Review Summary: I'm hardcore, but I'm not that hardcore.
John Darnielle has never been one for half measures. Even on lesser albums, such as Beat The Champ
or The Life of The World To Come
, he has fully invested himself in every conceivable way, perfectly capturing the madness of obsession, the intimacy of longing, the despair of loneliness. He's devoted all that he has to The Mountain Goats; it genuinely seems like he doesn't know how to do otherwise. Goths
is his 'no guitars album', and part of this album's brilliance lies in the fact that although he may have stripped away his primary instrument, he's come away with what is easily his most adventurous and musically rich release yet. Possibly more than any other Mountain Goats release, Darnielle has poured himself into the act of world-building, propping his narratives up with an atmosphere of wistful dreaminess, horns floating in and out like bird cries ringing through a sweltering California summer day, jazzy drums loping along like the awkward but assured shuffling of the outcasts he so vividly captures. There's a concentrated effort here to evoke a time and place like never before, and the marriage of the unusually full instrumentation with the romantic reveries of growing up as goth fully place you in the company of the singer and his characters in a way he hasn't achieved since his 2005 opus The Sunset Tree
This album could have so easily slipped into caricature, but it's long known by now that Darnielle respects his characters too much to ever let that happen. Goths
walks a tightrope of hilarity and heartbreak beautifully, delivering boisterous dramatics one moment and lilting eulogies the next. While not as suffocatingly bleak as some prior releases, there's a sharply felt loss present in these songs, made all the more real and relatable by how seemingly mundanely it manifests itself. The characters here, including a young Darnielle, are losing a part of their identity as both themselves and the cultural landscape change, and though there's instances of prideful stubbornness, there's mostly a feeling of youthful disillusionment and bashful acceptance. On one side, there's songs like 'Rain in Soho' and 'Wear Black'. 'Rain in Soho' opens the album in hysterically dramatic fashion, a minor key dirge steeped in biblical and philosophical references to loss, and swells to a Greek chorus of background vocals provided by The Nashville Symphony Chorus juxtaposed with a Batman double entendre. It is truly funny while being one of the most intensely lyrical and referential entries in the Mountain Goats catalog, and it's a stunning balancing act. On 'Wear Black', a sweet, vaguely doo-wop inspired number, the singer positions himself as "Lord of the Thomas Guide, keeper of the source code
." As leader of the lost, what wisdom does he impart to his flock" Wear black, from "when it's light outside
", "in the present tense
", "when it's over
", and even to the intervention. It could be interpreted as flippantly smartassed, but it's delivered as an honest rallying cry, and the combination of humor and honor make a relatively simple sentiment that much more complex.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum, there are songs like 'The Grey King And The Silver Flame Attunement' and 'Shelved'. On the first, self-mythology is deflated to embarrassed acceptance, the singer admitting in a bruised falsetto, "I'm hardcore, but I'm not that hardcore
" after seeing someone with "teeth filed down to fine points
". It sounds ridiculous, but listening to the stinging woodwinds surrounding it and the small, dejected way Darnielle sings it, it comes off as a sobering dose of reality. 'Shelved' follows in the same vein, opening with a strutting bassline and bleary synths complimenting defiant lyrics of never selling out, claiming "not gonna do tricks, not gonna stand here on a sound stage tethered to a crucifix
", concluding in the chorus that "the ride's over, I know, but I'm not ready to go
". However, everything changes when the final verse comes, as a velvety, soft focus bass riff wafts in over the wandering synth melody and the character comes to a reckoning, announcing that "maybe Dad is right, I'm still young, and I can write C++ just as good as anyone
", closing the song with "in fifteen years, I'll be throwing back beers with my feet in the sand
." Reality derails idealism once again, and it's presented as a crushingly sad moment.
is a delicate juggling act, and John Darnielle never once drops the ball. By tackling themes so clearly dear to him and occasionally inserting himself into the narrative, these songs are injected with a palpable sense of truth and experience, and the multifaceted course they take, both musically and lyrically, to arrive at their conclusion provide them with real depth. Lushly musical and lyrically complex, Goths
is the best Mountain Goats album in over a decade, and the zenith of Darnielle's conceptual bent. It elevates him from esteemed elder statesman back to being a vital talent with a new trick or two to show us yet, and re-energizes his brand of hyper-literate and hyper-emotional rock music. In simpler terms, it's another Mountain Goats masterpiece, and the first in a while, so enjoy, and remember to wear black.