One of the best things about the Mountain Goats’ voluminous back catalog is that it offers a plethora of entry points to the band and its music, with no two records quite the same. There’s frontman John Darnielle’s lo-fi, Panasonic boom box beginnings. There are the polished but no less earnest tracks from The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee. And there are the band’s recent releases, like Transcendental Youth and Beat the Champ, that take chances on unique concepts and different instrumentation, but don’t lack in lyrical punch or poignancy. There are any number of places to start with the Mountain Goats, and each is worthwhile and approachable on its own terms.
Goths continues in that untraditional tradition. The group’s Bandcamp page boasts that the album has “NO COMPED VOCALS, NO PITCH CORRECTION, NO GUITARS,” and it shows. Musically, Goths is driven by slick bass lines, strong percussion, and a bevy of what sounds like the sort of classroom instruments borrowed from the lesser lights of late night. Goths also leans hard on the horn section the band embraced in earnest on Transcendental Youth. It features heavy doses of synth, different shades of jazz, and even the occasional disco beat that immediately mark it as unique among Mountain Goats records. The band often comes up short in this novel approach, and the new direction can be off-putting for longtime listeners, but it certainly gives Goths a distinct flavor.
The album’s also vocally distinguishable from the Mountain Goats’ prior releases, and not just for its use of the Nashville Symphony Chorus. Darnielle is more apt to simmer sweetly here, even croon, rather than froth to the raw, nasally boil he’s known for. The vocals on the album are more subdued, their tone less intense. A track like “Wear Black” has more in common with a velvety Sam Smith ballad than the aching and/or defiant vibe of prior tunes. And in a late-album gem, “For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands”, Darnielle explores the top of his register in a fashion that would make the proto-goth Tiny Tim smile.
The results of all this ambition are decidedly mixed. It’s admirable to see a group of musicians who’ve been working together for so long and who continue to keep up a steady pace of releases put out a record this adventurous. But many of their musical experiments — from smooth jazz interludes to messy, horn-heavy outros — fall flat. The easiest tracks on Goths to sidle up to are the ones that feel like the natural evolution of the band’s prior work. “Rain in Soho”, the first and best song on the record, is the unholy lovechild of “High Hawk Season” and “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”, with just a hint of Henry Higgins for seasoning. It’s still unique relative to Darnielle’s usual efforts, but it maintains his lyrical edge amid the theatricality and gothic aphorisms on display.
It also speaks to the album’s twin themes: the experience of goth culture as it emerged and then a later reflection on that time after the moment has passed. The former is prominent on tracks like “Unicorn Tolerance” and “Wear Black”, which serve as tributes to those who donned the dark eyeliner when goth as a lifestyle took hold musically and culturally. The latter is a more wistful and retrospective thread tying the record together in songs like “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds”, “Paid in Cocaine”, and “Rage of Travers”, with stalwarts of the movement reflecting on when they were at the crest of a wave that has long since crashed onto the shore.
That’s also the focus of the album’s superb closer, “Abandoned Flesh”, a paean to a forgotten goth group of yesteryear, and with them, all musicians who eventually fade from the spotlight. It’s a pleasant instance of Darnielle’s longstanding sympathy for bands – from Denton to Portugal and everywhere in between – who see their dreams run aground on the harsh realities of the day-to-day, in a way that dreams of all stripes often do.
Despite the uneven results between that last track and the album’s superlative opener, Goths is a record that grows on you. Melodies from songs you were apt to skip over on the first listen will become stuck in your head. It certainly takes some adjustment as Darnielle and company veer into uncharted musical territory for the band, but there’s still a charm to these tunes, even if they’re more interesting as noble digressions than as great or affecting songs in their own right.
In short, Goths doesn’t sound, seem, or feel like a Mountain Goats album. That is, in principle, a good thing, particularly for a record that lingers on the thought of aged musicians letting the moment pass them by while clinging to old glories. But the things that make Mountain Goats records special — the fervency, the earnestness, the sense of rawness on even the band’s most heavily produced tracks — are, more often than not, buried underneath synth and repetition and subdued swoons here.
Those pleasures, however muted, still give Goths a certain force amid the record’s tinkling tones. But as a whole, the album amounts to an interesting experiment rather than an essential new release. It’s suited for die-hard devotees to enjoy as a unique flight of fancy from a familiar set of musicians, rather than the sort of engrossing collection of songs, as fit for neophytes or casuals as the hardcore fan, that dot the rest of the group’s discography. As encouraging as it is to see Darnielle and company not rest on their laurels, Goths will leave most listeners hoping it’s just a phase.
Essential Tracks: “Rain in Soho” and “Abandoned Flesh”