There is probably no word that describes John Darnielle better than “prolific.” In this decade alone, he has penned four albums with the Mountain Goats and published two novels—which is to say nothing of his various other writing ventures and the Mountain Goats’ extensive back catalog.
When an artist is in the midst of a period of such productivity, each new project invites the anxiety that the next release might be the streak-breaker. Fortunately for Darnielle, Goths – the sixteenth studio album in the Mountain Goats discography – is not only a superb record, but also a fine beacon of the artist’s awareness of his greater body of work, and each subsequent contribution’s place in it. That is to say: the best thing about Goths is that it both engages with and subverts what one has come to expect of a Mountain Goats album.
Of course, we have Darnielle’s trademarks, and they each play a prevalent role. The singer’s penchant for wordplay and imagery is as polished as ever, as are his nasally, yet strangely soothing vocals. The album’s central premise, a story which portrays the ennui of an aging goth rocker, has a strong literary bent to it, but the songs never feel like modest vehicles for grandiose language. As always, the instrumentation thumps and hums, and Darnielle’s melodies prove adept at sticking in the listener’s ear.
Yet, in many fundamental ways, the Mountain Goats nod toward certain of their own conventions and dance around them. The most obvious example of this is the absence of Darnielle’s clever guitar work—the only sound even resembling a guitar comes late on “Shelved,” an excellent late-album track where the band go full-tilt into goth rock mode. (Responding to a tweet from the reviewer, Darnielle confirmed the smooth, flangering sound was not a guitar.)
But furthermore, Goths is a decisive nod from Darnielle to the rest of the band to take the reins. Often, the most striking thing about a given song comes from the supporting players: on lead single “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds,” Peter Hughes’ walking bass line and Matt Douglas’ dreamy woodwind arrangement create a layered, swirling march; “Rain in Soho” features an epic arrangement of guttural percussion surrounding Darnielle’s pensive vocals.
By sometimes taking the backseat to the rest of the band, Darnielle lets the skillfulness with which he constructs his songs shine through in a new, heightened way. Goths runs just under an hour, but moves in seamless fashion; each song ties together logically, and the album rarely dawdles around past its welcome in any particular sonic mood.
Maybe no song here is as immediately gratifying as the poppy “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” but as a total package, the album gives us a beautiful symmetry. Just as The Sunset Tree is a reliable interlude between the lofi idiosyncrasy the Mountain Goats were through the 90s and early aughts and the fully-fleshed band they became, Goths will likely become a similar bookmark in the greater Mountain Goats story: an already-nuanced, already-matured songwriter has surprised us with yet more room to grow.