ALBUM REVIEW: THE MOUNTAIN GOATS' "GOTHS"
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
The opening song "Rain in Soho" begins with a marching piano loop and a low choral chant, invoking an image of a gothic cathedral beneath a roof of grey clouds. It brings to mind the traditional sense of the word "gothic," one of awe-inspiring height, flying buttresses, ornate flourishes, and Catholic ideology. It helps set the tone but is also the only song like it on the album.
The Mountain Goats' newest release Goths is a time capsule into the gooey, palpable years of a subversive adolescent growing up in California. John Darnielle recounts listening to bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Joy Division. Every song is the result of a dip into his own memory. It has all the trappings of goth culture, teen angst, and making the transition into a fully formed adult.
As someone who spent her formidable years steeped in that way of life, the word "goth" invokes a lot of memories for me (photo evidence below; I'm on the right). Freshmen were slightly afraid of me; the principal thought I was a bad seed even though I was an honor student; I spent my weekends windmilling at metal shows, dying my hair black, and watching The Crow; I actively tried to embody all things occult. The lifestyle was a means to showcase my "differentness" and to cope with the rapids of hormones and depression plaguing me at a young age. It was a way to simultaneously disappear and outwardly display my interests. It was a means to beat against the status quo and the humdrum of the Midwest. Ultimately, it was an avenue toward finding a scene that matched the dark, discordant, otherness I was feeling at the time. I like to joke that being goth was a gateway into good taste. I imagine that Darnielle, having gone through his own adolescent hardships, leaned into this way of life for similar reasons.
Ever skirting the line between humor and wisdom, Darnielle writes about all the components of the counterculture he used to be so involved in. In "The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement," he admits "I'm hardcore but I'm not that hardcore," every repeat of the line dissolving more into a lilting whisper. He sings of "leather and lace and good friends" against a slow jazz backdrop. "Wear Black" is a tongue-in-cheek litany of scenarios in which it's appropriate to do so. The choir comes back in as he invites the listener to "Check me out, I can't blend in."
"For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands" reflects a love for anything fringe and specific, a sentiment that many budding, brooding teens share. These attitudes conjured the lyrics of Type O Negative for me, a band who never took their "gothness" very seriously. Darnielle also reminds us to not take ourselves too seriously because he remembers what it was like to be victim to years of a blurry identity. He speaks to this in "Unicorn Tolerance" with lines like "the soft creature that I used to be" and his attempts to "try hard to look hard." He boasts about having a high tolerance to the bubbly, colorful demeanor of everyday folks.
"Stench of the Unburied" and "Abandoned Flesh" are both reminiscent of heavy metal band names. The former is an homage to driving around with friends listening to the Californian radio station KROQ, equipped with subtle 80s synth and a nod to Siouxsie and the Banshees' "92 Degrees." The latter discusses what happens to all those musicians after the height of their fame amidst the post-punk and new wave zeitgeist ("Robert Smith is secure at his villa in France" / "Siouxsie has enough hits to keep the bills paid"). After all the dust settles, Darnielle leaves us with this: "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." The same theme goes for "Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds"--we could easily replace the Sisters of Mercy frontman with anyone boomeranging back to his hometown, settling down, raising children. The whole album has a coming-of-age feel, oscillating between rock & roll and mortgage payments. In "Shelved," he writes "the ride's over but I'm not ready to go."
In Goths, The Mountain Goats employ a tacit sense of place with references to the West Coast, Long Beach, Hollywood, weekends spent bleaching hair while "dressed like corpses," and the often-shared belief that one's own town has nothing to do. The album feels nostalgic as the listener is brought back to the landscape that helped shape the lead man. Goth style is often fleeting but intense (there is no fan quite like a goth fan). The lyrics speak to this transience. Darnielle's distinct voice couples with sounds of saxophone, steel brushes against cymbals, and a tell-tale indie rock texture to create a flavor unique to their latest release.