Words About Music
Let’s do this.
The Mountain Goats is the long-running musical project of North Carolina-via-California-via-Indiana singer/songwriter John Darnielle. He’s been putting out music under this name for over 20 years, and a vast majority of it is simply great. Whether you check out his earlier lo-fi recordings, his more advanced and confessional early-to-mid-2000s albums, or his most recent string of conceptual material, you cannot go wrong with The Mountain Goats’ discography.
In 2015, Darnielle did what very few “veteran” songwriters do for me, which is revive my interest after I’d already counted them out as a legacy act. The Mountain Goats’ 15th studio album, “Beat the Champ,” was a very solid album which saw Darnielle dedicating each track to the tale of one wrestler or another, whether it’s one he grew up watching as a kid or one he’s invented for the album’s loose concept. As always, the songwriting was sharp and the lyrics were top-notch, but Darnielle was also beginning to grow as an artist in ways that 2011’s “All Eternals Deck” and 2012’s “Transcendental Youth” may not have suggested.
Two years later, and The Mountain Goats’ 16th album, “Goths,” boasts an even more ambitious concept and gimmick. “Goths” is the first album from the band to not feature Darnielle’s signature acoustic guitar playing. Instead, the band sticks with pianos, keys, horns, drums, and bass guitar, continuing to elevate The Mountain Goats as not just another lo-fi indie folk project from the ’90s that won’t die. The Mountain Goats, on “Goths” more than ever, makes a strong case for its continued existence, and some of the songs on this album are the strongest Darnielle has ever penned.
“Goths” opens up with “Rain in Soho,” a track that is impossible to ignore not only for its building intensity but for its complete distinctness from virtually everything in the band’s repertoire. Brooding, ominous lyrics get louder and louder as the track’s percussive instrumental crests, cementing a decidedly dark song that makes good on the album title’s promise to deliver Darnielle’s version of goth music. Unfortunately, “Rain in Soho” is such a moving and compelling track that it makes the next few songs seem weak and forgettable by comparison, despite the fact that they’re still clever and memorable in their own right.
“Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” is a song which directly references the vocalist of goth forebears The Sisters of Mercy, attempting to chronicle the moods and happenings that lead a young man in the 1970s or 1980s to devote oneself to openly being sad, wearing dark clothing, and belonging to that scene. It’s a soft-willed song that has some memorable moments, but it’s not my favorite on the album.
“The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” is a song I enjoy a bit more than its direct predecessor, especially to Darnielle’s ability to spin a unique story around a memorable hook, in this case: “I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore.” The following song, “We Do It Different on the West Coast,” boldly claims that goth, at least in some way or form, has its origins in California, from Darnielle’s perspective having grown up there. It’s another relaxing, calming song, but it isn’t quite as attention-grabbing as some of the other material on the album.
“Goths” really starts to find itself as it nears its halfway point. “Unicorn Tolerance” speaks for itself with its quality hook about being able to keep it together in a world that directly negates the cultural specificities and nuances you align yourself with. For example, a person who identifies with goth culture would need to have “high unicorn tolerance,” so to speak, to make it in a world that values unbridled pleasure and ignorant bliss.
After this track is an even better one, “Stench of the Unburied,” which includes some beautiful ambient keyboard melodies that coincide with Darnielle’s effortlessly catchy and rhythmic lyrics and hooks. “It’s 92 degrees/And KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees” is a great, evocative chorus that brings the album’s A-side to a fantastic close, despite something of a false start.
The second half kicks off with “Wear Black,” another meditative, beautiful track that brings an inspiring beauty to the idea of wearing black both “when it’s light outside” and “when there’s no light.” Even when Darnielle keeps it simple and straightforward, he knows ways to intricately play with the layering of sounds to establish a sound that draws the listener in. He does that more than ever with the amazing harmonies on “Wear Black,” which affirms a culture he never belonged to but always respected. It invites us to be ourselves in a world that wants us to be what it wants us to be.
The brilliant storytelling continues on the song “Paid in Cocaine,” which details rumors about a metal club Darnielle frequented as a teenager, wherein bands were allegedly, well, paid in cocaine if the venue couldn’t afford to pay the band in money. The horn arrangements on this track are fantastic, and a cursory listen would lead you to believe that this is a subtle, gorgeous track about Long Beach instead of it being about corrupt payment practices in the 1980s.
“Rage of Travers,” the album’s longest song, isn’t its most essential. I do like the narrative about an aging artist realizing that their relevance is in its waning days, but at this point the 55-minute runtime of “Goths” is beginning to show. Thankfully, the album really picks up with its final three songs: “Shelved,” “For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands,” and “Abandoned Flesh.”
“Shelved” is about a fictional band who is being coaxed by their label into making an album that the band doesn’t necessarily want to make, at the risk of having that album “shelved” and never released. The lyrics on this song are extremely relevant, considering the stranglehold the majors have on nearly all of music that is released for public consumption, and it ties into the goth narrative by mentioning the band’s disgust at the idea of their big moment being “bottom of the bill” on a Nine Inch Nails tour.
“For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands” presents an opposing narrative, focusing on the desire to make music for music’s sake regardless of who listens to it or how popular it becomes. Darnielle praises those who suffer through global obscurity only to “Headline big festivals/Every other summer in Brazil,” because music is only as important as the importance placed upon it by those fans. It isn’t the album’s most provocative moment, but it is one of its most on-message.
And finally we have “Abandoned Flesh,” an album which details the bizarre circumstances surrounding English goth band Gene Loves Jezebel. I won’t spoil the story because needless to say Darnielle does a fantastic job of tying it together, but it’s such a strong closer that it makes me want to restart the album immediately.
In many ways, “Goths” is a stronger and more memorable album than “Beat the Champ.” It isn’t without its flaws though, and while I really like it, I hesitate to say that I love it due to the fact that some songs on here just hold far more replay value than others. Regardless, it’s certainly not a flop, and it has me very excited for what sort of experiment Darnielle puts together for fans of The Mountain Goats next time around.
SCORE — 7.75 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Rain in Soho, We Do It Different on the West Coast, Unicorn Tolerance, Stench of the Unburied, Wear Black, Paid in Cocaine, Shelved, Abandoned Flesh