The Mountain Goats: Dark in Here
★★★½ [Merge Records; June 25]
Don’t repeat yourself—unless you find a new way to say something.
The Mountain Goats understand this.
With the June release of Dark in Here, Durham’s John Darnielle has issued 20 albums under the band moniker, growing from crackly boombox-recorded screeds into increasingly rich and nuanced rock.
At the same time, he has refined his knack for finding the fine line between that last, brightest burst of hope and the subsequent descent into hopelessness. And for exploring it with a balance of specific detail and poetic vagary that makes his songs instantly relatable. His themes and character types don’t change much.
But he continues to find new ways to sing about them—advancing his musicality, for example, or taking concept album excursions to explore the specific circumstances of professional wrestlers and goth kids.
On Dark in Here, he echoes his past work as much as he ever has. By leaning on his bandmates, he manages to stay fresh.
The new album is a companion and a complement to last year’s Getting Into Knives and was recorded with Matt Ross-Spang, who tracked Knives at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis. After spending a week in Tennessee, they decamped for another week to the legendary FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Like Knives, Dark showcases the tight, expressive ensemble that the Goats have become. Bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster bring a rich and responsive feel, whether they’re providing rumbly propulsion or understated percolations. Matt Douglas adds poignant bits of woodwinds, piano, and guitar.
All-star ringers—Spooner Oldham (Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt) on Hammond B3 organ and Wurlitzer electric piano, Will McFarlane (Bonnie Raitt) on guitar—add tantalizing embellishments, but the crux of this album is the Goats’ chemistry as a band.
The songs on Dark are good, but they’re slower and more passive than the ones on Knives. There’s less teeth-gnashing intensity and fewer searing declarations than a typical Mountain Goats record. But the band finds opportunity in this change of pace, allowing their music to take on more thematic weight.
The slow-building “Lizard Suit” vividly explores social anxiety in an urban setting (“Let my phobias control my habits/ Let my habits form the shapes of days”), but the song’s show-stopping jazz outro makes the feeling inescapable, unspooling into purgative chaos.
“To the Headless Horseman” couldn’t so perfectly evoke the mingled excitement and dread that comes with encountering mysterious people and places (“As you approached I could sense the threat/ But a stranger’s just a friend who hasn’t shared their secrets yet”) without its airy but apprehensive arrangement, which also shines in the outro.
This musical growth is especially vital on the songs that most mimic Darnielle’s past.
On “Mobile,” a desperate criminal ponders the tale of Jonah, pointing to the religious reflections of 2009’s biblically inspired The Life of the World to Come. But that album didn’t foreground Hughes and Wurster’s organic interplay, or benefit from McFarlane’s sprightly guitar flourishes.
“The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums” revisits the musical allegiance and dejected isolation of one of Darnielle’s most famous songs, 2001’s “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton.” He flips the narration to the first person here, and deploys a more wisened perspective. The music summons powerful tension between tentative electric piano and domineering bass, growing far past the blunt acoustic guitar of “Denton.”
The Mountain Goats might repeat themselves. But they keep finding new ways to speak.
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