By David Winlo
Search for ‘The Mountain Goats’ on the internet and you’ll find all the images and information you’d expect to find about the well-balanced, mountain-dwelling animals, but you’ll also discover a band, still surprisingly unknown after more than 20 years of music-making, who have just released their sixteenth studio album, entitled ‘Goths’.
This concept album focuses on a subculture which was important to singer John Darnielle’s young adult life as the album’s predecessor, ‘Beat the Champ’ did with professional wrestling. This time, it is that of the titular goths, specifically from the early days of the goth culture. This provides an interesting setting for Darnielle’s lyrics, which are a vital part of why anyone who listens to The Mountain Goats does so. References are made to goth bands known and unknown, and graves are the subjects of lyrics from a number of songs, such as in the line from opener ‘Rain in Soho’, ‘revel in the darkness like a pair of open graves’.
The goth theme is noteworthy as it is not only significant to John Darnielle but also bassist Peter Hughes, who too had a goth past, as well as influences on the other members of the band, Jon Wurster and new member, multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas. This extra personal aspect can be heard in the music, as the playing from Hughes and Wurster gets yet more varied than we’ve seen in previous years, and Douglas makes his first album appearance as a full-time member with some woodwind arrangements which help lean the album’s sound further towards jazz than the band has ever gone before.
Darnielle’s musical contributions too, have developed. As a guitarist/ pianist, he has more experience writing and performing on the guitar, but little training, whereas the opposite is true of his piano-playing, which for this album frequently takes place on a Fender Rhodes, whilst for the first time in the band’s history the guitar is put to one side entirely, which to the album’s great credit, is not something to complain about. This allows for more variation in the style of singing, which suddenly becomes very atmospheric in many parts of the album, particularly in the tense whispery way in which the words ‘I’m pretty hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore’ are delivered in ‘The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement’.
The album deals with youth, ageing, the unknown and misunderstood, with well-paced music and lyrics which range from sombre and mellow to the humorous, resulting in an album which works both to relax the listener and make them engaged and intrigued, all without the listener actually having to be (or have been) a goth themselves, as I have not, though I can’t claim not to have any gothic themes or influences in my taste in music. My recommendations for readers, gothic or not, would be ‘Rain in Soho’, with its intense atmosphere and brooding sound, ‘Shelved’, wherein bassist Peter Hughes writes and signs a verse of his own for the first time, ‘Wear Black’, in which the goth theme and the jazz style come together in a state of beautiful contrasts.
Image ‘The Mountain Goats Live @ The Rickshaw (Vancouver)’ by Klim Levene licensed under CC BY 2.0.