Thursday, March 10, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1544: The Mountain Goats

This review was going to be even further delayed but a strange twist of fate freed my day up quite a bit. So much that I took the day off work, even. Sometimes you just need to step away and see the world at a slower pace. Today will involve some CD shopping, lunch with a friend, and watching a few episodes of Vikings.

And apart from that last reference, this is my second straight review that has nothing to do with Vikings – the show or the people.

Disc 1544 is…. Dark in Here

Artist: The Mountain Goats

Year of Release: 2021

What’s up with the Cover? I don’t know for sure because it’s kind of…dark in here. Get it? Get it?

However, based on the shoreline and those fire beacons burning across the bay, I assume this is the same scene from Ty’s “Land” album (reviewed back at Disc 1541) only this time from the perspective of the fear-filled locals.

How I Came To Know It: I am an avowed Mountain Goats fan so I tend to give them a try when they release something new. That’s what happened here.

How It Stacks Up: The Mountain Goats have been pretty prolific of late, and in the two years since I wrote my last review they’ve released two more records. As a result I now have 11. I rank “Dark in Here” #10. It’s good, but the competition is tough.

Ratings: 3 stars

As befits an album recorded and released during the heights of the pandemic, “Dark in Here” has a quiet introspection about it. As a result it takes a little longer to work its way into your heart, but it gets there eventually.

If you already know the Mountain Goats, you’ll be glad to know the usual elements of the band are there. Singer/songwriter John Darnielle has perfected his signature sound over many years, and once again his quavering, slightly anxious vocal style draws you into his world of taught emotion. I don’t know how Darnielle is so capable at making you feel absorbed and connected when singing about a lot of frantic disconnection, but he is. I would just say if you ever want to feel “safely anxious” the Mountain Goats are a band for you.

On this outing, the album lives up to its title, with a much moodier feeling to the production and arrangements. The drums and bass feel a bit heavier in the mix and provide a bit of a groove that I found a welcome focal point.

One of the early standouts is “Mobile” which has a gorgeous bit of country guitar noodling in the background, and while the lyrics are (like a lot of Mountain Goats songs) dense, complex and hard to access, the effort is worth your time. I don’t always know what Darnielle is going on about, but he consistently provides an emotional underpinning through his imagery. You won’t always know what exactly is happening, but you know how it makes you feel.

I also loved “To the Headless Horseman,” maybe in part because the complex emotional relationship between the horseman and the narrator, who is part Ichabod Crane, and part some complex separate character Darnielle has imagined. The lyrics don’t just speak to the threat of the horseman, but that complex and intimate interaction between hunter and prey, even suggesting the horseman may not be entirely a foe:

“Gentle shadows in the mist among the trees
Who awakes prepared to face such sights as these?
God keep the bounty hunter who shows mercy to His prey
I rode past you on the road again today

“And as you approached
I could sense the threat
But a stranger's just a friend
Who hasn't shared their secrets yet”

Cool stuff, and like most Mountain Goats songs, the action of what’s physically going on is only a small part of what’s going on. Internal anguish is his bread and butter, not pumpkin-wielding spirits.

Where the album loses me is with all the jazz that infuses it. These jazz elements are intended to provide a sort of noir quality to the songs, and at times they succeed. However, a little jazz goes a long way. At the start of “Lizard Suit” there is a twinkle of jazz piano and stand-up bass that helps establish mood, but halfway through, Darnielle doubles down and launches a cacophony of sound that free forms its way to nowhere. Yes, I know that’s what he’s intending, but I don’t have to like it.

The song titles range from the reasonable to the ridiculously overwrought. Best examples of the latter include “The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower” and “Arguing with the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review.” I’m sure I could dig super deep to see just why these florid song titles matter, but I think it would be a journey of diminishing returns. All those words don’t make them any more enjoyable and also come off as a wee bit pretentious. Sorry, John. You know I love you.

Overall, while this isn’t my favourite Mountain Goats album, it still has enough elements of what makes me love the band to keep me happy. I wouldn’t start here (go with “The Sunset Tree” or “Beat the Champ” for that) but it is a fine waystation later on your journey once you’ve got a taste of Darnielle’s mad genius and want to sample a little more of it.

Best tracks: Mobile, Dark in Here, To the Headless Horseman

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