Review Summary: An album which drowns in ill-conceived sentimentality.
Up until now, I had only heard a few Mountain Goats singles. They were one of those bands (although as far as I can tell, it’s more of moniker for the solo artist John Darnielle) I swore I'd get round to - I liked the simple instrumentation and viciously lo-fi recording attacking me in the headphones. This was also coupled with a guy who sounded like he really really wanted you to hear what he had to say, with extreme prejudice. I finally decided to dip my toes into a full length and chose this one as a diving plank.
Don't get me wrong. I like earnest, personal music - it's a character flaw. But this is a bit much. Some of it sounds like the climax of an episode of Grey's when something 'significant' has happened. Musically, it's very simple - a little piano and strummed guitar, occasionally some violin. Lots of bass-y drums for a soft backdrop. Often a verse is constructed from resonant single piano notes or chords on the more sombre tracks. There's also a chipper, bubbly guitar sound on songs like 'Philippians 3:20-21', which has a particularly ‘Girl from Ipanema’ feel. One of the most horrendous melodic fills is to be found on 'Genesis 3:23' where what might be an electric piano plays a frilly line that sounds like an infomercial intro. Much of it comes across as a stripped down mid 90's soft rock sound - something you'd hear from the likes of Deep Blue Something.
I think with the Mountain Goats, you're looking more at the content, delivery and voice to create the power in the songs (an artist that springs to mind as a comparison would be someone like David Gray). Lyrically, there is a naive, forced quality haunting this record. An example would be 'Matthew 25:21' which details the death of a (I think) friend to cancer. I have no doubt that if this is based on experience, then it was a painful and harrowing event. However, the annoying singing talking method of delivery highlights the clunkiness of lines like 'Happy to hear you speak / The last of something bright burning / Still burning / Beyond the cancer and the chemo/theraaapy'. It should be sad, but it sounds... embarrassing. There's also an awful track about animals going extinct that sounds like a child's story. You need to hear it to believe it.
There are a few gems though - 'Psalms 40:2' details a Gothic road trip from Hell and sees the band tightening up the drum skins to create a great feeling of tension before the throat mangling climax. The album opener and closer are strong - offsetting any awkward lyrics with an atmospheric music background. But the disturbingly saccharine nature of the majority of the record is just unendurable – I had no interest in looking up the associated Bible verses to form additional impressions of the songs. If you're looking to get a sense of this band, then I think this is not a good place to start.