The Mountain Goats going directly from an album about professional wrestling to one about goth-rock bands might make the unimaginative onlooker assume the band to be subculture-jumping in an ethnographic way. But Goths, like their music in general, is based on a deep understanding of what it feels to be out of step with the world, and of the sort-of communities built around that feeling.
Goths isn’t just about goths, like Beat the Champ wasn’t just about wrestling,The Life of the World to Come wasn’t just about the Bible, All Eternals Deck wasn’t just about the occult. Or maybe some of those albums are “just” about those topics, but in each case that sort of focus yields emotional depth and intentional musical expansion. They feel less like rooms than portals.
Goths feels in some sort of sync with All Eternals Deck (2011), which is good news because that album was brilliant, with a rich, dark atmosphere and some of John Darnielle’s best songwriting when it comes to tender, understanding but uncompromising stories of non-conformists and outcasts.
Goths might tilt towards being even more tender. Darnielle uses music and memory as jumping-off points for telling compelling short stories about unique, vulnerable, complex human beings. The characters include Andrew Eldritch, lead singer for Sisters of Mercy, moving back to his hometown as his career winds down; somebody getting arrested while listening to Siousxie and the Banshees on KROQ; adults looking back at their goth youth, with pride and wonder; rocker Pat Travers, trying to make sense of the new scene; a goth fan reading about other cities’ scenes in magazines; and, on the last song, a band everyone forgets, Gene Loves Jezebel. The last words on the album are, “The world will never know or understand / the suffocated splendor of the once and future goth band.”
There’s complete sincerity and a sense of humor in that line, and in the album. Goths generates a bounty of phrases and observations that are multi-faceted, that work on listeners in complicated ways. Like the chorus about having a “high unicorn tolerance”, within a bouncy pop anthem. Or the role “I’m hardcore but not that hardcore”, the chorus of “The Grey King and the Silver Flame”, plays within and beyond the confines of the song.
Lately I’m in love with one non-sequitur (but not) within “We Do It Different on the West Coast”. Our narrator’s listing off his impressions of regional goth scenes he’s read about, and then, “I feel like half my friends have moved to San Francisco / I think I’m gonna bleach my hair this weekend.”
Dealing with these lyrics if they exist outside of the music is a mistake. This isn’t a book (though Darnielle’s written three great ones). The way they work together with the music is what makes Goths feel like a masterpiece. The album is a gorgeous furthering of the Mountain Goats’ continual refinement and progression of their sound, picking up on threads that entered on past albums (particularly, but not only, Get Lonely and All Eternals Deck) while adding new ones. Since moving from home recording to studio recordings, the Mountain Goats has becomes more oriented towards atmosphere, instrumental variation and playing-around with styles and genre tropes in interesting ways.
Goths throws in the monkeywrench of rules; the liner notes state, “No comped vocals / No pitch correction / no guitars.” That last one will be most significant to listeners, considering the Mountain Goats’ origins as a one-man-with-his-guitar project. The absence of guitar is surprisingly not immediately evident when listening. That’s because of how seductive and carefully put together the music in general is.
The opening song, “Rain in Soho”, is the one that sounds ‘goth’, in some general way - or at least the one that’s most ‘rock’. It’s big, moody, dramatic. A chorus of voices, members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus, is used to build up that drama while contrasting with Darnielle’s most anxious vocals on the album.
The rest of Goths is more likely to conjure up memories of slinky soul numbers and comfortable soft-pop than goth-rock per se. Near the album’s end, “Shelved” takes a surprising turn halfway through, opening up into something like Factory Records territory, but brighter. There are also several great instrumental stretches that add to the album’s power but would be easy to overlook, like the open-ended closing to “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” or the extended organ-and-bass outro at the end of “We Do It Different on the West Coast”.
Goths is full of surprises, places where the music shifts direction in a way that changes a song’s emotional trajectory in a stunning way. When “Wear Black” opens, are we prepared for the rise of its chorus, the way it turns a battle-cry into a sweet soul ballad. There’s so much feeling in that song that’s hard to pin down, the voice of pride it gives to the way anti-authoritarian outlooks manifest themselves in clothes, in personal orientation. Like so much of Goths the song seems to be laughing at itself while stridently laying down a manifesto.
In its multiplicity of emotions, styles and sounds, Goths ends up feeling like the most versatile Mountain Goats album. That’s interesting in and of itself – the way an album nominally about a very specific subculture can prove to be so useful in everyday life.