Indie folk rockers The Mountain Goats return with perhaps their most niche album to date. The title of “Goths” is the complete pitch—this is a record in tribute to dark, post-punk music of the 80s, and the legions of black-clad fans that grew up around it.
Sonically, the album pushes into new territory for the band, but without borrowing much from The Cure and other bands of their ilk. The only exception is the first track, “Rain in Soho,” a brooding anthem that fully embraces the aesthetic, as lead singer/songwriter John Darnielle mourns the closing of an influential Goth nightclub. “Though you repent and don sackcloth and try to make nice / you can’t cross the same river twice,” he sings through his teeth, while a backup choir chants over grim piano chords and thundering toms. The rest of the album ramps up the graveyard imagery, but softens in sound, pursuing the jazzier pop elements that have cropped up on the Goats’ last few albums.
As a rule, “Goths” ditches Darnielle’s trademark acoustic guitar in favor of piano-focused arrangements. The second track, “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” is a wistful ballad woven through with saxophone and woodwinds, courtesy of Matt Douglas. “Like a basket in the Nile, hiding down among the weeds / Andrew Eldritch is moving back to Leeds,” Darnielle sings, engaging with the mythology as well as the humanity of his muse, the frontman of The Sisters of Mercy.
The song also features a sunny bass melody; without guitar, the rhythms of bassist Peter Hughes and drummer John Wurster stand out more than usual. Hughes’ fills also come through on “Wear Black,” a whispered piano hymn that seems to draw parallels between the uniforms of goths and priests. Along with the soulful backup vocals, this results in one of the record’s most impactful arrangements.
Though I had hoped for more experimentation with the darker instrumental impulses of “Rain in Soho,” Darnielle’s songwriting is consistently engaging, combining rich biblical allusions and powerful empathy for his characters with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor. I can’t help but smile at “Unicorn Tolerance,” a track that deals with the adolescent tension between being a fantasy nerd and wanting to fit in with the Goth crowd. “Long life to the spiders / Safe travels to the crows / Love to the ghosts / who taught me everything I know / but I have high unicorn tolerance,” Darnielle sings.
“We Do It Different on the West Coast” confronts the similar paradox of niche music communities—feeling alienated from the mainstream, yet belonging to something bigger than yourself, and dealing with the ways in which subcultures tend to fragment. The title refrain carries through the track, sung sometimes in a group and other times alone.
Another recurring theme is sympathy for the fleeting nature of mainstream success for cult music. “However big that chorused bass may throb / you and me and all of us are gonna have to find a job,” Darneille sings on the closing track, “Abandoned Flesh,” an extended shout-out in song form to forgotten acts like Gene Loves Jezebel. There’s no lack of self-awareness of the fact that the Mountain Goats are raising the dead—isn’t that what Goth is all about anyway?—and the band’s good-natured wit helps the nostalgia land even for the uninitiated.
I wasn’t around to listen to Siouxsie and the Banshees on KROQ in the 80’s, so I don’t have the background to fit some of the pieces of “Goths” together. That said, it’s full of satisfying vibes and thoughtfully-written tunes that even an outsider like me can appreciate. I also got a lot out of their last album, the 2015 pro-wrestling tribute “Beat the Champ,” without being in on the references. This record is already growing on me the same way, and now I’ve got some Goth recommendations to follow up on.