Artist: the Mountain Goats
Audience: New fans and fans deeply invested in Darnielle’s creative works (books included).
Bottom Line: It’s a return-to-form in storytelling style and nothing else. Expect weird arrangements.
Stand Out Songs: Shelved, Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds, Paid in Cocaine.
I Want to Tell You About the Mountain Goats
Approaching the Mountain Goats as an invested fan is a profoundly humbling experience. I want to tell you about John Darnielle’s home life, about the books he’s written lately. I want to tell you about how All Hail West Texas earned its place as the last great lo-fi album the Mountain Goats put out, and about how The Sunset Tree became the turning point for the newly-minted three piece incarnation of the Goats. I want to explain why Transcendental Youth got ripped off by studio production better suited to the vinyl copy than the mp3 download. I want to show you how Darnielle managed to write a concept album about semi-pro wrestling and make it sound good. I want to tell you how John Darnielle looked right at me in concert before playing the most esoteric song that I needed to hear that day. But mostly, I want to tell you about how the Mountain Goats got through to me as a lonely 17 year old college freshman and how, five years later, that feeling of connection hasn’t changed.
There’s something telling, I think, in the way that John Darnielle’s music makes his fans take a step back and talk about the history of the band and its personal significance before addressing the original question. To be a Mountain Goats fan means living in a constant state of compromise. Sure, his voice is a little shrill. His guitar is often out of tune. The tape-deck he used for early albums never leaves the low end intact. Does he use too many horns on recent albums? Maybe, but that’s part of the charm. To escape the endless cycle of excuses we feel compelled to offer, fans turn to personal testimony and historical accounts to justify their obsession. It doesn’t matter if you like the music, because I do. This tendency, however, isn’t great at recruiting new fans. While we’re fond of explaining why we love the Mountain Goats we are (as a group) pretty poor ambassadors of the band. So how do you get people to like the Mountain Goats? The short answer is, you don’t.
I’m fond of saying (in the kind of paraphrasing manipulated by years of repetition) that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who don’t need the Mountain Goats and people who love the Mountain Goats. It’s an odd feature of John Darnielle’s music that it inspires the kind of adoration reserved for saviors, born not out of loyalty but debt. Fans make their own way to the Mountain Goats in such unique ways that one can hardly recommend a plan for a first listening. To date, I’ve created five individual playlists of Mountain Goats songs each created for a different person I tried to introduce to the band. It’s that kind of personal, individual experience that seems to define the whole of the fanbase. Trying to manufacture the kind of connection fans feel is difficult, time-consuming, and usually unsuccessful. Turning now to the new album, these challenges are alive and well regarding Darnielle’s latest project, Goths.
“Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds” perhaps offers listeners the most accessible entry into Goths with its similarities to the band’s earlier offerings on Beat the Champ, and Transcendental Youth. Lately, of course, John Darnielle has been moving away from the guitar-driven sound of earlier albums and towards a more expansive arrangement. Notable in Goths is the complete lack of guitar on an album featuring the Mountain Goats, a band that was (for a very long time) a solo guitarist. Instead, the album features Darnielle as singer first, musician second. Old songs were so driven by the simplistic chord progressions and aggressive strumming that Goth’s departure seems jarring at first.
Again, discussing the history of the band seems to offer a clear path towards understanding what’s going on with this album. Since The Sunset Tree the Mountain Goats have been pushing a relatively polished studio-produced sound that was distinctly absent from earlier offerings. Rather than taking the band towards minimalism (a direction already explored by Darnielle in solo-recording lo-fi albums) the Mountain Goats kept taking incremental steps towards bigger, more complex, and more brightly polished projects. Transcendental Youth gave fans their first taste of the horns section now ubiquitous on Mountain Goats recordings. Beat the Champ took this trend and turned up the volume, saturating tracks with soundscapes predominantly crafted by the horns rather than the guitar, bass, drum trio more familiar to old fans. Goths seems like the logical conclusion of this trend. In what seems to be a deliberate upset of traditional songwriting methods, Darnielle doesn’t rely on the guitar to carry the songs. Instead, he seems to devote his time and energy into the lyrics of this album. Each song becomes a poem with an exquisitely produced backing track. Old fans are encouraged to look past the stylized production and imagine how the songs might sound with the old Goat sitting back on his stool, holding his RainSong 6-string (a self-proclaimed favorite performance position for Darnielle). New fans might rejoice at the (finally) easy-to-listen-to nature of a well-produce, well-performed album like Goths. In instrumentation, the Mountain Goats have certainly abandoned tradition for this album. There’s hope, however, found in the odd Rolling Stone Australia youtube video that solo arrangements might be coming down the line soon enough. Personally, I’m already looking forward to the second-round tour (after the album tour) that Darnielle seems fond of arranging with the core trio (guitar, bass, drums).
Now, moving to the lyrical content. If Transcendental Youth was a letter to his son, decipherable with maturity and perspective, Goths offers the antithesis. It represents a complete move away from the audience-directed address of Transcendental Youth and a shift towards the embedded narration the Mountain Goats are known for. In this way, at least, Goths is a return to form. Old albums (and old fans) will remind us that John Darnielle is a master of disguise. He seamlessly works his way into the song acting as singer and subject all at once. It’s a style people have pointed out before, but one that he brings to fruition in Goths. With liberal use of second-person address, Darnielle makes it easy for listeners to read themselves into the songs in the same way that he places himself into the narrative. He doesn’t quite work as a storyteller, often reminding listeners that they’re still part of the audience, the relative out-group of the song’s subjects. He also doesn’t work as character exactly, keeping a respectable distance between himself and the song’s narrative arch. He tends to achieve this by placing the action of the story in the past, using second person address, and making it sound like he’s telling stories from memory, stories that happened long enough ago to be tinged with nostalgia. The guitar-driven frenetic sound of All Hail West Texas is gone, replaced by a disconnected, etherial sound that trades in nostalgia and selective memory as much as fine-grain details and sharp turns of phrase. Goths walks a line between being too far away from the action and the audience to matter, and too close to the story to really wind up and deliver the kind of emotional punch that rehearsed stories can offer.
In summary, I’ll call this album a win. It’s not for the lo-fi fan. It’s not for the diehard Mountain Goats fan still spinning the demo tracks of Come Come to the Sunset Tree either. It’s for new fans. Fans that want to hear a story. Fans that don’t come to this music expecting immediate gut-wrenching honesty. It’s for fans that will let the album unfold and can look up, thirty minutes later, surprised at how deeply they’ve fallen in love with Darnielle’s storytelling. This album is a return to tradition in Mountain Goats storytelling, if not instrumentation, and that places it in the sweet spot between innovation and constancy in the Mountain Goats catalogue.