A couple of months ago, John Darnielle published a book about darkness. Universal Harvester is either the Mountain Goats frontman’s second novel or his third, depending on how you define his entirely fictional (and great) 33 1/3 book about Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality. And it’s some heavy shit. Universal Harvester takes place in small Iowa towns and in the spaces in-between them, and it concerns the strange and ambiguous and dangerous things that can happen out there in the cornfields, where nobody is looking, where nobody would even know where to start looking if they knew to look in the first place. It’s a book that’s less about plot and more about a tingly and uneasy feeling. So I wonder if it was a relief to write an album about the performance of darkness, about self-consciously disappearing into a cave when outside it’s 92 degrees and KROQ is playing Siouxsie And The Banshees. Because that’s what Goths, the new Mountain Goats album, is.
Goths is, as the title implies, an album about goth. More specifically, it’s about what it was like to be goth, or to aspire to being goth, in California in the ’80s, and it’s also about remembering what that was like. That’s a very specific cultural state, and Darnielle depicts it with both a sharp eye for detail and a sense of overwhelming empathy, which is how he always writes. The clothes are rendered in concrete and evocative ways: “Purple crushed velvet waistcoat flecked with Maalox and bits of dried vomit.” So are the cultural touchstones: “Star-crossed lovers and their tragic hates / And that one Celtic Frost record almost everybody hates.” (That would be 1988’s attempted hair-metal sellout move Cold Lake.) But Darnielle has more fun with the insecurities and self-doubts of his characters, as on “The Grey King And The Silver Flame Attunement,” where Darnielle’s narrator sees a guy in the club who’s filed his teeth into points and thinks to himself, “I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore.”
The kind of goth that Darnielle is dealing with here is nothing like the shock-value fishnets-on-arms stuff that I grew up with. He is singing about a specific ’80s moment, a time when romantic wailing and frilly black clothes were the order of the day. And he’s capable of showing, in a few quick an economical strokes, what it was like to grow up in a scene like this in the pre-internet era, learning about your sister scenes through passed-down word of mouth or the occasional magazine article: “I heard they had a problem with some skinheads / At a show in a machine shop in Pomona / I feel like half my friends have moved to San Francisco / I think I’m gonna bleach my hair this weekend.” On “Shelved,” he even follows some nameless faded goth-rock star into the ’80s, showing us the moment when his character must contend with his own obsolescence: “Not gonna sit up and beg / Not gonna do tricks / Not gonna stand here on a soundstage, tethered to a crucifix.” Then, a few lines later: “Not gonna tour with Trent Reznor / Third of three, bottom of the bill / You can’t pay me to make that kind of music / Not gonna swallow that pill.”
Darnielle does all this through music that’s decidedly non-goth, which is not a surprise if you’ve ever heard him sing a tender and loving acoustic jam about a death metal band. But what is a surprise is that his musical palate has grown as lush and refined as what we hear on Goths. The liner notes proudly proclaim, “No guitars.” Darnielle himself only plays piano and Fender Rhodes, and he and his band flesh their arrangements out with sunny horn bursts and layers of choral vocals. It’s music that glows with warmth and radiance — with good feelings for the people in the songs, not the dark images that those people are doing this best to project.
As a vocalist, too, Darnielle has come a long way from the frayed, halfway-demented yawp we heard on those early Mountain Goats records. He’s put in real work on his voice, turning it into something quieter and smoother and, in its way, more expressive. He doesn’t hit lines hard anymore; he sidles up to them and sort of purrs them. If you’ve followed the evolution of the band through all these different stages, it can still be weird to hear Darnielle singing something that could be considered soft rock. But with repeated listens, it all sinks in, and its sheer prettiness becomes weirdly moving. There’s a moment near the end of “Shelved” where Darnielle gets done with his reminiscing and Peter Hughes’ perfect New Order-esque bassline breaks through the fog, doing all the work of evoking that fondness for the past. Musically, it’s already become one of my favorite moments of any Mountain Goats record.
But then, Darnielle is plenty good at evoking that same feeling through his words. The parts of Goths that hit hardest for me are the ones where Darnielle sings about that era as one that’s passed, about the the fragments of memory. On “Paid In Cocaine,” Darnielle’s narrator is a working stiff whose studded belts gather dust in his closet while he zones on photos of his old band onstage: “Work to pay down the interest on the mortgage / Used to get paid by the gram.” On first single “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds,” he imagines the Sisters Of Mercy frontman giving up on stardom and coming back to the hometown where, eventually, everyone who gets out returns. “There’s a rusted fog machine in a concrete storage space / Letter-number combinations with no meaning on its face,” he observes. And then: “No one will even steal it if you leave it by the door.”
The closer “Abandoned Flesh” is a mini-masterpiece, a meditation on the disappearing legacy of ’80s also-rans Gene Loves Jezebel, whose hair-flipping “Jealous” was still in light rotation when I discovered modern-rock radio as a kid. Darnielle traces their inauspicious start, their quick decline, and their near-complete vanishing act, and he shows his work: “To be fair to Gene Loves Jezebel, Billy Corgan brought them onstage / It was in 2011 / It’s on their Wikipedia page.” But Darnielle isn’t singing about just one band of estranged brothers. He’s singing about the way times change and about the feelings that remain. And he ends the album with these words: “But for the most part, however big that chorused bass may throb / You and me, and all of us, are going to have to find a job / Because the world will never know or understand / The suffocated splendor of the once and future goth band.” You don’t have to remember the acrid smell of black hair-dye for a line like that to hit hard.
Goths is out 5/19 on Merge. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out today:
• Vince Staples’ eagerly awaited, hopefully-really-coming-out-this-week Big Fish Theory.
• (Sandy) Alex G’s twinkling, reflective Rocket.
• Wavves’ sunnily buzzing You’re Welcome.
• Land Of Talk’s fuzzily tuneful reunion LP Life After Youth.
• Sam Amidon’s experimental folker The Following Mountain.
• Pet Symmetry’s wistful punk rocker Vision.
• Do Make Say Think’s majestic post-rocking return Stubborn Persistent Illusions.
• Nick Hakim’s weirdo-soul debut Green Twins.
• JLin’s personal footwork statement Black Origami.
• !!!’s itchy, funky return Shake The Shudder.
• Adult Mom’s gracefully reflective Soft Spots.
• Daddy Issues’ amped-up debut Deep Dream.
• Tricot’s giddy math-rock attack 3.
• Tigers Jaw’s grandly fuzzy spin.
• Hoop’s dreamy, reflective debut Super Genuine.
• Aldous Harding’s inventive, atmospheric Party.
• Faith Evans and the Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous-duets album The King & I.
• Erasure’s sweeping synthpopper World Be Gone.
• Snoop Dogg’s elder-statesman legacy move Neva Left.
• Sam Craighead’s low-key indie rocker The Tuesday Night Music Club.
• Chris Bathgate’s mellow, soulful Dizzy Seas.
• WATERS’ punchy alt-rocker Something More!
• Au-Dessus’ bruising black metaller End Of Chapter.
• Linkin Park’s pop venture One More Light.
• Brothertiger’s full-length cover of Tears For Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair.
• Danny L Harle’s 1UL EP.