Listening to the new Mountain Goats album can make you ponder genre. We’ll doubtless tag this as an indie album review. But of course what we might think of as US indie music never really came fom the same place as its UK counterpart. Yes, it can be literate and clever. Yes, there’s more than the odd local scene. Yes, there are independent labels. But, outside of the old hardcore world, you don’t get the sense that the aspiration is really driven by any credo beyond adding to the great American songbook – making a great rock record. Going back, even the ever-so principled likes of the Minutemen really wanted to be Creedence. Who doesn’t?
Quite why from a certain generation of such bands it was the National who quietly rose to global dominance is a bit of a mystery. (Nothing against them – the trio of albums from Alligator to High Violet are hard to match.) Mountain Goats early on had similar hallmarks. Quirky, simple and shot through with a certain darkness. Perhaps a bit too quirky for some, but the quality and ambition of John Darnielle’s songwriting cannot be doubted. On the way through to In League With Dragons, he has expanded his musical palette and built a band that can flesh out songwriterly efforts a match for anything that classic American songwriters from Laurel Canyon to Central Park have mustered.
This album still has a lot that original sensibility, but filled out with plaintive steel guitars here gentle organs there. On Younger saxophones even allowed to jazz their way over things (and remarkably not in an off-putting way). On, erm, Cadaver Sniffing Dogs, rock guitars briefly noodle over proceedings. Lyrically it apparently started a concept album about a wizard overseeing a small community, but ended up as a series of pen pictures of flawed men seeking some sort of redemption which has plenty of depth and universality to keep the a care listener engaged. So really, quirky or not, indie or not it’s a record that really rewards a hearing.