Album Review: The Mountain Goats – ‘Dark in Here’

The Breakdown

If there was a way in which one could imagine themselves frozen in time, 'Dark in Here' would be the soundtrack for that moment. Do yourselves a favour: stop what you're doing. Take a deep breath. Just listen.
Merge Records 9.0
The Mountain Goats

If there was a way in which one could imagine themselves frozen in time, Dark in Here would be the soundtrack for that moment. Sincere, grounded, beaming with analogue sound complete with stellar bandmates and an impressive storyteller, indie folk band The Mountain Goats have delivered a narrative of old school blues, jazz, Western and at times chaotic mess born out of jam sessions with their album Dark in Here. It’s authentic, and without delving too much into the liner notes (I’ll let you discover that for yourselves)vocalist and frontman John Darnielle has described the process as a parallel between being gleefully isolated in a recording studio, and at the end of the day, on a reflective note, he remarks quite effusively how, “You can fight the calamity all you want, but either way, it’s going to demand your surrender.” That’s quite a perfect way to summarise how I felt listening to their album, as they clearly evoke all the conflicting emotions they had as veteran musicians trying to record in the madness that was lockdown, whilst finally coming up for air after what seemed to be a world in which they certainly did not wish to return to. By the time the album drew to a close it was clear, to echo Darnielle’s words, that the band surrendered to just being in the moment. Chapeau.

Each track on Dark in Here pretty much shifts between the invisible and inconspicuous to desperately seeking acceptance. The album was recorded pretty much over lockdown when The Mountain Goats decided to work with Matt Ross-Spang, the dashing Memphis wunderkind who’d engineered that album and brought a sense of gentle old-school savoir-faire. Their newest is the 20th studio album by The Mountain Goats, recorded in March 2020, just one week after Getting Into Knives, at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The album opens with a Westernised, visually imaginative ‘Parisian Enclave’, a sweet release leading sublimely into the raucous, frustrated banger ‘The Destruction of the Superdeep Kola Borehole Tower’. Just as suddenly, we’re thrown into a complete stylistic change with the acoustic and (once again) story-led ‘Mobile’. I personally love the fact that the band chose to showcase each member’s and collaborators different musical strengths . For instance, the rhythm section, complete with gospel-led harmonies singing “It’s so hard to get noticed in this town” in the song ‘Lizard Suit’, give the depth and grandiose flavour needed for an otherwise Morrissey-esque vocal turn from Darnielle.

There’s something to be said about the purity in sonic delivery from this band, who truly are a force to reckoned with, at once sounding rugged and brazen as in their Western vista of a visual, then switching to an almost balladesque homage to Bowie’s generation of a coming-of-age youth. This is brilliantly captured in ‘To The Headless Horseman’ and the slightly more upbeat ‘The New Hydra Collection’. The former almost feels like that quiet rebel song we’ve been singing in our heads . Every generation has their rebel songs, and perhaps this is one that recalls the 80s: the sound is authentic, the message the same. Drawing from this sort of two-sided reality, the band set out to deliberately make an album that THEY are proud of, as opposed to something fans would expect.

The song ‘The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums’ feels like a parody , with lyrics screaming at us like, “drive home alone and listen to the slow parts.” It eels like a plea for us to simply read between the lines. Listen to the silence in between the notes. It’s a beautiful track, and perhaps the finest on the entire album . A part of that magic extends to what the band evokes as a grassroots, rugged Americana outfit, with songs that literally pay tribute to local heroes or places we’ve never heard of unless we grew up there ourselves. ‘Arguing With the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review’ is that sweet homage and surrender to the ghosts of our pasts, particularly with the sweet surprise of oboes towards the end of the track; in this surreal mess of a world we inhabit, it’s quite rare that a band can make their locale relatable, and personally speaking I think it’s commendable.  

It may be a Dark world in which we live, but The Mountain Goats offer a sweet, realistic alternative to how we deal with it all. Pure in sound, honest in lyrics that could make you laugh and cry all at the same time, they deliver a soundtrack of raw authenticity we all need to hear. Dark in Here is out now on all major platforms. Do yourselves a favour: stop what you’re doing. Take a deep breath. Just listen.

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