The truth isn’t as truthful as it once was. The line between slander and sincerity is blurred beyond recognition. It’s comforting that there are some ideas with an aura of objective honesty. One of them is this: The Mountain Goats, and by extension John Darnielle, do not make bad songs. It’s been nearly three decades and the man has a track record to rival Lasse Virén. He’s not the type to rush and hastily release some cash grab. Even a cursory glance shows how much his work is defined by care, consideration and an unwavering cynicism.
From his earlier stripped backs affairs to the more recent output, it’s evident there’s real thought put into each message. There will only be a broadcast when there is something meaning to say. Two years ago, The Mountain Goats demonstrated their genuine love of professional wrestling and the surrounding culture on the stellar ‘Beat The Champ’. That was represented a late career best for the group and created a serious expectation for the follow-up. While the newest LP, can’t quite match the highs of their previous outing, it’s still a wonderful, dark and earnest examination of its subject.
If the title didn’t make it clear, this is an album about goths. Naturally, it devotes some of its time to the social outcasts in the Siouxsie Sioux get up loitering on Fascination Street. But the LP has a much wider scope than that. It means to explore what the subculture represented to its denizens, the struggles of trying to sustain the nightmare and how the passage of time has defanged the vampires who defined it. Like with Champ’s study of men in tights, Goths is a record loaded with shrewd observations and sobering truths about the ridiculousness of the whole scene. Darnielle understands the tropes and stylistic trappings of the genre and uses them to great effect. The tracklisting includes ridiculously morbid and grandiose titles like ‘The Grey King And The Silver Flame Attunement’, ‘Wear Black’ and ‘Stench of the Unburied’. There is a degree of mocking, but there is also a genuine tenderness and affection too. This isn’t mean-spirited jibe at the misunderstood or death-obsessed, nor is it a rosy-eyed love letter to the past. It’s a mature reflection on youthful exuberance with the right dose of scorn and affection. That’s a fiendishly tough tightrope to manage, one which the group does with flying colours.
What really ties the collection together lyrically is the underlying sense of tragedy which pervades constantly. While a romanticised interpretation of death is a constant fixture, there is always this subtle sense of deeper, more crushing melancholy bubbling beneath the surface. This takes the form of reliving a deceased friend’s halcyon days (‘Paid In Cocaine’), the stasis and decay of a once booming movement (‘Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds’) or the frustrations of a washed up artist clinging to the past (‘Shelved’). All these different elements come together into a real, cohesive whole with a huge degree of nuance and insight. These lyrics, unfortunately, end up carrying the majority of the weight of the album as the music isn’t up to their level.
To the credit of the band, they do a great job. The temptation is there to bash out a dozen or so faux goth numbers to clatter the listener over the head with. But rather than taking the easy route, they’ve inverted expectations and tried to make their own brand of goth-folk. There are horns, pianos and lilting little melodies offset by aggressive synths and that kind of chorus driven bass that The Cure has held the monopoly on for decades. It is distinctly a Mountain Goats release, but it’s the Mountain Goats doing goth. What’s even more impressive as well is the absence of guitars, a move which allows you to appreciate the texture of the background instrumentation. Unfortunately, none of the music every rises above this. It’s predominantly a framework to showcase the phenomenal lyricism.
So while can you appreciate the structure and the beauty of it, you can’t help feel somewhat disappointed. This sentiment is given more heft by the points when the music really comes alive. The opener, ‘Rain In Soho’, is booming, apocalyptic and perfectly sets the stage for the coming onslaught. The Simon Gallup inspired breakdown of ‘Shelved’ perfectly frames the catharsis of the words. The downbeat horns on ‘Abandoned Flesh’ match the overriding sense of loss and wasted potential which fuels Darnielle. When used correctly, this helps the message hit with optimum efficiency. So where the words really excel and the music does a great job in it’s own way, they’re never fully allowed to meld together into the unstoppable, yet subtle pitch black leviathan they could be. Will Murphy