The Mountain Goats 2021
Photo: Jade Wilson / Courtesy of Merge Records

The Mountain Goats’ Say It’s ‘Dark in Here’

Despite few upbeat songs, the Mountain Goats’ Dark in Here is a well-balanced, entertaining album. John Darnielle’s songwriting is as strong as ever.

Dark in Here
The Mountain Goats
Merge
25 June 2021

When the Mountain Goats released Getting Into Knives on 23 October 2020, one of the first things I did was look up when it was recorded. The band had put out Songs for Pierre Chuvin in April 2020, just weeks into the United States’ pandemic lockdown, as a way to recoup some money when their spring tour was canceled. It was an old-school effort featuring lead Mountain Goat John Darnielle recording mostly short, simple songs into a boombox like in his early days. But Getting Into Knives was a full band record, with the ensemble recording in Memphis in the first week of March. “Wow!” I thought, “They just snuck that recording in right before things shut down.”

But here we are, eight months later, and there’s another new Mountain Goats album. Dark in Here is also a full band effort, recorded in the second week of March at Muscle Shoals, Alabama’s legendary FAME Studios. It turns out the group had another fully realized set of songs ready to go and made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Memphis down to Muscle Shoals for the second round of recording. Producer Matt Ross-Spang was onboard for both albums, but each record has a distinct vibe and separate cast of guest musicians.

Dark in Here turns out to be aptly named. While Getting Into Knives featured multiple songs with horns, Memphis soul-style, the only horns that show up on this album are courtesy of the band’s woodwind specialist Matt Douglas. The previous album also had some songs that could be considered not just upbeat but jaunty. The jangly “Corsican Mastiff Stride” and the rollicking country-rock of “Picture of My Dress” were examples of Darnielle’s brighter side. While Dark in Here is not just “The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums”, as one of its distinctive song titles attests, “jaunty” and “rollicking” are definitely not adjectives that would describe any of these songs.

The album kicks off with maybe its two most rocking tracks. “Parisian Enclave” is mostly a catchy chorus backed with a couple of simple verses, sang over an insistent acoustic guitar strum while drummer John Wurster keeps a thumping kick drum and tambourine going almost nonstop. Darnielle repeats, “Beneath the streets of the city with my brethren in the never-ending shadow” four times in the song’s 85 seconds, making it seem like he had that one sentence and decided to build the entire short song around it. “The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower” is a pounding minor-key rocker with great drum work from Wurster and Peter Hughes’ distinctive, warm bass playing. Keyboard legend Spooner Oldham is here as well, sitting in to provide organ flourishes on a Hammond B3. Douglas adds chiming electric guitar licks while staying out of Oldham’s way.

From that point, Dark in Here drifts through a variety of styles, some more subdued than others. “Mobile” is a gently rolling country-rock ballad (no twang involved, Darnielle knows better than to attempt that) that conflates the story of Jonah and the whale with a character suffering intense guilt and suicidal thoughts on the balcony of a seaside hotel in Mobile, Alabama. Another local session veteran, Will McFarlane, adds tasteful guitar, including a laid-back solo, while Douglas’ accordion adds to the track’s distinctive flavor.

“Lizard Suit” is driven by its piano, but Wurster’s cymbal-heavy drum work and Hughes’ catchy, insistent bassline really lock in the song’s angry, frustrated vibe. The narrator complains, “I wear my lizard suit to the party / It’s so hard to get noticed in this town”, and goes on to describe the various strategies he employs to move through the city. After three minutes, the song breaks down into a chaotic live jam, as Darnielle’s piano, Douglas’ organ, and Wurster’s drums get more and more unhinged, leaving Hughes to keep it together by maintaining his bassline.

“Lizard Suit” is a great illustration of the kind of places the quartet version of the band are willing to go. In Darnielle’s days, as essentially a solo act, the songs were usually short and to the point. That has gradually developed since the Mountain Goats started using actual studios for recording in the early ’00s. But after Douglas came on board with 2015’s Beat the Champ and the band solidified into a full-time quartet, Darnielle has been much more willing to engage in instrumental exploration and occasionally stretch things out.

“The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums”, one of a handful of songs that go past the five-minute mark here, is another example of this strategy. It’s a melancholy slow burner, with a simple bass and drums groove accentuated by Douglas on electric piano and some on-point backing harmonies from vocalists Cindy Richardson Walker and Marie Tomlinson Lewey. The song essentially ends around the 3:45 mark, but Darnielle gets on piano, and the quartet jams it out for another 100 seconds. This section is much more restrained than the end of “Lizard Suit”, but it’s still clearly the band listening and reacting to each other in interesting ways and just enjoying making music together.

The rest of Dark in Here features songs about disaster, either personal or more global, in varying degrees of intensity. The title track is mid-tempo but full of tension, with a minor key guitar riff and tom-heavy drums. Both Oldham and McFarlane are on hand to add color to the arrangement, while Darnielle sings about a person on the run preparing to face his enemies. On the other hand, “The New Hydra Collection’s” easygoing arrangement, with bongos and electric piano, belies its lyrics, which are apparently about a mad scientist preparing to unleash something fearsome on the world. “Someday / All of you people will know / The safe way isn’t the only way to go.”

The narrator of “Before I Got There” describes the aftermath of some terrible event without ever letting the listener in on what exactly happened. Its chorus melody, “All of this / Before I got there”, has the same cadence as an earlier Mountain Goats song, “The Diaz Brothers”, but in a very different context. It has a melancholy clarinet solo from Douglas, a staple of every Mountain Goats album since he joined the band. The clarinet also shows up on “To the Headless Horseman”, a quiet ballad about the anticipation of a final showdown between two warriors.

The album wraps up with two gentle songs. “Arguing with the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review” is a mouthful of a title, but it’s a sad, loving tribute to musician David Berman, who passed away in 2019. The fittingly esoteric title refers to a rambling negative review by Laughner about a ’70s Lou Reed album. “Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light” is slow and slightly funky with a fragile vocal delivery from Darnielle. But its subject matter, involving rituals, black magic, and a belief in prophecy, doesn’t line up with the mood of the music. It’s an amusing contrast, and somehow fitting that a Mountain Goats album that is referred to as “dark and smoky” in the press materials closes out with a pleasant, slightly jazzy flute solo.

Despite not having much in the way of upbeat songs, Dark in Here is a well-balanced, entertaining album. Lyrically, the songs range from serious personal stories to more fanciful material, and neither type dominates the record. Musically there’s quite a wide range as well. It’s clear that the quartet really enjoys playing together, and even in the extended songs, Darnielle keeps the band reined in enough, so they aren’t approaching jam band length. Despite this being the Mountain Goats’ third album in just over a year, Darnielle’s songwriting is as strong as ever, and the band shows no signs of fatigue.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters