Throughout their nearly 30-year history, the Mountain Goats’ style has undergone numerous reinventions and revisions. From their early days of low-fi folk recorded on calculators and whatever else was laying around John Darnielle’s house, to their current incarnation of sleek jazzy rock and dainty falsetto tones, the main constant in their music has been in Darnielle’s songwriting.
On Goths, out via Merge Records, the Mountain Goats continue the formula laid out on their last few albums by creating a coherent and focused concept album centered on a particular subculture; as its title suggests, this album is about the goth culture of which Darnielle was once a part. Goths brings you down back-alleys to seedy clubs in London neighborhoods and introduces you to all the washed up characters Darnielle used to worship. His writing is emotional, nostalgic and, at times (such as on the first track, “Rain in Soho”), frightening.
Unfortunately, Goths does little to expand on the ground the Mountain Goats tread on their previous release, Beat the Champ. Despite the inherent darkness in its name, Goths is almost annoyingly light (“Rain in Soho” excepted). The tones of a Rhodes piano and the wavering tremolos of clarinets and saxophones give the whole thing a sort of mall food-court aesthetic that contrasts badly with the frequently despondent lyrics. Of course, Darnielle is probably trying to be ironic here, but the shtick gets tired ― as it does on many of his albums ― around the time he starts chanting “I’m hardcore/ But I’m not that hardcore.”
At its best, Goths is a well executed tribute to an unfairly scorned subculture and a rock-solid display of songwriting and orchestration. Its flaw is that it’s too homogenous. Where Beat the Champ kept you on your toes with songs like “Werewolf Gimmick,” Goths just drones on with the same slow pseudo-jazz jams and whimsical falsetto. Darnielle puts an album out practically every year, though, so here’s hoping 2018’s incarnation of the Mountain Goats is just a little more driven.