The Mountain Goats – Goths
Merge Records – 19 May 2017
First, a disclaimer: there are ‘NO GUITARS’ on The Mountain Goats’ latest album. For their sixteenth studio work, the band swapped the characteristic strumming behind classics like No Children and This Year for saxophones, a piano, assorted woodwinds, and even a surprise appearance from the Nashville Symphony Chorus to create a soft rock and soul vibe. Instrumental selection aside, the album titled Goths, continues the grand Mountain Goats tradition of chipper instrumentals juxtaposed with alternately gut-busting and surprisingly serious lyrics.
Goths continues the reminiscing theme begun in 2015 with the band’s release Beat the Champ centred on the somewhat obscure topic of pro-wrestling heroes from lead singer John Darnielle’s childhood. The band’s latest release verges into adolescent reminiscing, exploring how the goth culture of the 80s translates today. But familiarity with goth culture is far from a prerequisite for enjoying the album. Bassist Peter Hughes offers his take on the theme, “these are songs that approach an identity most often associated with youth from a perspective that is inescapably adult. Anyone old enough to have had the experience of finding oneself at sea in a cultural landscape that’s suddenly indecipherable will empathise.”
While those of us with a goth phase will undoubtedly appreciate the chance to relive Sisters of Mercy concerts, Hughes’s stance on goth culture as something broader, a movement ‘for young people steeped in young things,’ points to the wide appeal of Mountain Goats songs. Anyone who has ever experienced the dissonance of returning to a once familiar place can relate to Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds. Those of us who habitually return to old haunts understand the salute to the “old ghosts who taught me everything I knew” in Unicorn Tolerance. As the album winds down with To Be Fair to Gene Loves Jezebel, anyone whose musical ambitions struggled against the reality of adulthood understands that “However big that chorused bass may throb // You and me and all of us // Are gonna have to find a job.” Goths is an album about impermanence, the return to places, people, and songs, and knowing them again after the passing of time.
The new instrumental background offers a way to hear the Mountain Goats afresh. My initial impression of the album suggested that sounded like the Mountain Goats stumbled upon a wormhole from Denton, Texas to Liverpool, England, and somehow tragically displaced their guitars along the way. My reaction softened upon reading at NPR that Darnielle turned to the Fender Rhodes in part because his toddler could plunk the lower registers of a piano without derailing the composition process in a way that was not possible with a guitar. And by the time the album introduced the latest addition to the cadre of Mountain Goat Choruses To Be Belted Out Immediately–‘I’m…