For about a year I’ve had a backlog of “new (to me”) albums and I’ve been invoking Rule #5 (see sidebar) on an alternating basis to see what I review next. However I can also ‘naturally’ roll of the new music section and this album is the second in a row from there. This is just as well since there are about 130 albums in there right now.
Disc 1043 is…Goths
Artist: The Mountain Goats
Year of Release: 2017
What’s up with the Cover? I think this art piece is intending to show how it feels to be an outcast. See how the person in the green sweater is the only one who isn’t black and white? How everyone else is boring and obvious? This is alienation and isolation in the middle of a crowd of people? How very…Goth. Someone give that kid a hug.
How I Came To Know It: I discovered the Mountain Goats through “Beat the Champ” (reviewed back at Disc 1032). I liked what I heard and dug through their back catalogue. When they released a new album earlier this year, I took a chance it would hold up.
How It Stacks Up: My faith in the Mountain Goats was not misplaced. “Goths” is a worthy addition to their discography, coming in 4th best out of the 6 Mountain Goats albums I own.
Ratings: 4 stars
The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle is a master of looking back at very specific elements of his youth and translating them into concept albums that become about so much more than the sliver of memory that forms his inspiration.
On “Sunset Tree” that journey is a retrospective on his abusive step-father on the occasion of his death, and on “Beat the Champ” it is the memories of going to local professional wrestling shows. On “Goths” Darnielle digs back into his youth in California, growing up listening to eighties Goth music.
While “Goths” is inspired by that music, the album remains Darnielle’s mix of indie folk, rock and lo fi, albeit with a Gothic twist on the sound. The biggest change is that the album is completely free of guitar, with organ and piano filling in the melodic gaps where you might expect one. This creates an emphasis on the horns, bass and drums and makes the whole thing feel a bit more dark and moody.
A record like this could’ve easily resulted in a self-indulgent bunch of name dropping or – even worse - a bunch of novelty songs. Darnielle skillfully avoids both. This isn’t to say there isn’t name dropping, because there is a bunch. Sisters of Mercy’s Andrew Eldritch, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Smiths all get their moments. Even metal band “Motorhead” get an unexpected shout-out and on “Abandoned Flesh” Gene and Jezebel get special love. But because Darnielle weaves these bands into a narrative that is about his experience growing up with them, it never feels forced or awkward.
Instead it feels, heartfelt, like these bands were old friends that Darnielle grew up with; high-school pals he is looking back on with fondness. It’s the relationship that all music lovers have with their early influences, and how I still feel about Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper and Iron Maiden.
The first four songs on the album are all amazing, and I started wondering if “Goths” would challenge for my favourite Mountain Goats album. This didn’t happen, with the middle of the album taking a slight step down in quality, but the step is slight. If anything, the songs just become that much more insular, as though thinking back on these songs about alienation push him a bit deeper into himself, creating songs with less compelling melodies, but that retain a deep emotional punch.
That’s because at their core, Goths back in the day were just like us metal heads; outsiders finding a community among each other. While we foolishly missed out on a whole bunch of other good music (including each other’s) it created a space in our developing psyches for a secure community that, once tempered with a bit of maturity, let us build bridges to other forms of music (and people) a few years later.
That connection between musical styles is what drives “Goths” so well. Darnielle’s high indie-style vocals mesh beautifully with gothic-inspire thumping bass riffs and hollow drums. You can almost feel your there alongside him, driving in a crappy old Pontiac Grand Am on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” or hitting night clubs after the show is over on “Rage of Travers”.
“The Grey King…” has one of my favourite lines on the album with “I’m hardcore…but I’m not that hardcore.” We all want to be more hardcore than we are, or think back and imagine we once were. Darnielle’s willingness to poke gentle fun at his younger self trying to be cool really related and feels emotionally honest without becoming trite.
On “Stench of the Unburied” the synthesizer feels Cure-like, but it is used like a solo or a flourish to a Mountain Goats style folk song. On “Rage of Travers” the saxophone warbles notes here and there and makes it work. I admire anyone who can work in a saxophone and not wreck a song. Few people not named Clarence Clemons can make it work, but Darnielle succeeds.
And for all this thematic excellence, many of these songs are just damned catchy. The driving beat and Gothic chanting of “no…no no no” on “Rain in Soho” will make your head bob, and the swing beat on “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” is infectious, and had me doing little two step dance moves on multiple occasions the last couple of days.
Whether in your youth you were a Goth, a metal head or something else entirely doesn’t matter. There was a time when musical discovery was happening to you for the first time, and “Goths” will bring you back to how that felt. What’s more, it will bring you back with some top-notch songwriting, as once again Darnielle takes a very personal experience and weaves a narrative that belongs to us all.
Best tracks: Rain in Soho, Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds, The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement, We Do it Different on the West Coast, Stench of the Unburied, Abandoned Flesh