Some 20+ years ago John Darnielle bashes out an ugly/beautiful rendition of Steely Dan’s FM – taking off its sheen, reducing it down to urgent, thrashed chords. He punks up something formerly slick. It’s a wonderful trick – and part of the blueprint of the early sound of The Mountain Goats, an entity that has grown from solo act to duo to trio, to – now – fully fleshed out band. And on Goths, the latest full-lengther, on the third track, The Grey King And The Silver Flame Attunement, under a wash of moody, late-night bass and keys, some brushed drums, Darnielle takes his own lyrics and places them in a context that feels closer to a new Donald Fagen album than anything Mountain Goats.
A circle completed.
Goths is a wonderful – accessible – middle-aged reverie gone astray. Here’s nostalgia with subtle humour (“I’m hardcore/But I’m not that hardcore/I’m pretty hardcore…but I’m not that hardcore”), here’s that proud stomp (it’s always there – even if the marketing for this album oversold the no guitars buzz). Here’s wit and wisdom, pathos and something utterly pleasing. So in that sense – another Mountain Goats album. But there’s nothing in their catalogue that sounds quite like this.
Rain In Soho kicks off with simple, strong piano chords and a bass drum that threatens to kick right through the floor. Ever since the band has worked with a drummer there’s been a touch of late-eighties/nineties Violent Femmes about the sound and it’s certainly here on this track.
From there it’s to a jauntiness (Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds) haughtiness (We Do It Different On The West Coast) and downright oddness (Unicorn Tolerance).
I get the feeling the cult of Darnielle follows him through novels and novellas, across performances in various guises and over every album – but even if fairweather-fans of this band (if they even exist?) wonder around the musical earnestness of tracks like Wear Black there’s always a way in. It’s usually been the lyrics with Darnielle, and they remain a strong point. But he’s in fine voice too – better than ever. And though at time it feels like this version of the band is stretching out across these tracks in hopes of seeing what they might go on to do there’s a vibrancy and urgency to several of the songs, particularly in the closing moments. Shelved has the energy of several mid-00s Mountain Goats standouts.
For The Portuguese Goth Metal Bands has Darnielle offering call-backs to more than one familiar lyrical theme, but the falsetto over essentially just drums and bass and very delicate piano is an entirely new set of touches and sounds.
Here we’re hearing Darnielle as the ultimate colourist, re-addressing his lyrics by re-dressing them.
Just as The Mountain Goats recently released an album about wrestling that wasn’t really about (just) wrestling – the same is true with Goths. This addresses and analyses the subculture – without ever being entirely about goths, certainly never about just goths.
And somehow finding the common ground between Steely Dan, Dexys and Sun Kil Moon, the closing track, Abandoned Flesh, is a little piece of magic. (You never thought you’d hear a song paying tribute to Gene Loves Jezebel, right?)