Photo: Jade Wilson / Courtesy of Merge Records

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on ‘Getting Into Knives’

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Getting Into Knives
The Mountain Goats
23 October 2020

John Darnielle is a man of many interests. As the creative force behind indie mainstay the Mountain Goats, Darnielle has used his music to explore a ridiculously wide range of topics: Dungeons and Dragons (In League with Dragons), rural America (All Hail West Texas), the Bible (The Life of the World to Come), professional wrestling (Beat the Champ), and, uh, goths (Goths).

Now, Darnielle is getting into knives on the Mountain Goats’ 19th studio album. But whereas the records above were centered around a theme, Getting Into Knives is looser and wilder, not beholden to an overarching story or characters. The result is the Mountain Goats’ best album in years, one that’s more accessible than 2017’s downtrodden Goths and more varied and energetic than 2019’s In League with Dragons.

Darnielle’s lyrics have always drawn on a deep well of historical, mythical, literary, and pop culture knowledge. References to DB Cooper, Romulus and Remus, SunsetMagazine, Red Shoes Dugan, and Burger King’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich all fit naturally into the worlds he creates. Getting Into Knives builds on this predilection with broader instrumentation and arrangements, coming in far jazzier and AM radio-friendly than the median Mountain Goats album. Bluesy flourishes, 1970s lite rock, 1980s power sax—even a Mellotron—build a sonic template that’s unique in the Mountain Goats catalog.

Lead single “As Many Candles As Possible” opens with a chugging guitar reminiscent of Jethro Tull’s 1971 rock anthem “Locomotive Breath”. At the opposite end of the spectrum is “Tidal Wave”, which starts with a one-note bassline that’s slowly overrun by loose percussion and piano chords. The band add sounds one by one—woodwinds, idle piano tinkles, layered vocals—before letting them all sink back into silence. It’s expansive and hypnotic, like the sound of ocean waves coming in and out forever.

In between those poles are tracks like “Pez Dorado”, the kind of jangly AM radio jam you’d hear decades ago on a cross-country drive, deep in the desert where only one station reaches you. Album highlight “Get Famous” has a swanky, swaggering vibe, with a wailing sax and electric guitar. Vocally, Darnielle sounds confident and powerful, shouting the sing-a-long chorus and name-dropping the inimitable Wesley Willis with a grin.

A good point of comparison might be Iron and Wine’s 2013 album Ghost on Ghost. That record found Sam Beam abandoning the formula he’d used for a decade, forgoing his dusty back-porch folk tales for a new range of sounds. Upright bass, bowed vibraphone, and clavinet peppered the tracks with jazz flourishes and blues-adjacent riffs. But whereas Beam veered sharply off course to explore a new world of sound all at once, Getting Into Knives represents a steady evolution for Darnielle and company.

A lot of credit for this album’s success goes to drummer Jon Wurster, whose percussion absolutely lights up the record. But Darnielle as frontman stands out as well, and Getting Into Knives shows that he still can surprise two-plus decades into his career.

“If I told you all how much fun we had making this one, you wouldn’t even believe me, but we hope it comes through,” Darnielle wrote on the album’s Bandcamp page. It’s a curious note because the fun is very evident, from the background chatter and laughter on opener “Corsican Mastiff Stride” through the title track’s warm coffeehouse vibe. Getting Into Knives is clearly a fun record, despite being – in typical Darnielle fashion – a smattering of revenge fantasies (“Getting Into Knives”), reflections on mortality (“The Last Place I Saw Your Alive”), and dark underworlds (“Rat Queen”). Even the opening track, for all its joyful energy, is about lost travelers in unforgiving landscapes, entreating their loved ones to “Call off the search party, let mourners wail by the shore.” The sound may evolve, but Mountain Goats gonna Mountain Goat.

To be clear, Getting Into Knives is not a COVID album. It was written and recorded just before the world crawled into quarantine, but Darnielle’s intellectual curiosity and magpie tendencies represent the flitting zeitgeist of the COVID era. Just as Darnielle constantly explores new veins of inspiration, we’re all expanding our horizons. We’re trying out new hobbies and identities to replace the needed catharsis of international travel, big weddings, and live music. We’ve become a country of industrious bread-makers, workout enthusiasts, amateur podcasters, and homebrewers.

We’ve tried everything else. At this point, why not get into knives?

RATING 8 / 10