The Mountain Goats’ new album is full of references and mentions from Goth music. It’s hardly a case of inside baseball, though. Instead, the references add an interesting layer to the album, and can definitely send you off searching through the bins of your local store for some Sisters of Mercy albums or playing some early-80s Siouxsie and the Banshees or scrolling through the Gene Loves Jezebel Wikipedia page (something John Darnielle does on album closer “Abandoned Flesh”). Digging back through some of these songs you might find all that expected Goth darkness is flecked with faint light, a kind of searching zeal and ferocity under the surface that makes them kindred spirits with John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats. Goths doesn’t just focus on the genre; it interacts with it. Here are few songs that might echo out as you listen to the band’s excellent new record.
“Your city lies in dust, my friend” ~Siouxsie & the Banshees – “Cities in Dust”
In the announcement for the record, the big shift for Goths was that John Darnielle and company were going to make the record without guitars. While on the surface this may surprise some, considering how integral the guitar has been to the band’s records to now, this actually shouldn’t be all that shocking. For one, it’s exactly the kind of limit a guy might impose if, say, he first played songs on a cheap acoustic guitar and recorded them into a boombox. Secondly, Darnielle has been playing keys, with increasing frequency, on the Mountain Goats’ records for over a decade. But though he’s left the guitar behind on this album, Darnielle has hardly abandoned the spirit. Since moving to studio recording, the Mountain Goats have expanded and experimented with different sounds — the aching quiet of Get Lonely, for example, or the more intricate compositions of Beat the Champ — but even then there were limitations. It was just that the constraints were thematic ones. An album about the doomed Alpha couple, the autobiographical album, the album where the songs are all named after Bible verses, the professional wrestling album, and so on.
Goths follows that lineage of cohesive themes, with songs focusing mostly on being part of goth culture, or playing in a goth band, or looking back on both. But Darnielle sticks to the keys here, leaving his guitar behind, and yet hardly constraining the songs. In fact, along with the no-guitar limit comes to the official expansion of the band. On Goths the Mountain Goats are an official four-piece, adding Matt Douglas on woodwinds. Darnielle’s often warm, atmospheric keys leave room to let the rest of the band flesh these songs out. Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster have never sounded more dynamic as a rhythm section than they do here, pounding out the low end on “Rain in Soho,” carving out bone-dry negative space around Darnielle’s whispered vocals on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement,” or propelling “Unicorn Tolerance” headlong into the dark Darnielle starts the song feeling “drawn to.”
In these excellent songs, Douglas becomes an impressive, surprising, and always welcome edition. The delicate cascade of horns on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” expands the song into some form of heartbreak somehow both intimate and all-encompassing. At the start of “Rage of Travers,” Douglas’s horn glides over Hughes and Wurster, with these rainy-noir notes that ripple out to show us the far-off walls of the cavern Darnielle seems to be singing in (or to?). The music on this album catches you off guard with these shifts. It isolates and then clutters up. It expands and constricts.
“What you get is what you seek”~ Gene Loves Jezabel – “Desire”
Thematically, Goths is also the most communal record from the Mountain Goats in a while. Beat the Champ was about wrestling culture, but the narratives felt individual. While we get some “I” stories on Goths, you haven’t heard this kind of story of a people since 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed. Goths explores the ways we can find ourselves by finding community. While “Rain in Soho” is all about negatives (“Nothing sharper than the serpent’s tooth / Nothing harder than the gospel truth”), it all comes back to the Bat Cave, the closed goth club where some threads of this community began. And yet, there’s a faint glint of hope when Darnielle insists “The river goes where the water flows” even after the closing of the Bat Cave. The place where it started is gone, but the community can, maybe, move forward.
Darnielle’s lyrics never let nostalgia float off in the ether. There’s a geography to Goths that adds complexity and specificity. “We Do It Different on the West Coast” seems snide at first, poking at possible problems in the scene in Ohio of Chicago, or how no one will shut up about New York, but it’s more an affirmation of the narrator’s own scene, the strength of it, rather than a tearing down of others. It’s healthy competition, to be sure, but it suggests above all else a feeling of home. So even when the narrator of “Paid in Cocaine” looks through their closet at their old boots and remembers crazier days, this voice still sounds content to pay the mortgage, to live a quieter life, when Darnielle pulls on the phrase “That’s who I was / this is who I am.”
“Sing this corrosion to me (like a healing hand)” ~The Sisters of Mercy – “This Corrosion”
And this concept of “who I am” brings us back to the notion of limits. Limits are not just structural on Goths, the album also explores them thematically. Many narrators here are either kids trying to fit into the culture, or aging musicians not sure where to go next. Both explore limits in different ways. The narrator of “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” watches that King and his speeding car in awe, admitting in a cracked whisper “I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore.” On “Unicorn Tolerance,” the narrator tries to look hard, but admits to feeling “real shame” for how their friends must see them. The narrator is “drawn to the dark,” but maybe wonders how much. Where is that limit, and how does it hurt their standing in a community they want to be a part of?
The musicians, meanwhile, flounder as the scene dries up around them, and yet nothing ends in defeat. “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” is about the singer from the Sisters of Mercy moving back home, but he’s humbled by the return while at the same welcomed back by old friends. The aging musician on “Shelved” confronts their limitations, what they are willing to do to keep playing. They won’t “tour with Trent Reznor / third of three, bottom of the bill” when all they want to do is “wallow in the spoils before the crowd” but, really and finally, they only want to “play [their] guitar.” If the album addresses the link between identity and community, it’s also wondering how you move on from that community, especially when the community is built on shared taste or artistic ethos. How do you keep the feeling of togetherness, of yourself, even as the sounds and tastes change? Closer “Abandoned Flesh” drives this home. Before Douglas’s horns come in to float the song to its end, Darnielle declares “the world will never know or understand the suffocated splendor of the once and future goth band.” It’s an end point, an admission that this kind of community has a shelf life, that we all have to grow and move on from some things, but it’s also an invitation to tuck it away and take it with you, to find pride in the best parts of that moment. It’s a bittersweet place to end Goths, but a fitting one, a moment of limitation and yet — on the edges — the sounds bleeds into something else, something resilient, something like possibility.