Once the sole member of the Mountain Goats, as the indie folk act was climbing its way up the ladder of California’s underground, lo-fi music scene, singer-songwriter John Darnielle has continued to expand his sound throughout the years, making use of an enlarged array of musicians and an increasingly polished and sleek production style. What’s often overlooked, however, is the growth the musician has undergone as a lyricist and a storyteller, with recent records from the Mountain Goats telling tales so niche that they play out more like a film than a simple narrative for a music album. The band’s previous album, 2015’s Beat the Champ, was an emotionally investing immersion into the world of professional wrestling, which was subtly concerned with death and mental illness amidst the peppy songs about legendary wrestlers, such as Chavo Guerrero, Bruiser Brody and Apache Bull Ramos. Delving into the illustrious back-catalogue of the Mountain Goats will reveal recurring characters and lyrical themes carrying over from one album to another, regardless of how far apart they were released, with, for example, 2012’s Transcendental Youth following characters from as far back as, at least, 2002’s All Hail West Texas. Goths is the latest project from the Mountain Goats, and it follows suit regarding the esoteric concepts of the now North Carolina-based outfit’s past material, being a concept album spawned from an adolescence of pent up teen angst, released in the form of The Sisters of Mercy, The Cure and Siouxsie And The Banshees records. Yes, as its title makes so abundantly clear, Goths is about goths, specifically pertaining to such subjects as the appeal of this dark aesthetic, the identity complications surrounding it and the oddly adult outlook on life that is adopted by such a subculture of black-clad youths. On the musical side of things, however, Goths is far from the gloomy post-punk of Joy Division or Bauhaus, rather it takes the usual, animated and smooth indie folk stylings of the Mountain Goats in a surprisingly lavish direction, featuring no comped vocals, no pitch correction and, most strikingly, no guitars. Indeed, despite the Mountain Goats’ songwriting style routinely using Darnielle’s strumming as the bedrock on which their pieces are written, Goths substitutes the six-string for a selection of woodwinds and piano work, with the end product leaning closer to baroque pop at times, due to its indulgent instrumental layers and dense arrangements. For a folk band, the constraints of recording an album sans guitars are far from damning, but that’s not to say they wouldn’t force a group like the Mountain Goats to strongly reconsider their attitude towards composing, and that it does on Goths. Indeed, although Darnielle’s songwriting style remains largely adherent to the same principles as usual, it nevertheless seems to have undergone some slight tweaking, making for a selection of songs that are less rigid in structure and more fluid, which complements the heavenly airiness of the release’s timbre perfectly. Although the lack of guitars on Goths came across to me as somewhat of a gimmick at first, it yields results that are successful for many of the same reasons as previous albums from the Mountain Goats, whilst progressing the indie outfit’s style subtly and for the better, making for one of the band’s most well-rounded, refined and ravishing records to date.
In terms of the overarching concept of Goths, just like previous projects from the Mountain Goats, this new album’s narrative very much appeals to a niche, and it is members of said niche who will likely gain the most from the attention to detail peppered throughout the tracklisting. Just as Beat the Champ was written by pro wrestling fans for pro wrestling fans, Goths is written with a heavily apparent knowledge of, and appreciation for, everything goth and, in particular, the music associated with the subculture and the trivia surrounding it. There is, therefore, a level of personal investment that will likely affect one’s connection with a record from the Mountain Goats, and this is as true as ever for Goths. Like Darnielle et al, I personally have a strong connection with much of the subject matter of this album, especially the references to goth-related music. The opening song, Rain in Soho, for instance, features the line, “There’s a club where you’d like to go / You could meet someone who’s lost like you”, which is an alteration of a lyric from The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now?, whilst Stench of the Unburied and its couplet, “And outside it’s 92 degrees / And KROQ is playing Siouxsie And The Banshees”, alludes to the female-fronted, post-punk luminaries both directly and indirectly, with 92° being an album cut from Siouxsie And The Banshees’ 1986 album, Tinderbox. Of course, such trivial titbits make Goths an absorbing experience for anyone whose ears prick up at the mention of a Joy Division song, but that’s not to say that Darnielle simply refers to such minutiae to serve the personal interests of certain listeners, rather the songwriter actively engages with some of these arcane allusions as to reinforce the broader purpose of a song’s narrative. Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds is a prime example, in that the title and chorus refer to the frontman of The Sisters of Mercy by name, giving the impression that he is the subject of the track, whereas he is more used as a metaphor to fortify the song’s meditations on being dissatisfied with one’s surroundings and taking it upon oneself to overcome one’s anxieties and actively seek out a better alternative. This is where Eldritch comes in, as he did, in fact, move to Leeds after dropping out of the University of Oxford. Such a decision would surely have been a difficult and potentially mentally-straining one, but the singer nevertheless chose to seek out a brighter future in Leeds, which led to him, through working as a freelance drummer in the city’s punk scene, forming The Sisters of Mercy and realising his musical dreams. Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds, therefore, seems to use this insightful story of a musical luminary’s brave and headstrong decision-making, which led to him actualising his ambitions, in order to relate to the anxieties that come with weighing up on life-changing decisions that have to be made when approaching a fork in the road. In contrast, some songs from Goths are not hinged on esoteric musical allusions, instead employing Darnielle’s signature brand of dry wit to explore certain emotional struggles. The hilariously-titled Unicorn Tolerance stands out as a particularly profound and humorous example of this, with the premise of the song and Darnielle’s “high unicorn tolerance” reflecting on his adolescent desperation to disassociate himself with things he otherwise enjoyed that were seen as uncool by the consensus among his peers. As such, the narrator betrays the unicorns and the youthful innocence associated with them in his attempts to “look hard / Behind [his] blackout sunglasses”. Ultimately, regardless of which approach Darnielle utilises on a track, the results are consistently compelling, with the balance between niche references and more accessible analogies making Goths an engaging listen whatever the listener’s connection to the goth subculture may be.
Whilst the organic and classy sound of Goths may seem unfitting on paper, given the concept of the album, the music does indeed tie in with the narrative to an extent, largely in how similarly emotive and expressive these pieces are. The brooding piano and tense tom-tom drumming on Rain in Soho, for example, are appropriately ominous, like a coming downpour, whilst the track gets more and more intense with the addition of forceful vocal melodies over the chorus, impassioned harmonies from Darnielle and booming choir vocals that bubble under the surface and drive the menacing demeanour of the song. Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds, the second song in the tracklisting, sees a solid groove of dainty Fender Rhodes playing and a smooth bass line support Darnielle’s usual style of clean and urbane singing that places a subtle emphasis on melody. It’s also on this cut that the listener first gets a taste of the breadth of the woodwind arrangements across Goths, courtesy of Matt Douglas, as the mellow but obscure clarinet, flute and saxophone lines elegantly intertwine with the frontman’s vocals, occasionally taking over as they soar above the instrumentation to flaunt their melancholic melodies. A similar but more plaintive style of woodwind arrangement continues onto The Grey King and Silver Flame Attunement, providing the main source of melody during the chorus, atop Darnielle’s tastefully simple and almost unobtrusive singing. Indeed, in spite of the lack of guitars on Goths, there is absolutely no evidence of any of these songs being any less sonically substantial, rather certain tracks amount to being amongst the Mountain Goats’ most grandiose and eclectic compositions and arrangements to date. From the soulful, almost spiritual choral vocals of We Do It Different on the West Coast and Wear Black, to the upbeat Fender Rhodes and bass jams of Unicorn Tolerance and Shelved, to the textured, detailed, and even occasionally jazz-inspired woodwind timbre of Paid in Cocaine and Rage of Travers, Goths stands as one of the Mountain Goats’ most sonically sweet and melodically masterful records thus far in their discography.
Darnielle’s songwriting prowess has continued to grow in interesting and refreshing ways over the years, whilst always remaining firmly rooted in the style established all the way back during the Mountain Goats’ humble beginnings. Goths continues this trend of artistic growth, even seeing huge improvements, particularly from a lyrical perspective, from the band’s previous studio undertaking. Whilst Beat the Champ was accessible even to listeners who knew little about professional wrestling, the album’s narrative was nevertheless much more tailored to audience members who could recognise the arcane references to pro wrestling trivia, which could sometimes leave Darnielle’s wry lyrical insights ever so slightly lost in translation. Goths, however, whilst still a personal record, for which one’s connection to the subculture in question and its related art mediums will largely dictate one’s investment in these stories, is a lot more accommodating to all listeners. Indeed, the difficult life decisions of Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds or the self-destructive peer pressure of Unicorn Tolerance are both relatable outside of their gothic allusions, and this is perhaps the great success of Darnielle’s lyric-writing throughout the tracklisting. Bridging the divide between the esoteric and the accessible is no easy feat, but Goths proves that such a bridge can, in fact, be built, and the end product is an impressive achievement of universal engagement.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10