Goths is yet another example of what makes Darnielle’s literary voice so unique and such a joy to hear.
For the past decade and a half, John Darnielle has seemingly been working out his younger years in song. That may seem like a simplistic way of looking at the recent work of the Mountain Goats, and it’s certainly not meant to be an insult in any way. However, it has to be acknowledged that there’s a distinctly different tone in the Mountain Goats’ work since The Sunset Tree came out in 2005. That album seemingly abandoned years off abstract lyricism in order to relay, in a harrowing way, the hardships of its creator and his tortured relationship with his stepfather. Since then, Darnielle’s work has focused less on his upbringing and more on his obsessions, from Lovecraftian horror (Heretic Pride) to Catholicism (The Life of the World to Come) and, most recently, professional wrestling (Beat the Champ). Now, Darnielle is tackling yet another subject close to his heart with the aptly-titled Goths. Effectively a detailed overview of Darnielle’s experiences with ‘80s goth, the album has a deeply personal core that carries it throughout.
A younger listener may not entirely understand what Darnielle means by “goth.” The figures in Goths are a far cry from the trenchcoat-clad Matrix cosplayers who once made Marilyn Manson into a global superstar in the late ‘90s. The goth subculture that Darnielle grew up with had a more romantic bent, which is especially expressed in Goths’ arrangements. Darnielle has surprisingly kept his guitar at home for this album, relying instead on spare rhythms and the occasional piano flourish. Bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster are given ample time to shine on the album, most notably on the foreboding opener “Rain in Soho.” But aside from the brief, Mission UK-esque interlude on “Shelved,” Darnielle sticks to keys and adds the occasional horn section, making Goths a relatively mellow affair.
Unsurprisingly, a Mountain Goats album about goths has a decidedly dour lyrical tone about it. Since Darneille is an excellent storyteller writing about one of his passions, the scope of Goths reaches far beyond his personal experience. There are moments where he perfectly describes himself or people he likely knew, such as his insecure goth narrator on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement,” on which he repeats to himself: “I’m hardcore/ But I’m not that hardcore.” But he also writes from the perspective of goth’s practitioners, chronicling the dizzying highs and creeping lows that his childhood heroes experienced. “Shelved” tells the tale of an aging goth singer resolute in not wanting to sell out by going for shock value or opening for Nine Inch Nails, only to finally realize that his dream is finally over. Lead single “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” concocts an alternate reality in which the Sisters of Mercy frontman cuts his career short and moves back to the quiet English city he worked so hard to escape. Darnielle’s tales of goth aren’t just about pancake makeup and jet-black hair; they’re about community, passion and the disappointment that comes with realizing that your subcultures can’t grow old with you.
There was always a danger that Goths would end up being Old Man Yells at Cloud: The Album, but Darnielle wisely avoids chastising the younger generation whose definition of goth is very different from what the subculture originally was. Goths is equal parts celebration and lamentation, unafraid to explore the unsavory aspects of the subculture and the broken lives it left while also emphasizing the community and sense of belonging it gave to a generation of disaffected youth. Through it all, Darnielle remains an observer, but his passion for the beautiful losers of Goths shines through. The album is yet another example of what makes Darnielle’s literary voice so unique and such a joy to hear.