Well, what else were they going to do? John Darnielle has written over 600 songs. Most tell pretty good stories, some are gut-wrenchingly heartbreaking, a few are anthemic, around 13 of them are about pro-wrestling, but few and far between are Mountain Goats songs predictable. Goths (released May 19, 2017 via Merge Records) is probably the most bizarre record that the Mountain Goats have recorded, and it pays off.
Having every song resolve around the “Goth” concept is gimmick enough, but to top that off, Darnielle doesn’t even pick up a guitar for the entire record. The album is easily one of the most accessible to a casual fan in the band’s catalogue. Darnielle’s voice is rarely as harsh as it can be in all of Goths’ predecessors, and the absence of guitars is never noticeable. The increased usage of brass instruments is certainly welcome and suits the album’s sound well. Save for “Rain In Soho,” the music never resembles The Cure, Celtic Frost, Gene Loves Jezebel or any of the artists referenced, and that’s for the better. This record would be corny if it tried to replicate any of these artists. These odes to death rock would generally be welcomed at a relaxing dinner party. A black tie with black eyeliner, if you will.
Despite this being one of the Mountain Goats’ most interesting records, it may require repeat listens for dedicated fans. Darnielle never breaks into his signature howl following “Rain in Soho,” and the lack of guitars can be a little off-putting during the first listen for those that adore those lo-fi early recordings. That being said, after a number of listens “I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore” or “No one knows when the Bat Cave closed” may end up alongside classic choruses like “This Year” or “No Children.”
Like Beat the Champ before it, John Darnielle’s lyrical themes don’t count on the listener to necessarily know every reference. Going in having never listened to Sisters of Mercy or Siouxsie and the Banshees prior to this record, and you may still have limited interest. Nonetheless, each song has a larger purpose; they’re all just dressed in black. “Stench of the Unburied” and “We Do It Different on the West Coast” seem very much so focused on a specific time in Darnielle’s life, but a song like “Wear Black” is focused on holding onto that feeling through life. “Paid in Cocaine” and “Abandoned Flesh” are both songs about growing up and being highly aware of the changing world. “Shelved” has one of the most cynical takes:
Don’t want to write songs with this clown they set me up with
in a Los Angeles rehearsal studio.
Not gonna tour with Trent Reznor
Third of three, bottom of the bill.
You can’t pay me to make that kind of music anymore,
Not gonna swallow that pill.
Darnielle sings these lyrics with the same conviction that he had on “Werewolf Gimmick,” and the fury radiates from his screechy vocal cords. “Abandoned Flesh” is the flipside of this coin. He closes the album with the same gusto as the outro to “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” when he sings:
The world will never know or understand
the suffocated splendor
of the once and future goth band.
These are all archetypes of Mountain Goats songs, just like how Beat the Champ wasn’t all about pro-wrestling. This isn’t so much a record about listening to Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, but it’s an album about reflecting on who you were and how you still carry those things with you. In that sense, we’re all just a bunch of Goths.
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cover © Merge Records