At the beginning of “Excursions,” the opening track of A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, The Low End Theory, Q-Tip succinctly nails the flat circle of musical progress: “Don’t you know that things go in cycles?” He’s addressing the way newer artists latch onto the music that came before them, but this merry-go-round has a tendency to exist within the catalogs of artists themselves. Here’s another line: “Even the best of us come back, someday.” That’s John Darnielle, leader of the Mountain Goats, and while he’s singing about the siren song of one’s own home through the lens of Sisters of Mercy singer Andrew Eldritch, even the artist who stray as far from where they started as possible can seek some comfort in the sound they began with from time to time.

Darnielle is one of those artists. The Mountain Goats is a four-piece now, far flung from the solo, boombox-recorded fare he started making in the early ’90s with cassettes like Transmissions to Horace and Taboo VI: The Homecoming. Earlier this year, they set out to record the music that will become the band’s next album. But then, the forced exile of coronavirus scattered them back to their own homes, far from any studio. But here’s where the other three members of the Mountain Goats and Darnielle diverge: for a long time, his studio was his home.

And so, he recorded 10 songs in 10 days – not unlike Transmissions, which was recorded in a similar fashion over one Christmas break – which became Songs for Pierre Chuvin, the first new Mountain Goats cassette since Yam, the King of Crops in 1994. To do it, Darnielle unearthed the Panasonic RX-FT500 he retired after 2001’s All Hail West Texas finally pushed him towards studio space, and, for at least one song, the Casio that churned through “California Song,” “Blues in Dallas” and the unofficial “Pure” song series. Pierre Chuvin ends up feeling like a thematic continuation of the group’s last album, In League with Dragons, which dealt largely with the nature of aging and feeling as though you’ve lost your power. Of course, this is a lens he couldn’t resist turning on himself throughout it. This explicit self-examination has kept going ever since, most recently culminating in a three-night stint at San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall where he surgically dissected his songwriting processes and personal history. Pierre Chuvin slots in nicely with that – how better to mine your own depths than with a complete return to format?

In true old-school fashion, Pierre Chuvin is inspired by two things: what Darnielle was reading at the time, and his love of history – the collection is named for the author of the book A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, and each song is written about the death of paganism following the spread of Christianity. Thankfully, you don’t need to have Darnielle’s passion or knowledge for history to enjoy these songs, and can get a lot out of lines like “When the hunger turns in on itself, it begins to devour its host/ Who do you turn to for help?/ Who do you love the most?/ I dance with the ones that brought me” without knowing the significance of the title for the dancey “January 31, 438,” or understand exactly who “you” is in the line “We will deal with you/ Me and my pagan crew” on opener “Aulon Raid.” The subject matter might feel inaccessible, but the spirit is the same as In League with Dragons, but on a historical scale, obliquely documenting the fading power of paganism in the ancient world, and the struggle to accept that reality. Add in the fact that those ancient pagans were themselves forced into their own exile, and you can see why Darnielle was so drawn to their history.

Even stripped of the historical framework, the songs of Pierre Chuvin feel quietly inspirational. “Last Gasp at Calama” is a defiant track about going out kicking and screaming. “Hand me a torch, why not?/ Let’s get some kicks in while the flame’s still hot,” Darnielle sings with the same acceptance of death he perfected on “Heretic Pride” over a decade ago. He explores the feeling of isolation repeatedly, with crushing lines like “The burden of exile/ Gets easy to bear/ Sometimes forget/ There’s cities down there” or “Return the peace you took from me/ Give me back my community.” Truly, it feels like an alternate history where his songwriting continued to progress, but his sound quality did not – and songs like the aching “Their Gods Do Not Have Surgeons” and the raucous, incendiary “Until Olympius Returns” (with the most can’t-miss intro since “No I Can’t”) serve as standout showcases of that fact, each rich with imagery and bristling with emotion.

Most remarkably, none of Pierre feels like blatant fan service. Darnielle isn’t the kind of musician to give listeners what they want purely because they ask for it, so even with a song like closer “Exergetic Chains,” which explicitly references well over a dozen of his own songs and his own recording history – “Stay safe inside the ripple of the Panasonic hum/ It grinds/ And it roars,” he gently coos. Sure, he may know that people would love to hear a sequel to “Going to Lebanon” that directly lifts a line from Pavement, but even as he sings “The South takes what the North delivers,” it’s clear that he’s doing it because he wants to, not because it’ll make you like him more.

For longtime fans of the Mountain Goats, the existence of Songs for Pierre Chuvin can feel like the perfect confluence of circumstances: an especially-introspective John Darnielle trapped in his house with nothing but time, books and boomboxes (and, yes, his family – god knows how many tapes he’d make if he were in solitary isolation). But sadly, it’s an equally Pyrrhic victory. Sure, he’s made something that returns him to his most beloved era of creation, but it took a cataclysmic shift in how everyone exists to make it happen. The mere existence of a physical cassette release is to help offset the monetary loss suffered by the remainder of the band, not to mention their longtime management and touring crew. “This is just a momentary ripple in the stream,” he sings on “Until Olympius Returns” – let’s hope he’s right, and he stops having the time to make more cassettes like this one.

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