Goths, the Mountain Goats’ 16th studio album, opens with “Rain In Soho,” a barnburner of a song that belies the subdued nature of the tracks that follow. In fact, it gets things off to such a rousing start that it’s easy to overlook what’s missing—namely, frontman John Darnielle’s guitar. As mentioned in the album’s liner notes, Goths is completely free of strings aside from Peter Hughes’ bass. Even when Darnielle bangs on piano keys, as he does throughout “Rain,” it’s on a Fender Rhodes, which has tines instead.
That’s fine. After all, Darnielle’s much better known for his lyrical storytelling than his guitar chops (though they are more than proficient). Still, the absence of his Gibson is felt throughout Goths, a record that has raised a lot of eyebrows with its title and attendant theme. It’s not as though The Mountain Goats haven’t ventured into concept album territory before; Goths comes on the heels of 2015’s wrestling homage Beat The Champ, for starters. And what’s a John Darnielle album (or really, any of his art) without some discussion of death, darkness, and/or wolves who howl at an indifferent moon? But the idea that this Claremont, California-based band known for its wry lyrics, gentle melodies, and unassuming appearance would be taking on the bats and belfries of goth culture naturally sparked some curiosity when it was announced.
Hughes and Darnielle have since revealed that they both grew up goths, but the fact that they did so away from the established epicenter (London, mostly) and minus all the velvet and cravats means it’s a part of their upbringing that’s been easily overlooked. Nevertheless, they both prove eager to relive their eyeliner-ridden adolescence here—most pointedly on “We Do It Different On The West Coast.” Here Darnielle goes on a lyrical tour of goth sites, from London to Ohio, where he claims, “There’s always something going on.” His love of Siouxsie And The Banshees and The Sisters Of Mercy was no less ardent just because he was appreciating them from over near Hollywood, a point he makes by accompanying his bona fides with bouncy keyboards.
These reveries go beyond establishing the band’s goth cred to become a brief history of the genre—and if they were related in a more animated or more recognizably Mountain Goats-like manner, the goth-uninitiated might be more apt to appreciate it. The Mountain Goats have never been especially showy, not even on catchier tunes like “This Year” or “Choked Out.” But when emulating the somber delivery of someone like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, where he’s almost drowned out by new wave synth mimicry of his Rhodes, Darnielle makes a rare musical misstep for him. Even when the themes on Beat The Champ weren’t as immediately grabby as the lovelorn troubadour’s journey on Full Force Galesburg, he always still nailed the compositions. Here he gets lost in aping someone else’s.
Goths rallies somewhat with the only new-wave-skirting “Unicorn Tolerance” and the surprisingly soulful “Wear Black,” while the second track, “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds,” is the most successful of all. It’s like a Darnielle-scored epilogue to the Sisters Of Mercy singer’s career, a conceit that’s perfectly in keeping with the band’s oeuvre. But two of these relatively high points don’t exactly jibe with The Mountain Goats’ sound, while other tracks—like “Paid In Cocaine” and the verbosely titled “The Grey King And The Silver Flame Attunement”—are just rendered lackluster by Darnielle’s self-imposed vocal restraint.
More than on any other album, Darnielle and company are stretching past their indie-folk roots with Goths, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the album’s look back at what got them (or, at least, Darnielle and Hughes) to where they are now. As part of the band’s rich story, It’s still a journey worth taking, both for the band and listeners. But the latter will find themselves staring out the window, brooding over the gray and dismal scenery a bit more.
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