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The Mountain Goats - Goths

The Mountain Goats - Goths

SPARROW: [Starting to point to the other actresses] I'm a sparrow, she's a dove...

SAM: [Cutting her off] No. I said...

[Points to SUZY]

SAM: What kind of bird are YOU?

SUZY: …I'm a raven.

Sam’s question, from the 2012 Wes Anderson film Moonrise Kingdom, has always seemed to me like some sort of arch riddle. Understand it, I’ve thought, and you’ll grasp a deeper signifier of humanity, of how we classify ourselves in the emotional animal kingdom. Suzy, with her penchant for femme sci-fi titles such as The Girl From Jupiter and love of intense eye-shadow, would fit right in on Goths, the sixteenth album from The Mountain Goats. Lead by John Darnielle, the band has rotated through a robust smattering of styles, generally coalescing around Darnielle’s niche interests in topics such as Christian psalms, pro wrestling, and doomed relationships. Likewise, the revolving cast has mirrored a wide array of sounds that indicate Darnielle’s panoramic musical interests. Early records epitomize the DIY ethic of the 1990s, Darnielle often recording lo-fi numbers alone on a cassette deck boombox, before expanding to a style that embraced a full band. On this most recent release, a decidedly guitar free zone, The Mountain Goats continue their sonic exploration, mining the synthesized and ambient tones of goth for some of their most elastic compositions to date.

On initial listen. I couldn’t quite figure this one out. The arrangements were lovely, and lush by Mountain Goat standards, but the lyrics resisted easy interpretation. Here’s a reference to Morrissey, Robert Smith, and… KROQ? The Rock of the 80s is name-checked here, but so is Motörhead and imagery of graves, bones, spiders, wolves. What struck me at first as scattered seems, in reality, to be a deliberate mesh, interwoven of Darnielle, his strange fascinations, and the niche baubles of experience he puts on display.

Goth permeates the record, but often in opposition to the obvious attributes of the music and, equally as important, expected cultural references. “Rain in Soho”, the album opener, relies on a cheeky reference to the Batcave, surely a goth hide-out if ever there was one. The following song, “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds”, with its scene set at a “club nobody goes to” and titular reference to post-punk royalty Sisters of Mercy, immediately pivots us towards a different manifestation of goth – age. Over bouncy percussion and light woodwinds, Darnielle admits that “they won’t make these anymore”, itself an acknowledgement of the fractured state of goth since its 1980s heyday. Moonrise Kingdom got mileage out of Sam and Suzy, its pintsized heroes with weary, almost adult omniscience regarding sadness. Its heroes’ stoic pessimism stood in stark contrast to the often bumbling, adolescent fixations of Edward Norton’s sly scoutmaster or Bill Murray’s slapstick alcoholic father, not to mention Bob Balaban’s fingerless gloves and duffle coat. Goth, as escapism and armor, is similarly deployed across the album as a waypoint for Darnielle’s past and future, crystalized by his pronouncement on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” that “I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore”. It’s an admission that times have changed, and people too, but the spirit and sentiment of goth remains, as timeless as the “blackout sunglasses” on the urgent, persistently earnest “Unicorn Tolerance”.

 
Bob Balaban, proto-goth

Bob Balaban, proto-goth

 

Then, suddenly, you’re a teenager driving down the California One. Isn’t that how music works, anyway? On the summery “We Do It Different on the West Coast” Darnielle details the wide sprawl of goth culture in London, Berlin, and even Ohio. After all, “almost always something happening in Ohio”. But teasing at a “problem with some skinheads at a machine shop in Pomona” and the big decision – “I’m gonna bleach my hair this weekend”, goth is also an amulet for difference. Like Suzy’s impractical record player and prized Françoise Hardy record or Sam’s brooch from his mother, which isn’t meant for a man to wear… not that he gives a damn, it demarcates outcasts, highlights the ways in which goth is synonymous with fundamentally set apart. “Long Beach, can you hear me?”, Darnielle wonders on “Paid in Cocaine”, reflecting over the “once proud shining silver buckles safe behind the normalcy locks”. Sometimes, as on “Rage of Travers” it’s as simple as “platform shoes”, but more often it’s a sensibility along the lines of “everybody is dressed up like corpses” or “I don’t belong here”. These are statements as pure and goth as anything you’ll find on Meat Is Murder, offering communion in imagery that is strikingly solitary and strangely universal.

