I have a lot of affection for the Mountain Goats, but I was disappointed with their last album. Released in 2015, Beat the Champ was a concept album, awash in songwriter John Darnielle’s abiding affection for professional wrestling, and not the kind that takes up hours of national programming hours with intricate stories and flashy production values. Darnielle was writing for the hardscrabble, downscale grapplers who shed blood and sweat (but no tears in this manliest of sports) in half-filled municipal coliseums and on static dappled UHF stations in his younger years.
Much as I appreciate Darnielle’s conviction that absolutely anything is viable inspiration for a deeply emotional rock song, I found Beat the Champ to be a little tedious. The distinctiveness of Darnielle’s songwriting receded, which I attributed to the concept album format. For a guy who can come up with a tuneful, evocative song about whatever springs to mind, why confine himself to single topic across an album? He’d certainly made thematically unified releases previously — and there were great albums in that number — but locking in so narrowly was too limiting, I figured.
As is often the case when I fall out of alignment with an artist whose work I admire, it turns out the the problem was me, not him. I come to this conclusion because the new Mountain Goats album, Goths, is again a concept album, wound as tightly in its specific subculture as its immediate predecessor. Evidently — and, let’s face it, obviously — I simply needed Darnielle to focus on an insular world that I love as much as he does.
I never had a phase of hair dyed black (it’s most of the way there already frankly) and sullen eyeliner. I have no business truly terming myself a goth, but I have a deep affinity for the ideas that run across the album: of deep connection to bands, of finding freedom and identity in music, of becoming an aged-out discard from a preferred youth culture ahead of a corresponding willingness to abandon it. It about fist-in-the-air rebellion meeting the mellowing of advancing year. Over a jazzy shuffle on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement,” Darnielle sings, “I’m pretty hardcore but I’m not that hardcore.” I know the feeling, and I’ve known it for a good long time now.
Mid-tempo understatement is the default setting of the Goths. Among the pronouncements about the album’s is the promise that there are no guitars, a notable first given that many of the earliest Mountain Goats releases were created with little more than Darnielle, an acoustic guitar, and the boombox he recorded them on (including the clicks as he turned the tape player on and off). The band gets a reasonable amount of mileage out of the discord of lyrics about the gloomy bombast of goth music settled against chilled out, slyly spare tunes. In the right setting, the lyrics of “Wear Black” could carry some menace (“Wear black on your forgotten red heart/ Wear black in the present tense/ Wear black when you come around/ Wear black in your absence”), but that setting isn’t the easy swing of the Mountain Goats version of the Huey Lewis and the News version of Philly soul. The joke might wear thin eventually, but it sounds pretty dang delightful to me right now.
The closest Goths comes to truly evoking the music style it lyrically addresses with wit and insight is on album opener “Rain in Soho,” which come across like the showstopper in a middle school production of the Sisters of Mercy video for “This Corrosion.” Fittingly, that leads into “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds,” which imagines the Sisters of Mercy lead singer living out the black leather pants version of the Thomas Wolfe title You Can’t Go Home Again. Darnielle has always mined culture freely, and Goths namechecks enough specific artists to fill a modest record store. “Stench of the Unburied” paints a perfect picture of a certain sort of weary bliss with the repeated lines “Outside it’s ninety-two degrees/ And KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees.”
But the most joyously offbeat example of pulling lyrical details straight from the pages of Trouser Press comes on the album’s last song, “Abandoned Flesh.” Siouxsie Sioux is mentioned again, as is Robert Smith (and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry!), but the bulk of the song is about the band Gene Loves Jezebel. Delivered with the gentlest lounge swagger, the track offers a sympathetic few words to the sort of band that flared brightly but faded out of the canon almost entirely (“They charted once or twice/ They were on a major label/ When the singer went solo/ He left money on the table”). Darnielle’s generosity of spirit infuses the track, rescuing it from any judgment or mockery. As with everything else on Goths, he sings about thus bygone band because they fascinate and energize him. Maybe somewhere in that sentiment is the elusive element I missed on Beat the Champ, but found more easily here, because I knew better how to look for it. Every song is worth writing and singing as long as it is written and sung with love, respect, and purpose. I don’t know how goth that idea is, but it seems like a fine credo to me.