John Darnielle’s latest is a richly detailed collection of songs about the beautiful melancholy life of a goth, and the long journey between life in the dark and death in the light.
Save for perhaps lumberjacks, there is no scene more everlasting than goths. The candles and coffins, the bats and spiders, the milky-white legs under jet black jeans that fill up the corners of goth culture are all just the artifacts for its everlasting creed: death is real, and it waits for us all. The true goth compass points toward the final darkness and woe unto those who must lease their time here in the light, squeezing cantaloupe at the grocery store and forgetting to call the guy about the broken sump pump. Goths, the latest from the Mountain Goats, is about the journey between life in the dark and death in the light, and ultimately trying to find a home somewhere between.
That elusive, literary home for John Darnielle—the lead singer and songwriter of the Mountain Goats for 26 years—has been a theme in his writing lately. Whether on his 2015 album Beat the Champ or in his 2017 novel Universal Harvester, Darnielle writes about the larger, decades-long journeys that play out in the rural American diaspora. Though setting these stories in bloody wrestling rings in South Texas or spliced into unsettling VHS tapes at a local video store in Iowa, at the center of both is a question: Where can we go when our youth, our vocation, or our family has left us? The same question applies here to Goths, a question buried underneath its fables about a singer in a California goth band in the ’80s.
At this point in his career, Darnielle is in his own private league of songwriting. His verse is effortless, his detail impeccable, and the joy with which he animates these weary souls languishing in Long Beach rock clubs make every word just glow. Goths is Darnielle’s most evocative work since the occultist All Eternals Deck and even though it remains loosely conceptual like Beat the Champ, it’s all tethered to this palpable, too-casual melancholy, the kind that comes with telling a cautionary tale one too many times.
This type of emotion was always present in the Mountain Goats of the ’90s and early ’00s, when it was just tape hiss, a guitar, and Darnielle, who then had nothing to more to give than his swollen heart. Since the band adopted their hi-fi lineup of bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster—and peppered songs with Memphis-soul horn arrangements and the occasional men’s chorus—it’s been a bit harder to sink your teeth into a Mountain Goats song, and vice versa. But for the first time in Mountain Goats’ history, there’s no guitar on the album, replaced instead by Darnielle on piano or a warm Fender Rhodes. This slight tweak in tone makes the band more like the silk paper on which Darnielle writes, illuminating the lyrics and making the story and verse more accessible. Goths sounds nothing like goth rock, but maybe, Darnielle seems to suggest, every goth rocker is destined to write their own bookish, soft-rock opus about nights doing cocaine while listening to Bauhaus.
For indeed, the life of a goth all starts out great. After a jaunty, baroque tune about the lead singer of Sisters of Mercy packing it in and moving back to his punk roots in Leeds, the lens shifts to the West Coast of America, trying to understand how goth rock works in California thousands of miles away from Batcave, the London nightclub at the center of the UK scene. Darnielle takes us to the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina where, on “Stench of the Unburied,” a young vamp cruises the highways in a Pontiac Grand Am, drunk and alive, seeing visions of his car going up in flames, all while listening to KROQ play Siouxsie and the Banshees. The prime years of the young goth culminate with “Wear Black,” a gorgeous hymn for the timeless language of black, a sigil of goths worldwide. No matter what happens, Darnielle sings, one must wear black in the light, in the dark, in the present tense, or in my absence.
On the back half of the album, the fast life of a goth becomes untenable. Our singer is older now, playing shows to no one on the Sunset Strip, ostracized and broken, recalling how they were once paid in cocaine (“Paid in Cocaine”) and now refusing to open for Trent Reznor (“Shelved”). Darnielle adds more and more space to the songs, slows down his delivery as if it is almost too difficult to admit that “the ride’s over.” By the quiet end, he’s almost thankful for his grim middle-aged fate, “hauling these songs to the light from the mouth of the grave” playing “really big festivals every other summer in Brazil” (“For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands”). What was once a consuming identity has now calcified into a useless signifier, the passion for the music of the Cure, March Violets, and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry all displaced into trying to pay down the interest on the mortgage. “Nobody wants to hear the 12-bar blues/From a guy in platform shoes” Darnielle sings, hapless and dejected.
This hollow feeling of Goths lingers. Either you fear age dulling the passions of your youth, or you are living it right now. It’s like when you bury a loved one when death is no longer a pose, but an endless stream of paperwork and phone calls and garbage bags full of old clothes. This ultimate mundanity is detailed on the most haunting song on the album, “Abandoned Flesh,” an ode to the “suffocated splendor of the once and future goth band” Gene Loves Jezebel. Darnielle blithely tells the history of the unheralded band from their Wikipedia page. A band’s whole career, the theater of death and the comfort it created has a half-life in the real world, reduced to an anecdote, or quite literally, to an epilogue on a dainty Mountain Goats album about goth. This final turn by Darnielle is what makes him a songwriter nonpareil: macabre humor, tales that weave in and out of fiction, and the smile he cracks after leaving a gaping hole in your heart. Beware, ye goths, life waits for us all, too.
Source: Jeremy D. Larson for pitchfork.com