Review Summary: If you won't keep me safe and warm, then send down the storm
We’ve reached the staggering milestone of the twentieth Mountain Goats album, and at this point it would come as more of a shock to hear a sonic departure from this group than it would for them to start a new musical chapter. Nothing will ever redefine the direction of the project like the sudden shiny production of “Tallahassee” did, and while we’ve received sweeping concept albums in the previous decade about Wrestlemania and social rejects from the Pacific Northwest, the tone and presentation of these projects has evolved as John Darnielle has grown older. Whereas visceral experiences like “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” or “No Children” looked to place the listener directly within the line of emotional fire, Darnielle acts more as a passive observer or omniscient narrator on more recent releases, a trend that continues noticeably on new release “Dark In Here”. His posture of awe towards nature allows him to craft several compelling narratives here, as well as his ruminations on the brevity of existence compared to the vastness of what surrounds us. This is an album deeply fascinated and terrified with the endless universe it exists within, and both its musical and lyrical content are in deep unrest, searching for peace and understanding.
At this point, it’s hard for a Mountain Goats album to surprise or defy incoming expectations. Luckily, the group doesn’t attempt to do either of these things, and instead focus themselves on their strengths and tight songwriting. For the most part, they succeed. From a musical perspective, this is the most vibrant and alive The Mountain Goats have sounded in a handful of years. Listen to the way the three members of the rhythm section circumvent relaxed dynamics and twist around one another on mid-album highlights “Lizard Suit” and “When a Powerful Animal Comes”, the latter containing a stunning ending jam and a key change that can only be described as sexy. “Lizard Suit” utilizes crystalline pianos and pulsating low end to complement Darnielle’s poignant descriptions of urban loneliness that stand in stark contrast to the seismic descriptions of nature present on the album’s first few tracks. “Dark In Here” is a patient album whose songs require time to unfold and reveal themselves, so it stumbles most visibly when feels rushed. Opener “Parisian Enclave” carries the same potential energy as many of the album’s strongest tracks, but cuts itself off at the 90-second mark right when it’s about to take flight. “The New Hydra Collection” suffers from the same problem, and also feels more out of place than any other song here, being this album’s equivalent of the guy who shows up to the function with a six-pack, except he forgot the function was a funeral and now he looks like a jerk.
When the record is allowed to be patient with itself and build tension slowly, the results are gorgeous. I would be remiss not to mention “The Slow Parts of Death Metal Albums”, a sort of spiritual companion to 2017’s “Goths” in terms of narrative and inspiration. However, it has much more in common thematically with the stories of spiritual darkness and insignificance on display here (“Go where I’m not wanted, stand where the light hits hard”), and the way it masterfully unfolds over 5 and a half minutes has to be heard to be believed. Darnielle’s lyrics on the record are at their most compelling when he leans fully into these themes. It becomes clear from the start of “Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower” that the album’s title is more internal and spiritual, referring to an inner darkness that struggles to be extinguished by natural light. “Mobile” draws stunning parallels to the book of Jonah, who is described as “emerging from his darkness”, rather than the darkness of the beast who swallowed him whole. The title track details some sort of looming battle, replete with foreboding Western guitars and steadily crescendoing percussion. Despite the overt descriptions of combat, the narrative and its presentation read more like a man defending his own soul from the horrors of the Earth, rather than any kind of traditional conflict over land or power. Even this gaping darkness within is demonstrated as fleeting, insignificant, and microscopic on tracks like “When a Powerful Animal Comes” and the aforementioned “Slow Parts”, two sprawling pieces that stoically gaze into the abyss and attempt to make meaning of it.
After “Slow Parts”, the album struggles to regain its footing for the final act; Darnielle’s lyrics remain as stunning as ever, but “Before I Got There” shares a bit too much in common musically with previous highlight “To the Headless Horseman”, while the final two tracks toe the line between gradually revealing their secrets and pointless meandering. Closer “Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light” is somehow one of the peppiest songs on this tracklist despite its title, and like “The New Hydra Collection” seems to have emerged from an entirely different headspace than the rest of the album.
Despite these occasional tonal inconsistencies, “Dark In Here” is a worthy addition to The Mountain Goats canon. It manages to remain an absorbing listening experience throughout its runtime, and demonstrates after an uneven 2020 that The Mountain Goats still have plenty left to say in their fourth decade as a band. Its themes of existential confusion and inner turmoil are especially relatable as the world continues to rapidly heat up and divide itself, and Darnielle’s unassuming demeanor and effortless posing of difficult questions continue to cement him as one of the most important and influential songwriters of our time.