Thursday, June 1, 2017

album review: 'goths' by mountain goats

Before we get into this review, I think there need to be two things placed in context: my relationship with the goth subculture; and my relationship with the music of The Mountain Goats - and in both cases, it gets complicated in a hurry.

See, if you've seen me rambling on Twitter at some point late at night, I'll typically have wandered into one of my favourite goth club haunts for some music that actually has an edge and to soak in the atmosphere, but whether I'd call myself a goth... well, people have been arguing about that qualifier for decades now, but I'd probably say it's not really a label that fits me exactly. I like a lot of gothic music and fashion and it's easy for me to feel comfortable in goth clubs - you're not going to find a crew as openly accepting of oddballs like myself despite appearances as that subculture, along with markedly more likable music - but for me there's a time and place for it, never quite a scene I've completely embraced.

And here's the funny thing: I get the impression John Darnielle might feel the same, which leads us to the Mountain Goats. Full disclosure, while I may have been introduced to them through Nash over at Radio Dead Air - check him out, he broadcasts online live on Monday evenings, his content is excellent - I've never really done a deep dive, and thus I've spent the past three or four weeks exploring all fifteen full-length records in their backlog, from their roughscrabble early days in the 90s to their slightly more polished indie folk side in the 2000s to the steps towards indie rock that has come in recent years. And while I would definitely call myself a fan, I wouldn't really say I'm a big one, mostly tied to the energy and strength of the melodies along with Darnielle sticking with more defined stories instead of some of the abstract pieces that sometimes can feel a tad scattered. It's also one of the reasons I have a hard time citing a favourite Mountain Goats record or ranking them - for me, unless they've got a unified thematic arc I tend to like bits and pieces, although if I had covered Beat The Champ back in 2015, it would have had a serious shot to make my year-end list, that record hits so many of the same moments that made Darren Aronofsky's movie The Wrestler click so deeply for me, it's startling. But their album this year Goths... well, with the comparisons to the writing of Nick Cave of course I was on board, but I was a little concerned that Darnielle had opted to abandon his guitar entirely for the record, which could lead to a very different sound and one sure to piss off the diehard lo-fi Mountain Goats fans. But hey, what did we get out of Goths?

Okay, here's the thing: for a lot of Mountain Goats fans, I can predict them not embracing this record, because if you were skittish about previous sonic departures, this record will might be too far afield. And yet at the same time, if you're going in expecting John Darnielle to make a true goth rock record that's indebted to the sounds of tones of that time... well, you'll get a little more of what you want, but not nearly enough on a record that sonically probably has more in common with Dan Bejar's recent output than Bauhaus or Sisters of Mercy or Siouxsie and the Banshees or The Cure. Hell, the strongest thematic touchpoint would probably lie closer with that 2015 James McMurtry record Complicated Game than Nick Cave... and that's the point. If anything, I'd say that Goths is a stridently unique record, the sort where I'm not surprised at all by the confusion in its reception by so many folks, fans and otherwise - and for me, it resonated on a level that very few records have approached this year, and I think a big part of this review will be explaining how it hit that point and in my books is easily one of the best of 2017. 

Because here's the thing, from the opening track 'Rain In Soho' I can see how it would confirm expectations in the best and worst way possible - Darnielle is dipping into his lower register, the drums and bass thrum beneath the main piano line, a choir reminiscent of Sisters of Mercy swells up amidst the haunted lyrics which pulls up the tattered fragments of horror kitsch, pagan iconography, and seething melodrama into something far more striking. It'll likely go down as one of The Mountain Goats most potent tracks - it's already surging up to be one of my favourites of 2017 - and it's a hell of a way to open up a record... but just like with 'Heel Turn 2' a few years ago, it's a track that ends with an extended outro, this time on lingering somber keys to emphasize that loneliness, all the gothic trapping and fantasies ebbing away. And that's when it hits you: John Darnielle isn't just looking celebrate goth culture - he's going deeper, peeling back the swirling style and sound that for many lingers as a dying artifact in the underground, and finding the real human stories beneath it all. And yet this isn't as subversion or deconstruction of goth culture - Darnielle is not looking to rip the subgenre asunder to dissect it, instead looking to consider every angle, both from without and within, with the self-awareness to see through the trappings but the tremendous sense of empathy that's always filled his work extending even here. And that's one of the reasons, believe it or not, I actually think the production choices on the rest of the record are kind of ingenious: muted keys and synths that can seem slightly off-kilter between the margins, firm basslines and sharp drums, swells of horns, it doesn't so much sound like gothic intensity as something smaller, almost 'normal', less angry disaffection or contempt for the world but more an attempt to emphasize quiet tensions and old memories. Sure, 'Shelved' cranks up the darker bass grooves against the muted keys and buzzy synths, but that's a song entirely about an internal crisis, that tension needs to be there. But otherwise? Take a song like 'Unicorn Tolerance' - with the all the twinkling keys against the wiry low tones, it has all the feel of struggling to project a veneer to mask insecurities at not being yourself, or the mournful sax on 'Rage Of Travers' and 'Abandoned Flesh' reflecting all those faded glories. Outside of moments, it's not visceral or thrilling - and in capturing not so much the ideal as the reality, that's point.

And yet I cannot stress how powerful and essential Darnielle's empathy is when telling these stories, because not only are you examining a frequently misunderstood and ostracized subculture, but one where its time in the spotlight has plainly passed, at least from its obvious heydays. It doesn't shy away from the theatricality that's often emphasized and perpetuated the alienation, even among would-be allies - look at 'Rage Of Travers', where an old 70s rocker finds his career evaporating in the face of goth rock, where even among the alienated he doesn't quite belong. But Darnielle also highlights how such subcultures can enable the dangerous or extreme or self-destructive, especially on songs like 'The Grey King And The Silver Flame Attunement' where the central character is desperate or mad enough for one last ride, where our narrator might be pretty hardcore against the dreary bass thrums and mournful horns, but not that hardcore. Or take the wonderfully named 'Unicorn Tolerance', where Darnielle doesn't shy away from highlighting the adolescent gravitation towards the 'coolness' of goth while neglecting the brighter fantasy he used to love - which has a sad sort of irony these days, given that he likely would never need to do that even then, given how goth culture has embraced paganism and fantasy. Or take 'Wear Black', which shows both the veneer of dispassionate cool while highlighting how it often is just a veneer, especially confronted with the real-life consequences of those trying to 'live that life', with the specter of hard drugs lingering. But those themes of age and the passage of time do wear heavy on this record - what was subtext on Kyle Craft's Dolls Of Highland is very much text on Goths - and one thing Darnielle's writing captures so damn vividly is that sense of place and time, especially against the backdrop of an indifferent society around them that has left the subculture to its lairs. 

And so you get old bars with men in Motorhead jackets and rusted out fog machines, where an icon of the scene can come back for a crowd on 'Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds' - but he rides among everyone else, a relatively nondescript homecoming. There's a hardscrabble DIY aesthetic blurred with pretensions to opulence, with lingering rumors of what's left of various scattered local scenes on 'We Do It Different On The West Coast' - and even in the era of the Internet these sorts of word of mouth conversations still happen, even if the bass melodies and vocal harmonies aren't normally as subtle and brilliant. And then there are the goth bands - not just the big ones who are mostly secure like The Cure or Siouxsie, but those who are near-forgotten and just getting by now, the aging rockers who stumble and skid through 'Stench Of The Unburied' in drug-addled incoherence in the blistering heat of Los Angeles, all against gentle tones that don't feel far removed from the sanitized soft rock that represents everything normal. Or you have the artist who sees the scene stripped of its vitality on 'Shelved' to realize he's still got the option to live a 'normal' life writing code for LucasArts - again, the irony given how much nerd and video game culture would intersect and then overlap with it all. And years later, after the trends have faded, jobs have to be found and life goes on, with old boots and records tucked into the back of the closet just waiting to be picked up again, the dilapidated theatricality that the horns of 'Paid In Cocaine' perfectly capture... because for those who embraced and understood the sound and scene, they'll always come back. It'll likely be a grayer scene, the edges more worn and decayed, the sounds more dated, but you'll always be welcomed back.

You know, about four years ago I went on a date with a beautiful woman about ten years my senior - I'll avoid names in case she happens to see this, but we were both writers, we both loved karaoke, we both hung around the same goth bars, and I remember a greying September afternoon where she was telling me about how the goth scene in Toronto wasn't really the same. The old places were closing down, many folks had packed up to move to Montreal, the old crowd wasn't always there, and it wasn't long before one of my favourite places in Kensington Market got bought out and I had assumed the scene had finally dissipated. So flash forward to this year, and I decided to check what had replaced that old goth bar - and while they had added a pool table and a few arcade cabinets, did some remodelling and clearly trying to rebrand, the crowd hadn't changed. And it was thinking about that woman and those people, people who I know and drink and dance and sing with... little less now than I used to, but I always know I can come back. And even though I didn't grow up in the 80s and can't claim to have lived the whole story, the moments of rejecting teenage fantasy to aim for popularity, to finding a stable job with my combat boots and heavy leather jacket in the back of my closet, from the melancholy and aching empathy for the outsider and times long passed to the thrill of knowing that some part of it will linger... the fact that John Darnielle can capture it all with such poise and not hold back in his framing to capture the angles that are less than flattering, all against production that bucks convention but works beautifully... Yeah, I love this. Easily one of the best records of 2017, it's getting a solid 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations, and while I know goth rock and Mountain Goats fans might not take to this immediately, I urge you all to really let it sink in. It will not be what you expect, but for some of you - no, some of us - it's exactly what we needed.

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