A rock-folk band is not a difficult concept. A rock folk album with no guitars? OK, weird. A rock-folk band making an album with no guitars – about goths? It is a frankly bizarre concept and one that John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is certainly up to the task of. The long-lived band are no strangers to odd concepts, as shown by their last album Beat The Champ, which centered around pro wrestling. While Beat The Champ was certainly more encyclopedic of the history and ballads of the athletes, Goths approaches the subject with much more heart and empathy.
Darnielle has commented that, like pro wrestling, he grew up with goth culture, Goths being his love letter to it. The album, while lacking the hearty sound of Darnielle’s guitar, does do a good job of hiding this loss; topping up with pianos and horns, under some slightly Cure or Echo and the Bunnymen sounding songs, leave the album sounding darkly orchestral.
The difference from the bulk of The Mountain Goats discography is a tad jarring, leading the listener into the noises of Rain In Soho, track one side one of Goths. This song has a very Heretic Pride sound to it, the bands 2008 album, however much slower. Rain In Soho is a solid song, building to crashing highs, and avoiding most lows, with interesting lyrics and a general vibe and story of inevitability, things happening because they have to, running down a path. There is also the theme of never being able to escape what you’ve gone through, where you’ve been, made clear by the lyric “No one knows where the lone wolf’s gone, no one sees it camped out right there in the front lawn,” giving to the idea that, you can run from the things you’ve done and the things you’ve had done to you, but they might always just be within clipping distance of your heels.
Another standout track on the album is obviously Paid In Cocaine which has an almost lullaby quality to it, ushering in a counterintuitive feeling to that which might be given by the title. The song is very bittersweet: it’s a guy singing a love song to the life he used to have with one notable line being “work to pay down the interest on the mortgage, used to get paid by the gram,”. One can picture a man or woman on the wrong side of forty, thinking how humdrum their lives are, when they used to be rock stars. Paid In Cocaine, is a song with beautiful, poetic lyrics, which are very much a given in anything written by Darnielle, and this is true for the whole bloody album, not so much about goths, more about the past, like an album version of that Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler, except with way more eyeliner.
One of the only criticisms that could hazardously be attributed to the album could be it is maybe on the dour side. Songs like For The Portuguese Goth Metal Bands is a classic Mountain Goats number, heavy on metaphor, and very dark lyrics; but it is here the lack of strings is more saddening than anything else. The song does sound like something that was maybe re-recorded and slowed down after it was cut from Tallahassee.
All in all, The Mountain Goats do bring the goods; and if you do have a Darnielle kinda itch you gotta scratch, this will satiate your ills. It does somewhat go beyond that, doing something few bands which have released so many albums are willing to do. It is willing to be very very different. It changes the whole field of play for the band, and definitely for the better. While it could be argued that the songwriting is less provocative and emotive than it was in Beat The Champ, it is in that aspect a return to the earlier solo Darnielle stuff. Goths is a more than a worthwhile album and still proves that The Mountain Goats are as strong as ever.
Favourite Songs: Rain in Soho, Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds, Unicorn Tolerance, Paid In Cocaine, Abandoned Flesh.
Least Favourite Songs: The Grey King And The Silver Flame Attunement, For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands