Release Date: Oct 23, 2020
Record label: Merge
Let's get the first big question out of the way: No, Getting into Knives is not a concept album about knives. Even casual observers are aware by now that lead Mountain Goat John Darnielle loves few things more than a set of songs unified by a particular theme. But after regaling us with stories of professional wrestlers, goths struggling with maturity, fantasy role-playing games and the people who love them, or French history, this time Darnielle and his cohorts have given us a set of 13 songs about as many different characters, all trying to move forward in their lives and make sense of the world around them.
The 19th album by The Mountain Goats is a quarantine baby. Whilst he has been locked inside, John Darnielle brings us the exquisitely titled Getting Into Knives, a record that shows us that isolation and the underlying anxiety of an invisible killer virus works creative magic for those of us who perpetually create alternate narratives to live inside. Unlike lockdown works by Charlie XCX or Taylor Swift, Darnielle's album doesn't centralise the theme of lockdown.
The Mountain Goats used to be an acquired taste. Even by the standards of turn-of-the-century indie rock, they were too esoteric for most, the vocals too sharp, the emotions too raw. But that edge has dulled naturally over the years, as songwriter John Darnielle retired his old boombox for a full band. It was a surprise, then, when Darnielle made a return to his home-recording roots earlier this year with his quarantine album Songs for Pierre Chuvin.
That Getting Into Knives—the latest LP from The Mountain Goats—goes down easy isn't a slight. It's an album of breezy and loose songs, quirky yet endearing instrumentations, and well-executed parody. Clearly, frontman John Darnielle and company are having a lot of fun. Following their first 2020 release, the lo-fi, quarantine take Songs For Pierre Chuvin, Getting Into Knives is a return to form.
Dismissing the idea of allowing 2020 to go to waste, Getting Into Knives is the follow-up to John Darnielle's solo album, Songs for Pierre Chuvin, which the Mountain Goats' bandleader recorded on a boombox over the month of March following the COVID-19 induced shutdowns that scuttled the band's intentions to record in North Carolina and then hit the road for the better part of the year. With the music industry on pause, the group worked within the ongoing tension and headed to Memphis, Tennessee — the city known as the spiritual centre for blues, soul and country music. Recording at Elvis' favourite post-show hangout in Memphis, Sam Philips Studio, Getting into Knives would serve as a counterpoint to the stripped-back lo-fi feel of Songs for Pierre Chuvin, with an open-door policy giving the album a spontaneous, off-the-floor vibe that only comes from a group of musicians comfortable enough to let the song serve as the guideline, never letting ego clutter their art.
Nearly every songwriter as prolific and legendary as John Darnielle begins to repeat themselves eventually. Yet The Mountain Goats, of which Darnielle is the only constant member, has had a remarkably versatile late career. Since 2015’s Beat the Champ, the uniting thread of The Mountain Goats’ records has been explorations of communities we build for ourselves, whether 1980s pro-wrestling, goths, or 4th and 5th Century pagans with March’s Songs for Pierre Chuvin (recorded on a boombox).
On their latest album, Getting Into Knives, The Mountain Goats sound like a band. That's not to diminish their previous efforts. In the past, Peter Hughes, Jon Wurster, and Matt Douglas did a great job filling out the songs John Darnielle wrote. This is the first album where their individual personalities shine through in the studio like they do during live performances though.