as true events unfolded (often explosively), all of the threads are not tied up as neatly as one might expect with fiction.

You’ll be left with questions by the end of the S-Town podcast, but you’ll be glad to have experienced one of the best pieces of creative work in a very long time.

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