Then, suddenly, you’re a teenager driving down the California One. Isn’t that how music works, anyway? On the summery “We Do It Different on the West Coast” Darnielle details the wide sprawl of goth culture in London, Berlin, and even Ohio. After all, “almost always something happening in Ohio”. But teasing at a “problem with some skinheads at a machine shop in Pomona” and the big decision – “I’m gonna bleach my hair this weekend”, goth is also an amulet for difference. Like Suzy’s impractical record player and prized Françoise Hardy record or Sam’s brooch from his mother, which isn’t meant for a man to wear… not that he gives a damn, it demarcates outcasts, highlights the ways in which goth is synonymous with fundamentally set apart. “Long Beach, can you hear me?”, Darnielle wonders on “Paid in Cocaine”, reflecting over the “once proud shining silver buckles safe behind the normalcy locks”. Sometimes, as on “Rage of Travers” it’s as simple as “platform shoes”, but more often it’s a sensibility along the lines of “everybody is dressed up like corpses” or “I don’t belong here”. These are statements as pure and goth as anything you’ll find on Meat Is Murder, offering communion in imagery that is strikingly solitary and strangely universal.

 
 

Dreams, largely deferred, also go hand in hand with Goths. “The ride’s over, I know” goes the chorus on “Shelved”, and Darnielle reflects on the grim possibility of playing at the bottom of the bill for Trent Reznor, just before the synths creep in Vice City style and everything goes techni-color. Maybe it’s time to let goth go. Supposedly LucasArts is hiring and he’s already gluing “circuitboards to plywood on the weekend”. It’s a subtle reminder that the age of goth, the rejection of dominant clothing fads or even expectations about social behaviors and interactions, also coincided with the technological boom that has made it so digestible today. The term “gothic” was initially used by Factory Records head Tony Wilson to help market their 1979 album Unknown Pleasures. While the radio pulsar cover is basically ubiquitous at this point, designer Peter Saville also nearly bankrupted Factory by designing New Order’s Blue Monday single as a giant floppy disk just four years later. The problem? It was so costly they lost money on each sale. And it was a chart-topper. Bingo. The freaks and dreamers of yesterday, Darnielle understands, became the architects for mass consumption in the decades to come.

Goth is fantasy, but it’s also a refashioning of oneself to survive a hostile world. Much of the album, particularly the second half, focuses on goth artists who don’t achieve their ideals or find their goals subsumed by the fact, on “Abandoned Flesh”, that “you and me and all of us are gonna have to find a job”. What do we do with those outdated costumes once real life rears its ugly head? Darnielle offers us possibilities as rich as his classic “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” when he revisits the concept of bands left behind on “For the Portugese Goth Metal Bands”, the story of a band destined to “headline really big festivals… every other summer in Brazil”. Darnielle has made career high-points, like 2002’s All Hail West Texas, out of revitalizing dwindling genres, infusing his love and care into artists that time forgets or discards. Siouxsie and Robert Smith may be eating off their seminal 80s work, but bands such as Gene Loves Jezebel, The March Violets, and The Bolshoi were forced to change with the times. On Goths, Darnielle does the same. Rather than mimicking the sound of his inspirations, they see Darnielle embracing some of his most unabashedly experimental compositions, with almost every song on the album featuring an extended instrumental ending and dollops of saxophone, flutes, and synthesizers. Darnielle reminds us that goth is a many-faced thing, alive with each one of us in the records, accessories, and instruments that transport us back to a different time.

The album cover of Goths depicts a wide array of characters, all moving in their own separate directions at different paces. Some meet the stereotypes, a nose ring or messenger bag, others hide behind their newspaper or headphones. Just as with the unhappy citizens of the island of New Penzance in Moonrise Kingdom, It’s not always easy to tell who a goth is, or more broadly, if you even are one.  What kind of goth am I? This album helped me admit that I am one. Like Suzy and Sam, I’m still deciding. 

 
 
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