Review Summary: "Can you hear me, Long Beach?...”
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know the first thing about goth music. I suppose I have at least heard the two Cure songs that everybody seems to know and am somewhat aware of the existence of Siouxsie and the Banshees because of their affiliation with Sid Vicious. But, aside from that, the genre is almost wholly foreign to me. So, when I caught word about the title of the new Mountain Goats album, “Goths”, my first instinct was to assume that I would once again be alienated by the same referential lockout that restrained my enjoyment of their previous release “Beat the Champ”.
My initial knee-jerk reaction was to assume that, in similar fashion to how “Beat the Champ” was Darnielle’s love letter to the absurd, tacky world of professional wrestling, “Goths” would pay homage to the goth scene of the 80s and 90s in a way that was very specific to Darnielle’s knowledge; in other words, it would be too inside baseball for many people’s tastes. The narrow focus of “Beat the Champ” seems to be what ultimately doomed its potential for mass appeal, but difference here is that “Goths” is not as much about goths as it is about their place in the world that surrounds them.
From the outset though, Darnielle does seem to momentarily be stringing us along down a path that references familiar Gothic touchstones. “Rain in Soho”, while a pretty great, thrilling opener in its own right, does a poor job indicating the trajectory of “Goths” as a whole. Darnielle’s growling vocals, the supporting Gregorian choir, and its talk of lone wolves and open graves, suggests that the rest of “Goths” might be an ill-advised attempt by the Goats to ape the more stereotypical conventions of goth music as some sort of tribute. But, from that point, it takes a sharp turn into the realm of warm jazz. This is not the first time the Goats have gone this direction - “Transcendental Youth” and “Southwestern Territory” are two examples of tremendous songs that utilize the same sort of wind ensemble that appears on “Goths”. But, “Goths” proves that Darnielle has enough talent as a jazz composer to sustain an entire album.
The compositions on this are legitimately impressive, especially considering Darnielle’s roots in minimalism and lo-fi production. Many of the best tracks on “Goths” are built around the backing harmonies surrounding Darnielle’s main vocal track. “Paid in Cocaine” is a perfect example of this, as the main vocals, backing vocals, and florid woodwind instrumentation all combine to create a dense wall of perfectly harmonious sound. Meanwhile, the keyboards that lurk in the background of “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” serve as a steady base that gives way to an eventual whirlwind of horns. Even the more upbeat tracks like “Unicorn Tolerance” display Darnielle’s untapped ability to write fun, shoegazey pop songs. On the whole, “Goths” is the Mountain Goats’ most musically impressive record in years, and one of the best in their entire discography.
As impressive as the music is, the specificity of the album’s subject matter felt a bit alienating at first. After my first listen, I found “Goths” enjoyable on a very basic level, but ultimately unaffecting compared to some of the band’s more emotionally potent albums. I could accept that this album was produced in similar vein to “Beat the Champ”, which I found pleasant as well, as a bit of nostalgic musing about a relic from Darnielle’s adolescence, even if it really only scratched the surface of its emotional relevance to him. But “Goths” reveals more layers with repeated listens as not just a unique musical experiment, but as a revealing piece of observational commentary on goth subculture as a microcosm of larger society.
For years, the Mountain Goats have written songs that use the trials of one-off characters to illustrate greater truths about life. “Tallahassee” uses its “alpha couple” to illustrate the way that commitment to another individual can lead to hopelessness and self-destruction, “The Sunset Tree” uses some of Darnielle’s own experiences to illustrate the complex bond between a son and his estranged father, and “All Hail West Texas” celebrates the beauty in the whimsy and clumsiness of youth. A deeper reading of many of the songs on “Goths”, too, reveals a rather thoughtful exploration of goth culture on a smaller scale to unearth something greater about life. The album rather brilliantly uses the lense of a world-weary narrator who has outgrown the goth scene to explore more universal themes of identity, nostalgia, and living in the past to salvage what is left of the glory days. From this perspective, “Goths” reads as something much sadder than a merely personal crusade by Darnielle to pay homage to his own forgotten idols.
The album seems to live in the past, but seems to be communicating these vignettes of life as a goth as representative of adjacent movements happening in the present. For example, “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds”, the album’s Bandcamp-released lead single, is less about the Sisters of Mercy frontman himself and more about those old fans who, after years of his absence, still flock out to his show to cling to some figment of their youth. The details surrounding Eldritch’s arrival at a dank club engulfed in smoke from a decrepit fog machine mark a palpable passage in time that has worn down the wide-eyed fans that he left so many years ago to become a star. Elsewhere, the absolutely fantastic gospel dirge “Wear Black” is a stirring rallying cry for a community that has been notoriously crippled by drug addiction, and is informed by Darnielle’s firsthand experiences. The color black is referenced as a symbol unifying not just those who are struggling, but also those like Darnielle who have gone through hell and come out on the other end. It could come off as blindly optimistic or obnoxiously sentimental in the wrong hands, but Darnielle’s plea comes from a lived-in earnestness rather than a desire preach from a soapbox.
And as far as its explorations of identity and purpose, “Paid in Cocaine” comes from the viewpoint of a jaded adult who finds himself internally pining for his past as a young, rambunctious coke fiend despite seeming to denounce that part of his life in front of his new adult friends (“That’s who I was. This is who I am.”). The lyrics suggest he longs for the sense of purpose that his addiction brought him. And it raises the question of whether living life with the purpose of fulfilling an ultimately deadly task (in this case, satisfying an addiction) is still better than complete aimlessness; and Darnielle doesn’t pretend to have the answer. Then there’s “Abandoned Flesh”, which plays like a “Where Are They Now?” documentary on Gene Loves Jezebel, a group that experienced its fifteen minutes of fame before falling from grace and descending into in-fighting. Implicit is the suggestion that they were forgotten because of fateful machinations beyond control – “The world forgot about Gene Loves Jezebel” …and that was that. The song ruminates on how the world seems to keep spinning even as parts of the past that once held great importance begin to fade into obscurity – how do the members of Gene Loves Jezebel carry on when their purpose was to entertain the world and the world has left them behind?
At its core, the tenor of “Goths” centers around a fear and obsession with the unknown and how memories seem to fade and obscure with the passage of time and the things that could have been become ideals. In a shroud of darkness, Andrew Eldritch never returned to a hollowed out fanbase in Leeds, Gene Loves Jezebel never split in two, and the narrator of “Paid in Cocaine” never left his old friends and his freewheeling life to settle down into domestic complacency. But “Goths” is also about the certainty that parts of ourselves never fade, that in the dark and the light, high as a kite and to the intervention, we will go on wearing black in hopes that someone else might finally see us and somehow know us.