The Mountain Goats: Getting into Knives

★★★★ 1/2  | [Merge; Oct. 23]

John Darnielle has been upping the musical ante for a while now. Since the early 1990s, the Durham-based singer-songwriter and his Mountain Goats have grown from making crackling boombox-recorded confessions to creating impressive folk-rock and chamber-leaning arrangements.

The words have always grabbed me first. Darnielle’s voice dominates, stout and confident until he twists into his signature nasal yelp. It’s an instrument well-suited to his distinctive storytelling, embodying characters whose indignations are rooted in a desperate desire for understanding.

Something has changed with Getting into Knives, though. This time, it was the music that gripped me. Tracked at Memphis’s Sam Phillips Recording, the album features some of Darnielle’s finest songs since he signed with Durham’s Merge Records back in 2010. 

The band’s 19th album sets itself apart with expressive playing, ingenious arrangements, and engrossing instrumental chemistry. As good as the 18 records that came before it are, they feel like stones on the path to the more fully realized vision of The Mountain Goats on display here. They sound like a band, not just a vessel for a songwriting project.

Take the marvelous “Bell Swamp Connection,” which draws evocative links between environmentalism and the isolation of the modern world. Looking up at the sky from a clearing near the ocean, Darnielle proclaims he’s “like a lobster in a cage, down in the depths beneath the bottom of a glass boat,” before shouting, “Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!” This recitation, barely more than a performative poem reading, becomes magical thanks to a patient build of brushed drums, elegant piano, electric guitar, organ, and accordion.

Even if there were no words, you’d still feel the unknowable expanse. 

The talent on deck for Getting into Knives is impressive, from the regular backers (Peter Hughes on bass, Jon Wurster on drums, Matt Douglas on woodwinds and other instruments) to the studio guests, which include ace Raleigh guitarist Chris Boerner and esteemed Al Green collaborator Charles Hodges on the Hammond B-3.

And they never fail to elevate the stories at the heart of the album. On “As Many Candles as Possible,” a fuzzy rumble and volatile breakdown give life to the “risen beast in your nightmares,” with Wurster skillfully pacing the intensity. The Elton-John-but-evil attack of “Rat Queen” blesses downtrodden underworld dwellers everywhere, with menace and theatricality in equal measure. 

Equally impressive are the varied moods on more meditative numbers. Hughes and Douglas, on standup bass and sax respectively, instill piano lament “The Last Place I Saw You Alive” with perfect noir-ish melancholy. The title track, an ode to intimate methods of vengeance, breezes along with tropical drifts of acoustic guitar and Hodges’s playful organ, teasing irony while allowing Darnielle to remain sincere. Latticed with woodwinds from Douglas, “Tidal Wave” reminds the listener that the source of your demise may very well be a culprit you ignore.

Darnielle has penned some great stories, and on Getting into Knives, the musicians surrounding him tell them as well as he does. It’s one of the band’s best albums yet. 

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