Release Date: May 19, 2017
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
It'd be easy to open this review in a Pitchfork historian way, with broad statements about that long-suffering subculture of the goth. And sure, even the roughest sketch of what this 40-year-old fascination for death entailed - fog machines, perverse crosses, skeletal frames - would be useful for a concept album that revolves around its black-clad adherents. But any rote summary of the goth phenomenon would overlook the whole dang point of John Darnielle's latest song cycle, easily his most lavish creation yet for indie institution The Mountain Goats.
Peter Hughes, longtime bassist of the Mountain Goats, describes the goth identity as one "most often associated with youth from a perspective that is inescapably adult." This also explains the M.O. of the band's frontman, John Darnielle, a songwriter who explores adolescent themes with a morbid, though often funny, tone. What they've fashioned on the band's 16th album is an homage to those who wear black. It's sung in praise of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Gene Loves Jezebel, the Cure's Robert Smith and the Sisters of Mercy's Andrew Eldritch, and on "Unicorn Tolerance," the band tip their hat to spiders, crows and ghosts, too.
John Darnielle took his sweet time to clamber up through the US lo-fi underground (with myriad cottage label releases), before an extended stint at 4AD. Throughout that quarter century, the mission has remained essentially unchanged: Darnielle specialises in esoteric, highly personal songwriting. Darnielle's band now record in Nashville, deploying rather more than his boombox.
Save for perhaps lumberjacks, there is no scene more everlasting than goths. The candles and coffins, the bats and spiders, the milky-white legs under jet black jeans that fill up the corners of goth culture are all just the artifacts for its everlasting creed: death is real, and it waits for us all. The true goth compass points toward the final darkness and woe unto those who must lease their time here in the light, squeezing cantaloupe at the grocery store and forgetting to call the guy about the broken sump pump.
T he New Yorker once called the Mountain Goats' frontman John Darnielle "America's best non-hip-hop lyricist". Here, the 50-year-old sometime novelist is in masterly form, reappraising his teenage goth years. The hints of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds in opener Rain in Soho aside, piano, woozy sax and sumptuous Prefab Sprout AOR combine with lyrics about Portuguese goth metal, an unlikely juxtaposition that emphasises the songs' mix of wry insight and black humour.
"I'm hardcore/But I'm not that hardcore," a young man muses in the early chapters of the Mountain Goats' 2017 album, Goths, and in those seven words, group leader John Darnielle neatly summarizes the album's overriding theme: what it's like not to fit in, even among those folks who don't fit in. Goths is a concept album that ponders episodes in the life of a handful of characters living in the West Coast goth scene of the '80s and '90s. The protagonists range from the young and curious figuring out their place in a community of "leather and lace and good friends," to those confronting the onset of middle age and the knowledge that you may be goth on the inside, but you're a grownup with a job and a house as far as the outside world is concerned.
On 2015's Beat the Champ, the Mountain Goats's John Darnielle poignantly wrote about death through the thematic use of his longtime love of professional wrestling, a sport that theatrically draws lines between heroes and villains and success and failure. Goths, the band's 16th album, focuses on the far blurrier boundary separating artistic success from failure, as the 50-year-old Darnielle revisits the lifestyle, sensibilities, and music fandom that, as a teen, led him to dye his hair black and dress “like a bad undertaker. ” Though it taps into goth culture's prevalent imagery, frequently referencing caves, graveyards, and crows, the album doesn't try to adopt the subculture's musical aesthetic, other than, perhaps, on the lone dark and brooding track, “Rain in Soho.
Given John Darnielle's love of death metal, we knew Goths' day would come. What we didn't expect is the canvas to be so pop-forward. Goths is vivid and light on its toes, as it runs the gamut of various "goth" personalities both historical and fictional, showcasing one of Darnielle's greatest carnal sins— his ability to glean color from unexpected places.
John Darnielle possesses a penchant for verbosity and scale when it comes to his music. His vivid storytelling acumen has been an attribute that's both repelled and galvanized listeners of The Mountain Goats since their inception. Purists may have something more to grumble about after a listen to the band's first record without even a whiff of guitar to amplify Darnielle's nasally pontifications.
John Darnielle, founder of The Mountain Goats, has no real analogue in British music culture. He's a gifted composer, lyricist and novelist. His latest book, Universal Harvester, became a New York Times Bestseller and attracted critical acclaim for its mysterious, religious and multi-generational themes and Midwest setting. He's less a grizzled raconteur in the Waitsian mould, more a professional storyteller.
ROCKS LIKE: Spoon, Prefab Sprout, Portastatic WHAT'S DIFFERENT: The 16th full-length by this always reliable indie-pop project finds leader John Darnielle exploring the weird and wonderful world of goths, applying the same sort of arch yet empathetic songwriting eye to this subgroup as he has done with metalheads and tweakers on albums past. It goes long (the dozen songs add up to an hour of running time), but it cuts deep. WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: True to their playful nature, the Goats' music never really sounds, well, goth.
One of the best things about the Mountain Goats' voluminous back catalog is that it offers a plethora of entry points to the band and its music, with no two records quite the same. There's frontman John Darnielle's lo-fi, Panasonic boom box beginnings. There are the polished but no less earnest tracks from The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee. And there are the band's recent releases, like Transcendental Youth and Beat the Champ, that take chances on unique concepts and different instrumentation, but don't lack in lyrical punch or poignancy.