As cult bands go Mountain Goats are pretty much the defining article. Enigmatic leader: check. Regular output to a consistently high standard without being workaholics: check. Fans outnumber record sales: check. In fact, people name them as their favourite ever band, other bands shamelessly stylise them and celebrity endorsements include Jim Carrey and Alec Baldwin.
For me, I’ve listened to the band from time to time as they reared up in my frontal lobe for one reason or another but without really getting any further than Spotify’s Popular list so by and large they have passed me by. So, as it is I’ve never listened to any of the band’s 16 studio albums in full from start to finish until now.
Goths is the band’s first album, firstly to feature Matt Douglas as full-time “woodwinds-and-kitchen-sink guy” and, secondly to not feature any guitars. The sparse keyboards, occasional stand-up bass and simple percussion mean that fans might think that this is the Mountain Goats at their most chilled but listen more closely and the lyrics are familiar mid-life travelogues (some of the song titles are dead giveaways) but not the sort that middle-class career breaks are built on. Singer John Darnielle’s distinctive high-pitched and dark storytelling is no more impressive than on dramatic opener ‘Rain In Soho’ with its baroque choir, while hints of Flaming Lips and Neutral Milk Hotel persist in the singing and storytelling respectively. Lead track ‘Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds’ and ‘We Do It Different On The West Coast’ are sad and sentimental, the folk base-elements remain but without the constraints of guitar chord-sequences the music is allowed to branch and flourish. At times as simple lullabies, at others flutes and strings create an oddly joyful cacophony.
Recorded at the Blackbird studio in Nashville no less, Goths is certainly less lo-fi than the home recordings of the band’s early career and the goth theme is largely perfunctory, the album being more relatable to the general loneliness of being an outsider and is at times akin to Prefab Sprout’s more recent efforts (‘Stench of the Unburied’) or Belle And Sebastian at their less contrived (‘Unicorn Tolerance’), or even Tim Burgess’ solo work. Especially in the slight mid-album lull where it does tend to dip into lazy clarinet/organ led non-tunes, ‘Rage of Travers’, for example, has little discernible song-structure, its only salvation the knowing disclaimer, “nobody wants to hear the same twelve bar blues”.
But by ‘Shelved’ they rediscover their mojo, lyrically and musically tight, slightly aggressive and triumphant, as I would have expected from them and by closer ‘Abandoned Flesh’ we are squaring the circle nicely as Darnielle does what he does best by digging at Robert Smith, Billy Corgan and Gene Loves Jezebel, and that’s just in the first verse. I won’t spoil it but it’s classic Mountain Goats and a tremendous ending to an album that threatened so much without quite always delivering.
Fans of the band will absolutely love Goths though. How refreshing to know your favourite band are still rewriting their own rulebook after so many albums.
Goths is out now on Merge.