For early listeners of the Mountain Goats, Goths might be something of a shock to the system.
Distribution of music from John Darnielle’s at-times one-man band started out in 1991 with cassettes recorded using Darnielle’s boombox. Older albums like Full Force Galesburg and Sweden are defined by stripped-down guitar strumming and a constant buzzing in the background, relics of the recording tools available for a band with little money. In light of this, the rich woodwinds, bulked-up vocals from the Nashville Symphony Chorus and guitarless-ness of Goths reflect a continued departure from the cultish, lo-fi music that first has won Darnielle fame.
The album opens with “Rain in Soho,” a dark song with pounding drums that might make you think the Mountain Goats plan to channel the Gothic musical subgenre. With a pounding background track, Darnielle croons “No one knows when the Batcave closed” as chanting “no no no nos” interrupt. Musically, “Rain in Soho” is one of the most sonically ambitious songs to come out of the Mountain Goats in a while, and it cocoons listeners in layers of descending vocal lines, piano and drums.
Despite the album’s thundering start, the Gothic conceit is more apparent in Darnielle’s lyrics than in the tone of the album. The second song on Goths, “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” fictionalizes the homecoming of The Sisters of Mercy lead singer as a metaphor for decay and inevitability. Backed by breezy woodwinds and a xylophone, it’s steady and playful — musically dyssynchronous with Goth icons such as Joy Division.
The rest of the album follows similarly slow-paced and jazzy. Yet there’s a certain cognitive dissonance in a song called “Abandoned Flesh” that opens with cafe-music and details the failure of rock band Gene Loves Jezebel, breaking for horn solos between verses.
While bookended by strong, coherent tracks, the album falters in the middle. Songs like “Stench of the Unburied” rely too heavily on Darnielle’s writing at the expense of acoustic development and are redolent of older Mountain Goats material, a vibe that doesn’t work with the rest of the more polished album.
That said, Goths’ lyricism and storytelling — a hallmark of the band’s previous work — is in fine form here. “Wear Black” beautifully evokes the experience of committing to an alternative — and sometimes outcast — lifestyle. In perhaps the most iconic and simple seven words he’s written on the album in the song “The Grey King And The Silver Flame Attunement” — “I’m hardcore / but I’m not that hardcore” — Darnielle elicits the struggle of trying to prove oneself amidst adolescence and uncertainty. His words may resonate with young goths looking to find their place, but they should be a lesson to us all.
It’s likely that some will view the powerful and polished Goths as another step on the Mountain Goat’s journey to selling out — one that started with 2005’s The Sunset Tree. Such skepticism isn’t unwarranted; age and experience don’t grant Darnielle the right to work without scrutiny. Yet the album, though a far cry from Darnielle’s musical roots, is ultimately a bold and beautiful new take on goths. The Mountain Goats might be exploring unfamiliar territory, but the joy they bring listeners is nothing new.