The Mountain Goats – Goths Album Review

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.

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…

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