The Mountain Goats - Goths

by Jon Burke Rating:8 Release Date:2017-05-19

John Darnielle, head Mountain Goat and one-time goth, has just released one of the most unique records of his already quite distinctive career. Goths is a guitar-less exploration of the goth movement, a document of early-80s California scenesters, and a series of shout outs to the long-gone bands (Gene Loves Jezebel) and artists (Andrew Eldritch) who once propelled the gothic scene into international prominence. Though the greats get name checked (Robert Smith, Siouxsie Sioux) Goths spends more of its time dealing with those who time forgot and those who, like Darnielle, moved away from the pretentious darkness of the California goth scene. Interestingly The Mountain Goats accomplish this without the use of darkwave keyboard flourishes or distorted guitars. In fact, musically speaking, Goths has more in common with the smoky jazz of Chet Baker than the fiery theatrics of Peter Murphy and the result is a rarefied intimate look at a movement which abhors intimacy.

Goths’ opener, “Rain in Soho” belies the album’s objective and overall sound. A driving beat, haunting piano chords and a deep male chorus chanting: “No, no, no, noooo!” all underpin Darnielle’s verse about wolves and castles and haunting darkness. It’s the one time on the album that Darnielle attempts making an actual gothic song... and it succeeds, despite its instrumental limitations, at creating the mood and intensity of a goth classic. With that said, “Rain in Soho” is lyrically worthy of the genre’s keyboard tsunamis and soaring guitars and it was the one time on the album I found myself wishing Darnielle hadn’t limited himself instrumentally.

Track two, “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds”, is where Goths’ concept begins to take shape. It’s an upbeat tune that quickly becomes amusing as Darnielle croons:

“There's indifference on the wind/But a faint gust of hope/At a club nobody goes to/With a musty velvet rope”.

The song, which centers on Sisters of Mercy frontman Andrew Eldritch, deals with the notion that maybe you can go home again – so long as you’re willing to take a little shit from your old friends who never left. Darnielle’s fictional Eldritch returns to live in his hometown in a rather unceremonious fashion and finds his friends and community proud of him but unwilling to idolize him the way he once was by fans around the world.

Several songs on the record tell the tales of California goths who must contend with changes in the scene and the impending realization that growing-up means growing out of the subculture. “The Grey King And The Silver Flame Attunement” and “We Do It Different On The West Coast” both feature narrators who feel insecure in their identities, as if being goth is as much a test of one’s identity as an identity itself. “Unicorn Tolerance” seems to deal directly with regret and the way being goth masks sweetness and sensitivity as much as it protects from cruelty and malice:

“Sleep in the underpasses/Try hard to look hard/Behind my blackout sunglasses/ But I have high unicorn tolerance/I have high unicorn tolerance”

In a move one wouldn’t expect from The Mountain Goats or from an album with multiple references to living under overpasses, sleeping in graveyards and murder, the track “Stench of the Unburied” seems to draw most of its musical inspiration from Steely Dan and their fellow yacht rock compatriots. For a track whose title references rotting flesh, and lyrics focus on the hard-partying lifestyle of L.A. punks, the song itself is pure easy listening. Though the importance of the contrast is clearly at the heart of the album, at times, the lack of sonic intensity detracts from the power of the songwriting. Some of these lyrics deserve a musical edge to match the razor-sharp lyrics. There are moments listening to Goths in which Darnielle and crew come dangerously close to solo Sting territory.

The album’s closer, “Abandoned Flesh”, is my personal favorite. It tells the story of Gene Loves Jezebel and a dozen other goth acts who ultimately, in Darnielle’s words: “had to leave the darkness for the sun.” This track becomes the thesis statement of Goths in the way it celebrates the complexities of the culture and the lesser known acts who made it thrive while simultaneously reminding listeners that the world moves on. This may be the album’s best line:

“But for the most part/However big that chorused bass may throb/You and me and all of us/Are gonna have to find a job/Because the world will never know or understand/The suffocated splendor/Of the once and future goth band.”

Goths seems to serve as both a celebration of a defunct era in music and as a wake-up call to anyone who becomes so obsessed with their own subculture that they stagnate. This is one of the best albums in recent years from The Mountain Goats, who’ve been consistently good since the days of their hiss-heavy home recordings. It’s the perfect soundtrack for removing your makeup on the hungover Sunday morning following a wild Goth Night at the pub.

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