Final Rating: 8/10
Back in 2015, when the Mountain Goats released their excellent wrestling-themed album, Beat the Champ, Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted about the album saying, “When you write about what you love, you can’t lose.” That statement rings truer than ever in regards to Goths, the latest release from the notoriously creative storytellers, the Mountain Goats. It’s about exactly what the title says: goth music, goth venues, goth fashion, goth literature, and whatever else goths did during their cultural peak in the late 1980s. “It’s about looking at the things that you used to spend time with to try and heal yourself while you were on autopilot.” That’s how frontman John Darnielle describes this album – and it absolutely highlights the best part about all of it. This isn’t just a history lesson about a cultural fad, it’s a story about the formative years of Darnielle’s life and the things that meant the world to him at the time. Though the surface subject matter is difficult to relate to if you never had a ‘goth phase’, the core themes of this album can resonate with absolutely anyone.
If you were to go to the Bandcamp page for Goths and scroll to the bottom, you would find a bold statement, emblazoned in mighty, all-caps lettering that reads, “NO COMPED VOCALS, NO PITCH CORRECTION, NO GUITARS.” When this announcement was initially made, it merited three gasps of escalating intensity from myself and thousands of other fans alike. Not editing your vocals in any way is a risky move, but Darnielle insists on preserving the spirit of live performance in recorded music – an idea that’s more of a sentiment than it is a practical change. However, the third item on that list is what stirred the most feathers among fans. A folk band making an album with no guitars? The idea seemed downright preposterous … right up until I heard the sweet, glossy tone of the Fender Rhodes Mark II.
This is the biggest sonic shift the band has seen since their leap from lo-fi bedroom recordings to full-band studio albums back in 2002. Admittedly, it almost doesn’t sit right with me to have a Mountain Goats album without John Darnielle furiously strumming away at an acoustic guitar, but his proficiency on piano fused with the unique and pleasing sound of the Fender Rhodes is enough to persuade me to feel otherwise. In fact, when this album kicks off with the unbelievable single, Rain in Soho, I’m more than ready to embrace the Mountain Goats’ new sound.
Rain in Soho might actually be one of the best songs the band has written in recent years. Even after many full repeat listens of Goths, it stands tall as my favorite track every time. Right from the get-go, it summons powerful, dramatic imagery. The pounding kick drum and choral background vocals set themes of mystery and uncertainty as Darnielle goes on to pay tribute to the most important clubs in the goth scene, The Batcave. Not only is song full of powerful, memorable lyrics, but it builds into a hugely climactic piece by the end, leaving you short of breath by the time it softly plays itself out with a piano solo.
We’re then tossed into the jaunty tune Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds, a song that aches as it fondly recalls glory days, and how unceremoniously it all went away. This song bounces along despite its dreary undertones, and serves as a set-up for what the rest of this album is like. By this, I mean that Goths is definitely one of the most low-key and somber albums the band has ever released. There’s very little fiery passion and intense marks of personality here – instead the band opts for subtlety and reflection. It’s hard conjure up a big fun ballad when you’re thinking about days long-gone and that’s something to keep in mind when making your way through Goths.
If there’s one major upside to the whole ‘lack of guitars’ thing I mentioned earlier, is that it leaves room for drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Peter Hughes to shine. Wurster’s swift and jazzy beats dance behind great songs like The Grey King and The Silver Attunement and Wear Black, keeping them interesting and dynamic. Hughes’ bass lines on this album are some of his strongest and most adventurous. The groovy strut on Rage of Traverse is reminiscent of Tame Impala’s Cause I’m A Man, while the stand-out ‘chorused’ riff on Shelved is straight of a song by The Cure.
Goths nearly brings me to tears with the closing track, Abandoned Flesh. This song manages to be equally as hilarious as it is heartbreaking as it reflects on the bizarre and forgotten legacy of Gene Loves Jezebel. Darnielle delivers the final line of the album, “The world will never know or understand / The suffocated splendor of the once-and-future goth band.” Seeing the world forget about, and turn their back on, something that meant everything to you – it’s a crushing thought, and something that packs more of an emotional punch than anything I could’ve expected from an album about goths.
Shelved is another great track on the album, and one of the first Mountain Goats songs I’ve heard that features a big sawtooth synth line and an excellent vocal appearance from Peter Hughes. The instrumental experimentation falls perfectly in line with the theme of the song, which seems to be about Darnielle’s outlandish dreams as a goth rockstar, refusing to fade into the background or sell out. This song is wildly different from anything the band has done, but hits every mark flawlessly.
If there’s a part of this album that doesn’t quite do it for me, it’s a fair bit of the songs in the middle chunk of Goths. We Do it Different On The West Coast, Wear Black and Unicorn Tolerance offer little in terms of interesting songwriting or storytelling, and just fall short of being catchy. They’re not bad songs, but they’re not ones that I ever have an urge to revisit.
Unfortunately, this quality drop-off at times makes Goths less of a compelling listen as a whole. That being said, the moments where it shines are bright enough to keep me coming back for many repeat listens.
I can’t say Goths is a perfect album, but if there’s one thing that truly keeps it afloat, it’s John Darnielle’s warm, genuine nostalgia that rings clearly in each and every reference and recollection to his teen years spent as a young goth. For this, it stands as a testament to the Mountain Goat’s ability to take any topic and extract a gripping, emotional story that speaks to something in us all.